Posted on March 18, 2019

When the National Museum of Qatar opens on March 28, 2019, under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the public will get its first immersion into the new institution’s unparalleled sequence of experiential galleries.

Each gallery along the Museum’s winding, 1.5-kilometer path is a unique, encompassing environment, which tells its part of the story of Qatar through a special combination of architectural space, music, poetry, oral histories, evocative aromas, archaeological and heritage objects, commissioned artworks, monumentally scaled films, and more. Together, the 11 permanent galleries take visitors from the formation of the Qatar peninsula millions of years ago to the nation’s exciting and diverse present, giving voice to the rich heritage and culture of the people and expressing their aspirations for the future.

In preparation for the opening, the Museum today revealed details of the story behind the story—how its team developed this extraordinary narrative—and gave the names some of the artists and filmmakers whose commissioned works help create the sweeping experience. The list includes artists Ali Hassan, Bouthayna Al Muftah, Aisha Al Suwaidi, Simone Fattal, Jean-Michel Othoniel and film-makers, Jananne Al-Ani and Abderrahmane Sissako, to name a few.

Her Excellency Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, Chairperson of Qatar Museums, said, “The National Museum will be a source of immense pride for Qatar, as well as an extraordinary platform for welcoming the international community and engaging in dialogue with people from around the world. As we approach the opening, we are proud to reveal the results of the extensive process of research and planning that has given depth and authenticity to the Museum’s one-of-a-kind exhibitions. We are also very pleased to announce the names of many of our creative collaborators: the artists and filmmakers whom we have commissioned to help realize our vision for the Museum. Each has contributed a moving, personal perspective to this multilayered experience.”

Her Excellency Sheikha Amna Al Thani, Director of the National Museum of Qatar, said, “From the very beginning, we were determined that the National Museum of Qatar would be much more than a showcase for a collection. It would be a journey—and like any true journey, it would change the travelers themselves, as they engage with our exhibitions through their senses and emotions as well as their intellects. It is now time to reveal the eight-year-long process that has given form and substance to the content of this Museum, and to make public many of the artists and filmmakers who have helped us make this a museum with a heart.”


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Developing the National Museum’s Narrative

At an early phase of research, the NMoQ team convened a series of more than a dozen meetings with members of the public, inviting hundreds of Qataris to share whatever stories and materials they might care to offer the Museum and asking what they most wanted to see and hear in their national museum. In a separate but related initiative, the NMoQ team also conducted more than 500 on-camera oral history interviews. Out of these interactions came a richness of information—of life—that became the essence of the new institution. In-depth discussions with local experts from a wide range of disciplines helped map out the themes that would emerge in the exhibition plan.

Members of the NMoQ staff’s local network included heritage experts, archaeologists, biologists, historians, and political scientists at Qatar University, Hamad bin Khalifa University, University College London Qatar, Friends of the Environment Centre, and Maersk Oil, amongst other institutions. The NMoQ staff also formed international collaborations, with institutions including Leiden Naturalis (for geological and natural history research), the Ottoman Archives (for rare documents connected to the area’s Ottoman period), the Natural History Museum, London (for paleontology), and the Moesgard Museum in Denmark (for its groundbreaking archaeological and anthropological work in Qatar in the 1950s and 60s).

Working with this research and the testimonies and materials it had gathered, NMoQ staff began to identify the themes that would run through the Museum. The exhibitions team envisioned a journey that would unfold in three stages: Beginnings, Life in Qatar, and The Modern History of Qatar. Aspects of the major themes would be addressed by the galleries along each stage, with each gallery conceived as a distinctive, multilayered, 360-degree environment. A pilot project helped test this concept. To discover whether the themes and methods it was developing would resonate with people, NMoQ organized a three-month-long exhibition telling the story of the historic Palace of Sheikh Abdullah: the former home of the ruler and seat of government, and the site of the original National Museum. When 11,000 people came to visit the exhibition and volunteered how much it had meant to them, the NMoQ staff knew they were on the right path.

The thoroughly restored Palace of Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim has become the centerpiece and final display of the new National Museum of Qatar. It is embraced by the building designed by the NMoQ’s visionary architect, Jean Nouvel: a monumental structure that seems to grow out of the landscape like the desert rose, and that offers an extraordinary sequence of unique architectural spaces within.

Bringing the Exhibitions to Life Through Art and Film

As a key element of its plan to make the exhibition galleries a living, immersive experience, NMoQ commissioned films from a select group of distinguished international directors. Produced by the Doha Film Institute, the films are projected at immense scale and with hypnotic clarity against the walls of the galleries, with each one uniquely suited to the dynamically curving, irregular shape. In this way, the films are site-specific—they can be projected successfully in no other space—and with their towering size seem to make the walls dissolve into moving spectacles.

