Sunday, 24 May 2009

Two Museums

Qatar's rush towards the future is not entirely at the expense of ignoring its heritage. It might be hard to spot much history on the daily mad dash round town, stampeding from one roundabout or half-finished flyover to the next with all the Mercedes, Chevs and assorted SUVs; it's true that everywhere you look, flash new buildings (many also half-finished) are already coated with the dust from old ones being torn down to make way for more.

But a sense of history remains in lovingly re-created sites like Souq Waqif (a sort of interactive museum in its own way), and in preserved buildings like the old Emiri palace, built in 1901, which houses the Qatar National Museum. This is currently closed for restoration, but there are plenty more museums in Doha which are open for business and recommended to tourists. The nearest to us is the Weaponry Museum a few blocks away from the apartments, near the Al Ali souq (the one with all the tailors), for which you need to make an appointment to visit and obtain a letter of authority from the Department of Museums (and maybe have a particular interest in weaponry) - but we really ought to get around to it.

However, we have managed to visit the two most famous ones: the stunning new Museum of Islamic Art on the
Corniche, opened only last November (see below), and the celebrated private museum of Sheikh Faisal bin Qassim al Thani, 30km out on the Dukhan road, not far from the camel racing track. This also requires an appointment (and then to convince the guy on the gate that you are genuine), but we were lucky to be invited on the spur of the moment one Saturday morning to join our neighbours Paula and Peter who had already sorted out the formalities. We hurriedly dressed up nice and jumped in the car, were at the gate by 10am, and were waved through with minimum fuss, unlike the carload of Indian guys in front of us - we assume they forgot to make an appointment.

The estate is about half a km off the highway. We drive in past a building with a large fenced yard full of iconic vehicles like Manila jeepneys and highly decorated Pakistani trucks, then an artificial lake with a dhow moored in the middle, and round to the front door where the manager comes out to meet us. This picture is actually another front door of another building (which you see half of here), but it looks similar. The main building is similarly fortress-like, and even bigger - at least 150 metres long.

The Sheikh's son, Sheikh Mohammed, isn't at the door when we arrive, but soon arrives in the first hall we are taken into; we are introduced and he then proceeds to give us the full guided tour, a very knowledgable and genial young host, rightly proud of his father's achievement in assembling and housing this vast and astonishing collection, and eager to provide as much background detail as we could absorb.

It's a work in progress, with more buildings to be finished and hundreds of display cases to be filled.

What is already on display occupies hundreds of metres of halls, galleries and courtyards, too much to take in in a morning (they close at 12 noon). Room after room is opened for us, then locked up after we have had a good browse and are ushered on to the next treat. Long before closing time rolls round, we are promising to make a return visit. It's all lovingly and professionally mounted, though this is obviously also a work in progress, as some items are yet to be labelled. But the majority are already identified for the visitor, with much attention to detail and frequent explanations of the item's history. There are more carpets (and more dazzling ones) than you will see in all the souqs,

a weaponry collection which must rival that of the specialist museum - hundreds of swords and daggers to make any student of combat weep for joy

and many rare and ancient firearms.

There's a whole climate-controlled room devoted to manuscripts

and too many treasures and artifacts to begin to list, from gold, silver and brassware

to pottery and glass of all descriptions,

not to mention bicycles (one's made of bamboo), fascinating photos of old Doha, dioramas of desert lifestyles, tableaux of traditional Qatari household effects, photo records of Iraqi dervishes with bone spears through their cheeks etc (someone had quite a fascination with this phenomemon), carriages, religious relics, coffee pots and favourite falcons. Stuff from all corners of the near and middle east, from Egypt and Turkey to Iran and India (lots of Indian treasures).

This is just one end of one of several galleries of spectacular and exquisite furniture

while in the central courtyard, scenes of traditional life are taking shape.

In another corner you can enter a tent furnished in traditional Bedouin style, just as earlier generations of local people would have lived in.

Another hall full of carpets. Magic.

Then there's the much-publicised classic car collection. The Sheikh owns over 100 historic vehicles, but most are currently not on display, awaiting completion of their own building. This isn't it, but it's big enough to house the lot, even with the dry dock at one end holding a dozen or more dhows and other water craft. What we can see is a diverse range of 20 or so veteran, and 40s and 5os, American wheels, from early Model T Fords and electric cars, to tough wartime Dodge 6-wheeler trucks (Chrysler Corp did well in Qatar it seems) to a sparkling 59 Cadillac. I suspect none of Sheikh Faisal's friends or relatives (which would likely have meant pretty much anyone in Qatar in the 50s) was allowed to throw away their old car. Obviously this section alone demands another visit when completed.

