I meant for this blogpost to be a comparative analysis between the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, and its sister museum, the Suzhou Museum, both designed by the American architect, I.M. Pei (who most famously plonked an inverted pyramid in the courtyard of the Louvre). But I figured that the post would have been too long and so I’ve split it into two.
Part I is set in the Gulf…
When I first read about the Museum of Islamic Art’s opening in the International Herald Tribune in 2008, I was pleasantly surprised. How did the Qataris pull off this huge coup without anyone noticing – particularly me?!!
The Museum was hailed as a jewel of contemporary architecture and a return to form for I.M. Pei, who had been coaxed out of retirement by the Emir of Qatar to work on this project (he has continued working since then). It’s collection – accumulated over the years by the Qatari royal family – was deemed one of the most important collections of Islamic art and architects in the world. It was a princely collection, pun intended.
The Museum immediately put Qatar firmly on the map, at least for Gulf-aholics and (Islamic) art pundits. As the cultural policy-maker that I was at the time, I was intrigued.
A slew of plans for grandiose and architecturally-ambitious museums and performing arts centres had just been announced by a string of oil-rich cities in the Gulf – most notably Abu Dhabi, with its Saadiyat Island (Happiness island) Cultural Centre development. The Museum of Islamic Art was part of a broader long-term plan of the Qatari ruling family to similarly refashion Doha into (yet) another gleaming, lifestyle and cultural hub in the region.
But I couldn’t help but wonder: How effective are these signature buildings by brand-name architects, really, in terms of turning around a city’s image? Beyond the immediate media attention they attract when they are first unveiled, do they really have what it takes to sustain global interest and draw tourists? More importantly, do they really contribute to city’s development– whether economically, socially or culturally?
Intrepid wanderer that I am, I went to Doha earlier this year, specifically to pay a visit to the MIA in the hopes of finding the answers to my questions.
The first thing I have to say about the museum, is that from the outside, it is indeed, breath-taking. It sits on its own promontory jutting out into the Doha Bay, across from the newly-minted downtown area that gleams under the Arabian sun. As I approached the museum from its a palm-lined processional way, I could not help feeling that I was a pilgrim in Byzantine times, marching up the steep slopes to the Palace of the Emperor in Constantinople. I’m sure that the architectural design had been calculated to invoke just this sort of feeling – of awe and inferiority – from the approaching visitor.
The façade of the museum itself was sheer simplicity. Echoing the Mosque of Ibn Tulun in Cairo, its blocky pattern, self-replicated, reminded me of the fractal design of a snowflake. I had read that this fractal design was inspired by traditional Islamic architecture, but as I later found out at the very similar Suzhou Museum, the style would be more accurately termed Pei.
Inside, the museum was also stunning. The underside of its dome had a beehive-like self-replicating pattern, meant to represent the heavens, and most famously found also in the Alhambra Palace in Moorish Spain.
The next thing I have to say was that the collection definitely lived up to its hype. I felt my hairs stand on end as I carefully inspected every single one of the artifacts. I recall a bronze ewer in the shape of an eagle, that used to stand in the Alhambra. I remember an intricately-carved and immaculately preserved ivory casket that came from Siqiliya – Moorish Sicily – in the 11th century. There was a pendant that used to belong to Shah Jahan, of Taj Mahal fame.
I was blown away. The Museum alone was worth my flight ticket to Doha, so I thought as I walked through the galleries. Unfortunately, photography wasn’t allowed inside the galleries so I can’t re-present any of the artifacts here.
Which brings me to my last and most important observation. While the museum and its collections were indeed, stunning, I couldn’t help thinking that it was all very much wasted here in Qatar. There was nobody in the museum. Well… almost nobody.
It wasn’t a museum as much as a mausoleum – beautiful in its simplicity, but cold, forbidding, and very much dead. The only people I saw were the local working staff, and occasional small groups of tourists who would stride through the galleries with passing interest in the occasional artefact. Islamic Art (and Artefacts) is a niche area, after all.
I didn’t see any locals in the museum, beyond the museum staff. I wondered where they were. I wondered if they really cared that here was an icon that was supposedly putting their country and city on the world map. Or maybe they had already seen it all when it opened. It didn’t look like the exhibits rotated very frequently, if at all.
Very tellingly, there was a cafe area, with a gorgeous view of the Bay from three-storey-high windows, that didn’t serve any food or drinks anymore. Besides myself, there was the lone security guard, guarding absolutely nothing.
If the Museum of Islamic Art was meant to bring more tourists to Doha, I don’t think it has really succeeded…yet anyway. Granted, I went in late Spring, when it was already starting to get pretty hot in the Gulf. I didn’t see many tourists in Qatar in general during that time. I also went on a weekday morning, rather than a weekend, when perhaps, Qatari and expatriate families would make use of the grounds for picnics.
The thing wasn’t a people’s museum by any means. It was a vanity project meant to showcase one prince’s private collection and to stoke his ego. There was no entrance fee, nor did any of the staff seemed to care very much that there were no visitors. After all, the Museum really didn’t need the visitors, or the money.
The MIA was not the only major museum that had recently opened in Qatar. There was another one – Mathaf, the Museum of Modern Art ( متحف الفن الحديث )– that had stirred controversy with the inclusion of nudes in its debut exhibition of Arab Art. I had been excited by that one and looked forward to visiting it. Unfortunately, it was situated way across town from where the MIA was, and no cab driver had any idea how to get there or what exactly it was. So I had to give it a miss, despite the fact that I had flown all the way to Doha just to see these two museums.
No matter, there was still a whole city to explore.
Except the rest of Doha was also a bit of letdown. It had a lovely skyline and there were a few architecturally very interesting skyscrapers. But when you were in the downtown area, you realized it was just a depressing mix of malls, hotels and offices. It was like Dubai in the mid-90s.
When I told a friend of mine in Dubai what I felt about Doha, she was rather disappointed. She had briefly consulted for the Qatar Foundation and told me about the grand plans the Foundation had for developing the city.
“Did you see the Pearl?” she asked. Well…. I wasn’t so keen on yet another one of those artificial islands. I’ve always thought them a bit of a foolish and costly (monetarily and environmentally) fad.
“Did you see the plans for the National Museum!” she said. Yeeah… looks gorgeous architecturally, and I’m sure it will have a great collection. But I’m sure it’s destined to be another white elephant.
You see… they don’t make it easy for you getting around from one of these attractions to the next. That’s the problem. This whole city is set up for the rich and wealthy, who would be sped around in their 4WDs. There was no way for ordinary people, like myself, to get around. The city just doesn’t make it easy for the visitor, like its neighbor, Dubai does.
A case in point – there was absolutely nothing around the MIA to see or do.
“Come back in 15 years. The plans would have been put in place, and you will see just how fore-sighted the city is!” Yeeah… can’t wait that long. Nor am I interested.
Lesson learnt from my trip? Plan first, build later. Unless you have the (oil-)money of course, in which case, who the hell cares!
I leave you with contemplative views from the MIA towards Doha – gleaming like a pearl in the Persian Gulf, stark and starkly empty.
Next: The Suzhou Museum in Suzhou – the same concept, only executed better.