Doha: Ultimate collection

27 Apr 2009 by Sara Turner
The world-class new Museum of Islamic Art reflects Doha’s growing stature in the region. Tom Otley pays a visit. Doha’s new Museum of Islamic Art, which opened in November last year, is visible from the length of the capital’s curving Corniche. Seemingly constructed of solid blocks placed on one another at angles, as you move closer, the museum shows new views and perspectives – at one moment monolithic and squat, at another stretching lazily out from the coast along a rising causeway lined with palm trees. The site was chosen by its architect, IM Pei, not only for its prominence but also so it would stand apart from the rapid development going on in Doha. Fearing large structures might overshadow his museum, he created an island of reclaimed land away from the shore as a foundation for it. The design of the museum was inspired by the Mosque of Ahmad Ibn Tulun in Cairo. Pei said he was looking for the “essence of Islamic architecture” and found it in a “severe and simple design, where sunlight brings forms to life”. The interior of Pei’s construction is more playful. Taking a glass lift up to the entrance, you are greeted by a sweeping dual staircase that curves up to the second floor, while straight ahead, a giant 45-metre tall window faces out across the bay to the fast-multiplying skyscrapers of Doha. This main level also contains a gift shop, temporary exhibition galleries, prayer halls, a 200-seat auditorium and a small café, and you can pick up an audio tour of the permanent collection in several languages. So what of the collection? Well, as Oliver Watson, director of the Museum of Islamic Art and formerly chief curator of Middle Eastern collections at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, puts it, there is a “quality and breadth of interest quite the equal of any collection anywhere”. The exhibits range in source geographically from Spain to Central Asia, and chronologically from the seventh to the 19th centuries. Watson says: “Every area has pieces of the utmost quality, and some sections – carpets, inlaid metalwork and early calligraphy, for example – are among the most important to be found anywhere”. Gathered together over the past 20 years by Sheikh Saud Al-Thani, a second cousin of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, Emir of the State of Qatar, there are temporary exhibitions on the main floor. On show from April will be “Art and Empire”, an exhibition produced by the British Museum showing a number of large half-reliefs from the city of Nineveh, capital of the former Assyrian empire and now part of modern-day Iraq. On the second and third floors the permanent exhibition is composed of 18 galleries of artefacts, with themes such as “the figure in art”, “writing in art” and “pattern in art” on the second level, and “the journey of Islamic art” on the third floor, covering various time periods and regions including Iran and Central Asia, Egypt, Syria and Turkey. Floors four and five contain offices plus an 88-seat restaurant. The permanent collection has such a wide range of objects that one visit will hardly do it justice. Depending on what interests you, you will find something to fascinate. A jewelled falcon from India dating back to 1640, perhaps, made of gold and inlaid with rubies, emeralds, diamonds, sapphires and onyx; or a simple ceramic plate from first-century Iran, with an epigram traced around its edge reading: “Foolish is the person who misses his chance and afterwards reproaches fate.” The galleries were designed by Frenchman Jean-Michel Wilmotte and are clad in dark grey stone and Brazilian wood, brushed and treated to create a metallic effect. The outsized glass cases that hold many of the exhibits rise to the ceiling and are non-reflective so as not to detract from the beauty of the objects being displayed. Unfortunately, my guide told me that every day a proportion of visitors walk head-first into the glass, and sometimes the staff have to mop up the blood of those particularly eager to get up close to the objects. The museum is set to be the first of many in Qatar – another is the Qatar National Museum, the annex of which was designed by Pritzker prize-winner Jean Nouvel – and  several more are being planned by the Qatar Museums Authority, chaired by Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani. Yet the Museum of Islamic Art is important for reasons beyond this. Not only is it the first world-class museum to open in the region, before nearby Abu Dhabi’s outposts of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums, and Dubai’s new Khor Dubai cultural district, but it is also important for the people of these countries, who previously had no institutions in which to view Islamic art, instead often having to travel to the West see it (see panel on page 77). In addition, as Watson points out, the collection is particularly important “to non-Muslims throughout the world today in demonstrating how Islam has continually been a tolerant and progressive force”. Such thoughts are ones to take out on to the terrace after a visit. The museum is open daily (10.30am-5.30pm, Fridays 2pm-8pm) apart from Tuesdays, and a good time to come is in the late afternoon, as the sunlight turns golden. If you take the guided tour, walk out at the end of it through the side doors and view the fountains and the private entrance of the Emir, who can pull up in his boat to a lift that will take him up to the terrace. Such extravagance is thoroughly in keeping with the rulers who commissioned much of the art in the museum, but thankfully there is now a place for the public to view it. Visit mia.org.qa/english


