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Sharjah museum links past and present

By Sylvia Smith
BBC News, Sharjah

Islamic Museum interior (Photograph: Richard Duebel)
An old market was imaginatively restored for the museum space
The United Arab Emirates' first Islamic Museum officially opened last month.

But the building, which has aroused intense interest during its restoration, is not in Dubai or the capital Abu Dhabi.

In fact this pioneering museum is housed in the smaller emirate of Sharjah, acknowledged locally as the cultural heart of the region.

Distinguishing itself from the hype of the extravagant architectural plans laid by its neighbours, the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation is not housed in a brand new building designed by an international celebrity architect, but in an imaginatively restored, 20-year-old former souq, or covered market.

It may have its share of rare and priceless artefacts, but the permanent exhibits are laid out and interpreted in such a way as to suggest a new format for Islamic museums of the future.

According to Aisha Rashid Deemas, the museum's curator, the artefacts on view have been chosen not only for their intrinsic beauty, but for additional qualities.

The first and most important is their ability to evoke distant memories of a way of life that has been all but submerged beneath a rising tide of globalisation.

"One of the objectives of the museum is to remind young local people of how their parents and grandparents lived," she explained.

"We have lost touch with so many of our traditions and the subject of Emirati identity needs to be addressed."

Juxtapositions

Almost all of the exhibition spaces touch on the theme of local Islamic traditions, but the Faith gallery on the ground floor brings home the message most poignantly.

Museum curator Aisha Deemas (Photograph: Richard Duebel)
Curator Aisha Deemas says the aim is to counter a rising tide of globalisation
Here next to a Kiswa, or heavily embroidered curtain that covers the entrance to the Kaaba, are everyday objects connected with Islam donated by local people.

There are black and white photographs dating back to the early days of the last century that show Sharjan people of all ages and walks of life as they set out on the pilgrimage.

The Islamic Science and Technology section, which demonstrates the faith-based origins of many inventions such as astrolabes for navigation and orientating early international travellers to the direction of Mecca, is juxtaposed with display cases of modern attire for Muslim women who are fashion-conscious and yet want to retain an Islamic modesty.

The choice of objects underscores the museum's ethos of connecting Islam with the modern world and personalising the displays, according to Manal Ataya, head of the emirate's Museums Department.

"It is all too easy to concentrate just on the object itself," she explains.

"We want to ensure that we show who made it and why. That's the way to get visitors involved."

We are not investors hoping to turn a profit. We are concern to represent Islam throughout the world
Islamic Art adviser Ulrike al-Khami
She also believes that many local people will be fascinated by the temporary gallery space which houses a special exhibition on loan from the Museum for Islamic Art in Berlin.

The museum has not allowed many of the objects to be taken out of Germany before.

"A lot of people will be surprised at the quality of art from the Mughal period and from Iran," she says.

Director of the Berlin Museum, Claus Peter Haase, gave personal guarantees for some of the priceless artefacts included in The Radiance of Islam exhibition to leave Berlin.

"On a visit here a few months ago we were so impressed with the professional standard we saw that we wanted to acknowledge the museum's opening with a significant gesture. Being the first always means getting honoured," he said.

The loan from Berlin is likely to be only the beginning of collaboration with other Islamic Museums and Institutions around the world.

Cultural objective

In addition to reciprocal loan arrangements, the museum has put in place an outreach programme that targets schools and universities throughout the United Arab Emirates.

However, it is likely that the acquisitions policy of the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation will create the greatest stir in the world of Islamic art.

While the museum does not seek to exert influence on art markets, according to Ulrike al-Khami, Adviser for the Islamic Art Collection, areas that are commonly overlooked such as Muslim West Africa and South East Asia are likely to be given prominence in the new museum.

"We are aware of market trends," she states. "But we are not investors hoping to turn a profit. We are concerned to represent Islam throughout the world."

Connecting the Gulf's high octane present with a past that was based on pearl diving rather than petroleum through the medium of culture has been a long-held objective of the Sharjah's ruler, Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed al-Qasimi.

With the opening of the new Museum of Islamic culture, his aim has clearly taken a giant step forward.



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