All too soon it's time to go, but we have seen so much. There's houseroom for a bit of classic kitsch too. In this display in the costume hall, alongside a black feather fan and a little hexagonal wickerwork box of unknown purpose, we find a metal Wizard of Oz memento plaque: "Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas any more." We really must try to schedule that revisit before we finally leave this Oz-like land.

While some well-worthwhile determination and organising is required to find and enter Sheikh Faisal's magic kingdom, the Museum of Islamic Art is by contrast, along with the rest of the Corniche, Souq Waqif and The Pearl, one of the default must-see attractions that new arrivals in Doha are breathlessly escorted to by earlier-established expats; and deservedly so.

This is the corollary to the indfatigable Sheikh's grand but utilitarian buildings and kitchen-sink collection. Here is a showcase for the world to flock to and see the cream of more than a millenium's worth of art treasures and artifacts, displayed in state of the art conditions in a building that is a work of art itself, a new architectural icon to rival the likes of Sydney Opera House, but with infinite subtlety and none of the look-at-me shock value. A jewel in the oeuvre of the venerable I.M.Pei, this is an edifice in every sense of the word, a real Museum with big echoing spaces and a sculptural presence of its own. It's all about the collection, but it's all about the building too.

It bewitches your camera; no doubt there are better pictures to be had (various coffee table tomes can be found in the museum shop for up to QR500), but here for free is our little gallery of homage, as snapped on a stroll from the nearby dhow pier on the Corniche up the avenue and into the spacious halls.

It's all free; cameras are fine inside.

The collection occupies two of the four floors, in cool, dimly lit, connected galleries arranged in an octagon around the atrium. Even if you opt not to pick up a commentary earphone, there is a wealth of information to read. Again. it'll take more than one visit to get around it all.

You need to take your time to acclimatise to the ambience and get a true feel for many of the pieces - some leap out at you with stunning colour and intricate design, some are more subtle.

As with Sheikh Faisal's, this is just the merest sampling.

It's not all small stuff; there's a fully-armoured horse and rider

and a really big carpet.

Back out in the light of the atrium, you feel the need for a coffee; currently this has to be obtained from a temperamental vending machine in a side gallery, but with all the cafe chains operating in every shopping mall and souq in Doha, with their expensively printed menus and polite serving staff, I'm sure there's one being lined up to run a suitably tasteful franchise here. There is already a posh restaurant upstairs.

You may want to check out or even buy some of the exclusive and expensive books, prints, fabrics, china and other merchandise in the museum shop; or for free you can relax and reflect in a courtyard out the side, where hundreds of fountains play, and the ever-present West Bay towers of commerce are framed by unadorned archways.

We went back to the museum on Saturday night a week ago, for another of the free entertainments we are fortunate to be able to enjoy in Qatar. This was the second-ever performance (watch out for it to come to an outdoor venue in your city soon?) 0f Identity of the Soul - an impressive five-screen, big-sound filmic presentation of the poetry of Henrik Ibsen and recently-deceased Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, quite powerfully (the thunder made us jump!) examining themes of revenge and injustice, without in-your-face preaching. There was an Arabic version the night before, voiced by Darwish; the English reading was by Vanessa Redgrave; it was worth the effort alone to see her bring to the screens her formidable acting talent and the dignity of age.

Angela managed to sneak into one of the front-row armchairs reserved for VIPs, who however didn't turn up (for a free show it was shamefully under-attended - the old trap of inadequate publicity perhaps; I heard about it via the Doha Players' very informative online noticeboard). She said it was fine, but I preferred to sit a few rows back where I could take in the wide-angle screens without aggravating the crick in my neck (still goes click unnervingly sometimes, I will take good advice and insist on no neck massage thank you, if I end up at a local barber saloon again).

The choice of the museum grounds late at night was ideal; the building is beautifully lit, but didn't intrude on the film show.

If you don't quite focus, it comes on a bit like a sand dune, doesn't it.

1 comment:

  1. That Museum of Modern Art looks like a very cool building.