GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

Family Name:
First Name:
Title of Paper:
Locating Qatar on the World Stage: Museums and Foreign Expertise in the Construction of Qatar’s Contemporary Identity
Paper Proposal Text :
A number of the GCC states continue to invest in heritage projects as they engage with modernity; the nature of their engagement differs according to each state’s cultural policy and economic and political context. One of the policy differences is the level of foreign, and in this context Western, expertise in the heritage sector. Foreign professionals impact on the local and regional evaluation of heritage, the recognition of heritage value, and the implementation of preservation, interpretation and restoration strategies. Museums are central to the consolidation and dissemination of national and cultural identity, and it is in this arena that the impact of foreign heritage professionals is most evident; this has become a local cause for concern and debate. Focussing on Qatar as a case study, this paper will assess the State’s strategy of identity construction and the impact of foreign expertise on its shaping, contextualised within wider GCC developments.
On Saadiyet Island, Abu Dhabi (UAE) the spectacular Zayed National Museum is under development in conjunction with the British Museum, while an hour and a half away the Al-Ain National Museum (UAE), opened in the 1970s, presents dusty dioramas of the Bedouin lifeway. In Bahrain, the National Museum (1988) is the focus of debates around the validity of presenting a global history which excludes the complexities of local religious identity, and is currently planning its redevelopment through a series of consultations with Bahraini Nationals and foreign consultants. Qatar’s first National Museum was opened in 1975 in the Old Emiri Palace and served a number of purposes: to construct a distinct national identity, to preserve disappearing lifeways, and to legitimise the Al-Thani rule. The new Qatar National Museum is due to open in 2016 in a building designed by the architect Jean Nouvel, and its development reflects Qatar’s extraordinary economic growth and embrace of globalisation – arguably, rather than representing what is, it presents what will be.

Qatari current state rhetoric outlines an agenda focussing on political and cultural diplomacy (Al Jazeera is a central element of this), engaged with developing soft or subtle (see Nye 2004; Kamrava 2013) power, and utilising its cultural projects to develop intercultural dialogue and support a pan-Arab identity. One of the missions of the recently opened Museum of Islamic Art (2008) and Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art (2010) is to disseminate a more balanced understanding of Islam to the West, focussing on the artistic achievements of the Arab and Muslim world in the past and today. The outward-focus of these new museums represent what has been referred to as a ‘regime of globalisation’ (Fibiger 2011, 189); they are ‘visibility museums’ (Kazerouni 2014), and represent an aspect of Qatar’s dialectical engagement with globalisation forces. In these museums, international expertise is utilised to mediate, or translate, for the world, a message that locates Qatar at the heart of the Islamic world through an internationally-recognised mode of communication, the exhibitionary discourse. This mode of communication was initially implemented in Qatar’s first National Museum, opened in 1975 shortly after independence. The British consultancy firm, Michael Rice & Partners was appointed to design both the building and the content. Directed primarily at a Qatari audience, but linguistically and culturally accessible to foreign visitors, \'[i]ts intention is to provide a basis for the formation of a historical and cultural consciousness’ (Rice 1977, 81). The shaping of Qatar’s national heritage for active and cognitive consumption was from the first instrumentalized by foreign expertise linked to the technology of the museum, which simultaneously introduced the notion of heritage as an external construction to be consumed, rather than embodied and performed. The role of foreign expertise to fast-track the construction and dissemination of a nascent national identity through the first National Museum of Qatar, and to globally disseminate a more transnational identity through the current museum projects is one element that is actively shaping identity construction in the Qatar.
Arguably the two intertwining elements – cultural policy and foreign expertise – are resulting in the construction of an idealised globally-recognised identity that is yet to be embraced by all Qatari nationals. The high-profile and very visible nature of museums as spaces of curated heritage privileges the museum as the key site for heritage preservation and display, a cause of concern for some older Qatari nationals wary that little will be left of Qatar besides ‘museum re-creation or hazy memories of tribal ancestors’ (Fromherz 2012: 122). This paper will present an evaluation of the stated aims of Qatar’s cultural policies and how these are enacted in its museum projects, with a discussion of how these projects attempt to locate Qatar at the heart of the Arab and Islamic world, with an assessment of how such a transnational identity might conflict, or not, with local and national identities. By extension, the discussion will assess the role and impact of foreign expertise in the construction of these local, national and global identities. HH Sheikha Al Mayassa, Chairperson of Qatar Museums Authority and sister of the Emir, stated (TEDx 2010) that Qatar is growing itself organically from within; this paper will argue that the dominance of foreign expertise and the emphatically top-down cultural policy currently in operation obstructs such a mode of development. Alternative models, drawn from regional and other comparisons, will be suggested.
Al Mayassa, Sheika. 2010. Globalizing the Local, Localizing the Global. TEDx Doha, December 2010. Available at:
Fromherz, A. J. 2012. Qatar: A Modern History. New York and London: I.B. Tauris.
Kamrava, M. 2013. Qatar: Small State, Big Politics. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.
Kazerrouni, A. 2014. Mirrors of the New Order: Museums in the Arab Principalities of the Persian Gulf Between 1991-2011. Unpublished lecture, 14 January, part of the 19th Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah Cultural Season, Al Maidan Cultural Centre, Kuwait City.
Nye, J. 2004. Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. New York: Public Affairs.