For the gallery about The Archaeology of Qatar, NMoQ commissioned Jananne Al-Ani, born in Iraq and living in the U.K., to create a 20-minute-long film about the country’s ancient sites and artifacts. Known for her conceptual photography and film projects, which have been exhibited at Tate Modern, The Museum of Modern Art, Beirut Art Center, and the Venice Biennale, among many others, Al-Ani collaborated with the Doha Film Institute and a team of experts in archaeology to realize a meditative visual experience. Photographed over a four-week period in 2017, Archaeology employed an advanced drone platform to capture an aerial journey across Qatar’s landscape, revealing the history of human habitation from the Paleolithic and Neolithic hunter-gatherers to Bronze Age settlements and beyond. Alternating with these aerial surveys are meticulous, close-up images of objects including Neolithic flint blades, Iron Age arrowheads and coins, Islamic ceramics from the 8th century, and much more, photographed by Levon Biss.

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Jananne Al-Ani said, "This has been a wonderful opportunity to examine, up close, a selection of stunning archaeological artifacts excavated from a range of landscapes and habitats. They reveal the hidden history of human occupation of Qatar, from the early hunter-gatherer lifestyle of the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods, to increased settlement from the Bronze Age onward, to the post-medieval Islamic period.”

NMoQ commissioned the Mauritanian writer-director Abderrahmane Sissako (Waiting for Happiness, Timbuktu) to create a breathtaking short film for the gallery about Life in Al Barr (the Desert). Shot in glimmering black-and-white reminiscent of classic silver-nitrate cinema, Sissako’s 9-minute film was photographed over the course of seven days in March 2017 in Rawda Al Ghadriat, in the Northern Desert of Qatar, and features members of the Bedouin Al Naemi family, who provided some of the props and animals.  As deeply researched and authentic as it is beautiful, the film takes the viewer through the daily cycle of traditional nomadic life in the desert, as it was in the 1950s and 60s. The bait al-sha’r, or nomad’s tent, on display in the gallery where the film is shown belonged to the Al Naemi family.

Abderrahmane Sissako said, “After crossing the image of the sand corridor that flows as a symbol of the permanence of the moment, a perpetual renewal, a force beyond us, the visitor discovers the diptych of nomadic life. I wanted to restore the simple and harmonious recent past of a Qatari family in the desert—to convey without words the values ​​brought by this family: the mutual help, the transmission between parents and children, and the peace of mind in harmony with nature.” Sissako’s second film, projected against a faceted wall with a six-screen backdrop, presents the heyday of Al Zubarah. The film captures a lively center of trade as citizens and merchants go about the day from the pre-dawn call to prayer. This visual sensation offers a glimpse into open markets, camels ferrying goods, and into the majlis-rooms of the wealthy pearl traders sipping tea and making their transactions. 

Adding another layer of emotion and imagination to the experience, NMoQ has also commissioned a roster of local, regional, and international artists to create new works, installed both inside the building and outside on the expansive grounds. HE Sheikha Al Mayassa, Chairperson of Qatar Museums, has guided the selection process for the commissions. A sculpture by the Lebanese artist Simone Fattal, Gates of the Sea, is installed on the walkway toward the museum’s entrance. Speaking to a sense that the past is still vivid in the present, the work is inspired by the ancient petroglyphs found in Qatar at Al Jassasiya.

Welcoming visitors immediately inside the building is a wall installation by Qatari artist Ali Hassan, Wisdom of a Nation, whose geometric design draws on the image of the Qatari flag and an excerpt from a poem by the founder of modern-day Qatar, Sheikh Jassim bin Muhammad Al Thani. Standing at the entrance to the exhibition galleries is a large-scale sculpture by Qatari artist Hassan bin Mohammed Al Thani, Motherland, evoking the connections between the desert, the sea, and the women of Qatar.

Two commissioned works are installed in the Baraha, or central court, that sits within the ring of gallery spaces and envelopes the Palace of Sheikh Abdullah. The sculpture Flag of Glory by the Iraqi artist Ahmed Al Bahrani embodies the story behind the annual national day celebration, with an image of diverse hands united in holding up the flag of Qatar. A sculptural group by French artist Roch Vandromme, On Their Way, comprises the figures of four camels, evoking Qatar’s long history of nomadic lifestyle and trade.

Finally, on the 900-meter-long lagoon that is a key feature of the landscaped park surrounding the Museum, visitors will find the largest installation ever conceived by French artist Jean-Michel Othoniel. Titled ALFA, it comprises 114 individual black fountains, shaped to resemble Arabic calligraphy or the tall reeds that calligraphers use to make their pens, which are activated once an hour.