Manal Ataya and Hissa Al Dhaheri given top honours by France

'It’s wonderful when people recognise the work that we do behind the scenes and in front of the scenes, and that France is so gracious in this way'

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Two Emirati women working in the field of culture have been given the Chevalier des Arts et Lettres, one of the highest honours for work in the cultural field bestowed by France.

Manal Ataya, the director-general of Sharjah Museums Authority, which oversees 16 museums in Sharjah, and Hissa Al Dhaheri, former deputy director of Louvre Abu Dhabi, were recognised on Tuesday evening by H.E. Ludovic Pouille, French Ambassador to the UAE.

The ceremony underscores the strong cultural links that have developed between the UAE and France, most notably with Louvre Abu Dhabi, but also with the branch of the Sorbonne in the capital and the host of events in both France and the UAE that are being held as part of the current French-UAE year of culture.

The Sharjah Archeology Museum also last year partnered with the Institut Francais and the French embassy’s cultural department in an exhibition surveying 40 years of French-UAE partnership on archaeological excavation. The oldest pearl in the world, for example, was discovered in Umm al Qawain in 2012 in dig organized by the French Archeological Mission to the UAE.

Ataya, who has been at the Sharjah Museums Authority since 2006, has worked to develop the range of Sharjah Museums – which include the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation, Sharjah Science Museum, and Sharjah Heritage Museum – as well as its human capital, working with her staff to professionalise the institutions. The museums keep growing under her watch. Just in the past year, Ataya oversaw the gift to the Sharjah Art Museum of a five-year loan of exemplary works of Arab modernism from the Barjeel Art Foundation, which are now on semi-permanent display, and the renovation and reopening of the Bait Al Naboodah heritage house.

Speaking the day after the ceremony, Ataya said: “I want to stress that this honour is not for me when I accepted it. I was accepting it for the UAE and for Sharjah, and I was very proud of that. The work that we do and the UAE does is phenomenal. And it’s wonderful when people recognise the work that we do behind the scenes and in front of the scenes, and that France is so gracious in this way.”

Al Dhaheri was appointed deputy director of Louvre Abu Dhabi in 2016 and left that position after a successful run at the museum earlier this year.

In her speech at the ceremony, Ataya used a metaphor taken from a classic French children's book, Le Petit Prince by Antoine St-Exupery, to underscore the importance of culture: "On ne voit qu'avec le coeur", or "one only sees with the heart".

“Working in culture is a constant pursuit to learn, appreciate and celebrate what the human spirit has to offer from masterpieces hung on museum walls,” she said in her remarks, noting the deep commitment to culture shared by the UAE and France.

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