Jameel Gallery, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Jameel Gallery reopened in 2006 and features a magnificent 50 sqm Ardabil carpet as a centrepiece. The oldest dated Islamic carpet in the world (1539-40), and with 340 knots per square inch – a total of 28 million knots – it was acquired by the V&A in 1890 on the recommendation of English architect, writer and designer, William Morris. Visit vam.ac.uk Freer Gallery of Art, Smithsonian, Washington DC An outstanding collection of more than 2,000 examples of Islamic art, you can find Koran folios, illustrated and illuminated manuscripts, metalwork, ceramics and glass in one of the ground-floor galleries. Visit asia.si.edu

Los Angeles County Museum of Art

More than 150 works are on view, including glazed ceramics from Iran and Turkey, carved wood and stone, and Persian and Turkish arts of the book. Visit lacma.org

Pergamonmuseum, Museum of Islamic Art, Berlin

On the first floor you’ll find not only the Aleppo room with its wall panelling from Syria, dating back to about 1600, but also the façade of the Mshatta palace and an intricate wooden dome from the Alhambra in Spain. Visit museumsinsel-berlin.de


The Museums With No Frontiers website has nearly 1,200 Islamic works of art and architecture on its database. Visit discoverislamicart.org


As well as positioning itself as a cultural centre, Qatar aims to champion free speech, as demonstrated by its status as a base for the Arabic and English television news channel, Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera has had a history almost as eventful as the stories it has covered. It originated when BBC World Service’s Arabic-language TV station shut down in the face of censorship demands from the Saudi government. When the Emir of Qatar offered initial funding for a new Arabic news channel, many of the journalists left to form Al Jazeera (which means “the island” in Arabic or “the peninsula” in Gulf Arabic). It began broadcasting from Doha in 1996, and has been making headlines ever since. What was different about the channel was its willingness to offer an outlet for controversial views. It was after the attacks on the US on September 11, 2001, that it became widely known, not least for broadcasting videos from Al Qaeda leaders. For the English-speaking world, the channel gained prominence in 2006 when a new Al Jazeera English channel started broadcasting. It has many of the strengths of the Arabic one, including unprecedented access to, and knowledge of, many of the world’s hot spots, but it sees its mission as being to “give voice to untold stories, promote debate, and challenge established perceptions”. In practice, that means telling the stories of those neglected by existing media, with a particular emphasis on Africa. Al Jazeera English has broadcasting centres in Doha, Kuala Lumpur, London and Washington DC and supporting bureaux worldwide, including 12 in Africa. Al Jazeera now broadcasts to 140 million households in English, and 50 million viewers in Arabic. Its website, aljazeera.net, also has a team working to break news stories. All of this is possible only because of the continued financial support of the Emir of Qatar. The channel doesn’t cover local news in the country, only international, which keeps potential conflicts of interest to a minimum, and helps Qatar in its aim to be a regional hub for free speech – as do the Qatar Debates (qatardebate.org) and the Doha Debates (thedohadebates.com) broadcast on the BBC World News channel in association with the Qatar Foundation (qf.org.qa). There’s no doubt about the human cost to Al Jazeera’s journalists. Touring the studios in Doha, there are several reminders of reporters who have lost their lives – from the clothes worn by one when he was killed, to framed photos lining the walls. We were told about cameraman Sami Al-Hajj, who was held in Guantanamo Bay for nearly seven years after being arrested while reporting for the channel. As we walked out to the car park, it was certainly an odd feeling to meet him as he strolled into the building with another reporter. He is now planning a series of documentaries for Al Jazeera drawing on his experience.
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