Homing in on Heritage

  • on August 21, 2019

Homing in on Heritage

01 Jan 12:40 AM

Sector : Culture Country : Qatar

 By Dr Karen Exell & Dr Trinidad Rico

Qatar is currently investing heavily in its heritage, from the construction of museums, restoration of forts and houses to archaeological excavations and surveys. This investment forms part of the Qatar National Vision 2030 with its emphasis on national identity and cultural development to establish Qatar as the cultural center of the Islamic world. The cultural agenda is also manifest in the development of Hamad bin Khalifa University, a conglomeration of foreign universities based at Education City each specializing in a subject area, such as Texas A&M teaching engineering, and UCL Qatar, a branch campus of University College London, teaching Masters courses in cultural heritage (Archaeology, Conservation and Museum Studies). This article explores some of the recent cultural heritage development, and UCL Qatar’s involvement in heritage teaching, research and practice.


Framing Heritage

Qatar became an independent sovereign state in 1971 with the withdrawal of the British who had administered Qatar as one of its protectorates since 1916, and Qatar’s declaration of independence from the federation of seven emirates that now comprises the United Arab Emirates. Development as a result of natural gas and oil revenues was – and still is – fast-paced, creating a form of urban modernity which has brought with it a vast influx of immigrant workers at all levels to manage Qatar’s oil, gas and other commercial industries and infrastructure. This led to an almost immediate desire to preserve a way of life and a cultural identity, or identities that were changing fast. In Qatar, as in other newly wealthy Gulf states, a single generation separates two distinct lifestyles, resulting in feelings of anxiety and a desire for preservation of ‘the past’ on the part of the older generation, and a lack of knowledge of this earlier lifestyle on the part of the younger generation. As a result, the 1970s saw the emergence of the concept of framing, and fixing, this earlier cultural identity as ‘heritage’. In Qatar and the surrounding Gulf states early heritage practice took a similar form, with the construction of national museums that presented local archaeology and ethnography.

Museums, Restoration and Urban Modernity

Qatar’s first national museum was opened in 1975 in an old royal palace, and included a display of archaeology, Bedouin ethnographic material and material relating to the pearling industry, complete with a lagoon with dhows, and an aquarium. As with the national museums in Bahrain (1971) and Saudi Arabia (1974), the material had been gathered by foreign archaeologists who had been working in the region since the 1950s, and who had begun to bring ethnographers with their teams. In the 1960s, the Qatari government invited Beatrice De Cardi, a British archaeologist with experience in the region, to gather material for the proposed national museum that would tell the story of Qatar from the Neolithic age to the present day. The new national museums served two purposes: to construct a distinct national identity linked to the past, and to preserve a changing lifestyle; both these purposes were deemed necessary as the new nation states differentiated themselves from each other and strove for unique national identities whilst simultaneously struggling to pin down a cultural identity that was evolving out of all recognition.

In 1980, the Qatar National Museum won the Agha Khan award for restoration and rehabilitation of Islamic architecture, which sparked a wave of restorations of examples of what have become known as ‘heritage buildings’ in Doha – buildings dating from the late 19th – mid 20th century which reflect a local architectural style and use, such as pearl merchants’ houses and the main market, Souq Waqif. From the late 1980s the Restoration Department (which now forms part of the Qatar Museums Authority) restored a number of mosques and other buildings in coordination with the Ministry of Awqaf (endowments) and Islamic Affairs. As with cultural identity, the vernacular architecture of Qatar was deemed under threat from rapid urban development and the reshaping of the city. During the 1970s plans for reshaping Doha were produced by Llewelyn Davies Weeks (the ring roads) and William Pereira (the corniche); the crescent-shaped corniche now connects the Museum of Islamic Art and the new high-rise business and residential district of West Bay. In 2004, the newly-restored Souq Waqif opened as a downtown hub of restaurants, cafes and shops.

