Sharjah ruler's vision drives a 'cultural' emirate

The emirate has 19 museums, each strongly devoted to reinforcing Sharjah's heritage as a way to secure its future.

SHARJAH // Ever since it was named as Unesco's cultural capital of the Arab World in 1998, there have been efforts to position Sharjah as the "cultural" emirate. It has 19 museums - more than the rest of the emirates put together - and Manal Ataya is the woman charged with looking after them all.

At 29, Ms Ataya is one of very few Emiratis to graduate in the field. She completed a master's degree in Museum Studies at Harvard University in 2004. Since taking over as director general of the Sharjah Museums Department (SMD) four years ago, staff numbers have doubled to 520 and four new museums have been added. They fit into the vision of Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed, the Ruler of Sharjah, she said.

"There is the idea that museums are storage places where stuffy professors go to study and no one is allowed to make any noise," Ms Ataya said. "We want all ages and nationalities to feel free to come here and express themselves and start discussions." SMD was set up in 2006 to unite and revitalise the existing 15 institutions, followed by a push for educational and outreach programmes as well as the employment and training of new staff. The department has since launched the new Maritime Museum, Aquarium, Botanical Museum and Museum of Islamic Civilisation.

Half of the staff are now locals, which in turn attracts more domestic visitors, she said. Last year, 33 per cent of visitors were residents of Sharjah, while 29 per cent were from the other emirates. "His Highness Sheikh Sultan is a nationalist if ever there was one, and what we are trying to do is recreate that nationalism for our visitors," Ms Ataya said. "We need the people of our nation to tell their own history."

The oral history project at the Maritime Museum, which opened last June, is an ideal example. Staff sourced and recorded accounts from a handful of men between 70 and 90 years old about the emirate's maritime history. The work could not have been done without Emiratis on the job, Ms Ataya said. "There are parts of history which are intangible and difficult to translate to a multicultural audience. Some of the stories told by the older generations contain specific Emirati concepts and sensibilities which are hard to pin down. You don't find them in books and they can't be taught, they are things that only our people know instinctively."

Mona bin Hussain, the head of adult and academic programmes for the SMD, said the museums offered residents "life-long learning". "Most nationals think museums are only for heritage or history, but we have so many different topics they can be of interest for everyone." In the Science Museum, the curator Shatha Rashid al Makhawi has been developing interactive learning facilities for 15 years. They have been essential for education, she said.

"When we first opened, most of the schools didn't have computers or even science labs so we were the only science centre around. Our job was to give science a different perspective by teaching it in an informal environment. We are still developing our teaching methods. We have top of the range software and lab equipment from the United States. We still stay ahead." Ms Ataya has brought in experts to give staff training and every year several attend the American Association of Museums Conference.

Last year the German-based Goethe Institute provided a full-time member of staff to develop training programmes, and there currently joint programmes with museums in New York and India. Ultimately, Ms Ataya said, it is the experience of the visitors that is most important. "We want every person to come out with a changed experience and some kind of insight or opinion."