Alongside restorations of ‘heritage’ buildings dating to the pre-1950s there has been a recent interest in the creation of what has been called a ‘new vernacular architecture’ as part of the 31 hectare downtown redevelopment of the area next to Souq Waqif, the ‘Heart of Doha’ project, by Msheireb Properties, a real-estate company and subsidiary of Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development (QF), a private, chartered non-profit organization founded in 1995 by decree of H.H. the Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. The Msheireb Properties website described the architectural style as follows: “The new language will be used to create buildings of a shared DNA, reviving local heritage and culture through a unified architectural idiom.” The ‘new architectural language’ project is lead by Timothy Makower, a British architect with an interest in heritage architecture; his project in Doha can be seen as a version of the work of the architects Makiya Associates and John Harris in Muscat, Oman, which aimed at creating a ‘new “Arab” architecture’ which presented a homogenised version of the complex Islamic histories of the city.

Qatar’s Cultural Landscape Today

In 1995, H.H. Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani became Emir when he seized power from his father, Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani, in a peaceful coup dݎtat. The remaining decade and the 2000s saw an increased focus on heritage developments within the context of the development of a globally recognizable national identity, which sought to present Qatar as the heart of Islamic culture, and to develop Qatar as a tourist destination. In 1998, the Supreme Council of Culture, Arts and Heritage was formed, followed by the establishment of the Qatar Tourist Authority in 2000. The Qatar Museums Authority was established in 2005, and in 2008, the Museum of Islamic Art opened, housed in a building designed by the architect I.M. Pei based on the ninth century AD Ibn Tulun mosque in Cairo and influenced by other Islamic architectural gems. In December 2010, Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art opened, housed in a refurbished school building on the outskirts of Education City, the location of most

foreign universities in Doha. These museums, and the new National Museum due to open in 2016 in a building designed by the architect Jean Nouvel (which encloses within its design the original National Museum building), are part of a agenda of globalization which sees heritage as a transnational rather than local phenomenon, emphasizing global Islam and the Arab world as a homogeneous whole: where the original national museum documented and preserved something that once was, the new museums construct something that will be.

Archaeological activity in Qatar reflects the trajectory of preservation of the local (for example, De Cardi’s work in the 1960s and 1970s) to the creation of the global. Qatar has few known archaeological sites other than the 18th century pearling town of Zubara, located on Qatar’s north coast. In the 1980s this was excavated by a Qatari team and again in 2002-2003. In 2008, the site was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List, alongside the Khor Al-Adaid Nature Reserve. In 2009, the Qatar Islamic Archaeology and Heritage Project (QIAH), a joint QMA/University of Copenhagen 10 year research, conservation and heritage project was initiated, to investigate the archaeological site, preserve its remains and work toward the presentation of the site to the public. In 2012, an application by QMA to UNESCO to inscribe Zubara on the World Heritage List was referred, and will be resubmitted in due course. Zubara as an archaeological site has transitioned from representing part of Qatar’s local heritage to a symbolic authorization of Qatar’s presence on the world heritage stage. Today additional archaeological projects are underway in Qatar, driven by Western interest and funded by Qatari heritage agendas, which recognize the global interest in the archaeological past. For example, in 2012 UCL Qatar received funding from the Qatar National Research Fund (QNRF) Qatar National Research Priorities stream for a three-year project to excavate areas of downtown Doha, and the University of Birmingham (UK) are working with QMA on a fiveyear project to survey and record land and marine territories to the south of Doha (the Qatar National Historical Environment Record project – QNHER).

The Sheikh Faisal Museum and UCL Qatar

UCL Qatar began teaching its Masters courses in 2012, two two-year Masters, one in Archaeology of the Arab and Islamic World and one in Conservation, and a one year Masters in Museum and Gallery Practice. These Masters programs actively engage with heritage developments in Qatar, from working alongside museum staff on curation projects, teaching students archaeological fieldwork techniques on sites in Doha and conserving objects from collections in the state-of-the-art conservation and materials science laboratories that form part of UCL’s facilities. One of the most fruitful relationships has been with the Sheikh Faisal Bin Qassim Al-Thani Museum, through H.E. Sheikh Faisal himself (a close relative of the Emir), his daughter, H.E. Sheikha Al-Anood, who manages the museum on a daily basis, and the Director, Dr. Dieter Marcos. The Sheikh Faisal Museum displays the personal collection of Sheikh Faisal with around 15,000 objects including vintage cars, toys, archaeological material, costume, numismatics (coin and money), weapons, fine and decorative art, Arabic manuscripts and much more. It opened to the public in 1998 in a purpose-built building 22 km from Doha, and is one of the most popular cultural destinations in Qatar due to the eclectic nature of the collection, the informal nature of the displays, and the fact that on any given day Sheikh Faisal himself may be in the museum and give a personal tour. The collection was initially displayed in a majlis (the gendered reception room in a Qatari home), where the collection was displayed and narcultured rated to personal friends and colleagues, and then, as its fame grew, it was shown to state visitors and dignitaries directed there from the Emiri Diwan.

During the course of this academic year, the museum has hosted visits from UCL students exploring issues of collection building, display and conservation, as well as local cultural heritage practices and expressions of Qatari and Gulf identity. On one visit the director, Dieter Marcos, hosted a debate with the Museum and Gallery Practice students on strategies for the future development and display of the collection, a debate that was hotly argued between proponents of developing the museum according to the western museum paradigm of thematic and systematically ordered displays, and those in favor of retaining the personal nature of the displays that embody Sheikh Faisal’s life-experience – and therefore the experience of living in Qatar over the last 40 years of rapid social change; of retaining the local as opposed to imposing the global. In addition, a number of objects (Islamic tiles, glass ware, Chinese metalwork) are currently housed in the Conservation Lab at UCL where they are being conserved by the MSc Conservation students as part of their course, as well as being used as examples of objects for documentation and condition assessment exercises by all the Masters students. In January 2013, Sheikh Faisal, his daughter, Sheikha Al- Anood, and Marcos paid a visit to UCL to see the work in progress on the objects, and, more generally, the contribution that UCL staff and students are making to cultural heritage developments in Qatar. This kind of personal relationship between institutions is key to the success of UCL Qatar and its Masters programs.

The Past in the Future

Cultural heritage developments in Qatar are moving extremely fast. UCL is training students in a range of activities that relate to these developments, and has on its Masters programs a number of QMA staff who will take their experience directly back to the workplace once they graduate. One of the enormous advantages of teaching such Masters programs in Qatar is the willingness of heritage organizations to support the programs, as exemplified by the involvement of UCL with the Sheikh Faisal Museum. In the next 10 years up to 15 museums are slated to open in Qatar, including the re-imagined Qatar National Museum. How Qatar constructs and presents its heritage is of enormous significance as it makes its presence felt on the global stage. UCL involvement in this very real construction of heritage is challenging and exciting, and will continue to develop as relationships between institutions mature. Parts of this piece are extracted from a forthcoming article to be published in World Archaeology entitled ‘There is no heritage in Qatar’: Orientalism, Colonialism and other problematic Histories’ by Dr Karen Exell (Lecturer in Museum Studies) and Dr Trinidad Rico (Lecturer in Museums and Heritage) at UCL Qatar.


Dr Karen Exell

Lecturer in Museum Studies, UCL Qatar



Dr Karen Exell is Lecturer in Museum Studies at UCL Qatar where she directs the MA in Museum and Gallery Practice. She has worked for over 15 years in museums, heritage organizations and universities in the UK and Egypt before moving to Doha, Qatar, in 2011. Exell is currently developing a number of Gulf-focused research projects that focus on evaluating the social and economic impact of the rapid development of museums and heritage sites in Qatar.



Dr Trinidad Rico

Lecturer in Museums and Heritage, UCL Qatar



She has been involved with ICOMOS and the Getty Conservation Institute, as well as worked in archaeological and conservation fieldwork around Europe, Turkey, Oman, Argentina, South Africa and the USA. Rico›s work addresses the construction of heritage value, with an interest in post-disaster heritage at risk and the construction of heritage and its preservation in the framework of Islamic societies in Southeast Asia and the Arabian Gulf.


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