Since the early 2000s, developments within the
cultural heritage and museums sector in the Arabian Peninsula1
have attracted unprecedented interest from the international media, particularly in relation to large-scale, state-led museum projects such as the National Museum of Qatar in Doha, Qatar and the
Louvre Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). These large-scale developments have attracted international criticism and debate due to their reliance on international partnerships and western brand connections (see Cachin et al
., 2006; Herlory, 2008; Ajana, 2015; Ponzini, 2011; Riding, 2007a, 2007b, 2007c; Wakefield, 2013, 2014, 2017, 2020 on Abu Dhabi; Al-Mulla, 2013, 2014; Exell, 2016 on Doha). Yet the presence of museums in the Arabian Peninsula is not necessarily new. Instead, the growing importance and diversity of these institutions socially, economically and politically represents a major re-alignment that is dramatically affecting the ways that cultural heritage and museum institutions are viewed and presented, and new audiences imagined. By focusing on the emergent role of museums in the Arabian Peninsula as both a historical and contemporary process, Museums of the Arabian Peninsula: Historical Developments and Contemporary Discourses
seeks to contextualise more fully the breadth of museum developments in the region through time and space.
The volume questions and engages with issues that relate to the institutionalisation of past, present and future identities through an examination of the establishment and growth of selected museums and cultural heritage organisations in the region. This book does not claim to trace the entire history of museum development in the region; instead, it seeks to encourage more nuanced and critical understandings of museum development in the Arabian Peninsula. The authors in the volume aim to generate new understandings and new lines of enquiry in order to understand more fully the longer-term processes of museum development within the Gulf. This book contributes to contemporary debates within the interdisciplinary field of critical museum and heritage studies by considering and analysing museum developments in the Arabian Peninsula through time, using a critical and reflexive lens.
The growing focus towards materialising and representing the past within museums has had, and continues to have, significant ramifications on how the past is preserved, presented and engaged with by institutions such as museums in the Arabian Peninsula – state-sanctioned and private, professional actors such as museum and heritage practitioners and local residents. Yet the role of the museum as a repository for both tangible and intangible aspects of the past is still, to many in the region, a relatively new concept. This growing interest in documenting and presenting the past is arguably shaping and re-shaping perceptions of the past through the creation of officially sanctioned state-crafted narratives about the past.
Historicising Gulf museology
Museum (matāḥif) initiatives have been in development within the Gulf States since the late 1950s, the earliest being the Kuwait Museum which opened in 1957. Since then the region has witnessed the emergence of new mega-museums such as the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Qatar National Museum and more specialised museums focusing on particular topics and communities such as Qatar’s slavery museum Bin Jelmood House (see Al-Mulla, 2017) and Bahrain’s archaeology museum, Qal’at al-Bahrain Site Museum (see Lombard and Boksmati-Fattouh this volume). As noted earlier, burgeoning museum developments have often served to overshadow the history of museums in the Gulf States; however, this history goes back several centuries (see discussions by Al-Ragam, 2014; Erskine-Loftus, 2010; Bouchenaki, 2011, 2016; Hirst, 2011, 2012) and has varied depending upon the different social, political and economic circumstances of each nation. Hirst (2011, 2012) has mapped out the historical development of museums within the six-member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, noting that by 1978, each state had one or more government sanctioned museum. She argues (2011) that museum development in the Arabian Peninsula is an emergent and continuing process of nation building, which has accelerated and evolved alongside the GCC’s oil wealth and increasing global presence.
The early museums of the Arabian Peninsula served an important role in the construction of ‘imagined communities’ (Anderson,  2006), which were based on national identity and belonging. The museum played an important role in the ‘invention of traditions’ (Hobsbawm and Ranger,  2010) through the display of cultural practices and objects that served the national imaginary, which was controlled and produced by the state. Ethnographic museological approaches have dominated the national narratives, which have predominantly focused on pearling (Penziner-Hightower, 2014; Thabiti-Willis, 2014), Bedouinity (Prager, 2015) and the central role of the ruling elite in nation building and national identity. Since Abu Dhabi has developed from a predominantly oral-based society, the intangible past is a significant source of heritage and as such events and performances are also significant elements of national heritage practice (see for example Prager, 2015). In addition, the museum serves an important function as a national symbol, which is explicitly used to reinforce the legitimacy of the ruling elite (see Al-Mulla, 2014; on Qatar and Wakefield, 2012; Penziner-Hightower, 2014; Simpson, 2014; Prager, 2015 on the UAE, and the edited volume Erskine-Loftus et al., 2016).
Alongside these developments privately run museums have emerged (Aubry, 2014; Exell, 2013, 2014; Kelly, 2016). In her examination of the Sheikh Fasial bin Qassem Al-Thani Museum in Qatar Exell (2013, 2014) argues that the development of the museum and its collection represents a counter-narrative to official heritage discourses. Yet as I have argued elsewhere (Wakefield, 2020) her argument fails to account for the positionality of the collector as a member of the ruling elite and for the elitist nature of the collection. As such Exell overlooks the political aspects of private collecting. Aubry (2014) has argued through his analysis of traditional costume collections in the Arabian Peninsula that the role of the collector and their choices regarding what to collect is fundamental to understanding their socio-politico role. Private collecting therefore represents new agencies of action and new forms of power-knowledge dynamics that need more in-depth and critical analyses.
Although the early museums of the Arabian Peninsula were explicitly connected to a national past, the interconnections between the local and the global are often overlooked (Wakefield, 2020). Importantly, these early museums were not devoid of globalising practices and influences. A limited number of authors have considered the globalising practices and influences that enmesh within constructions of
cultural heritage and museums in the Arabian Peninsula (Fox et al
., 2006; Fibiger, 2011; Al-Ragam, 2014; Wakefield, 2013, 2014, 2017, 2020). Bouchenaki has observed that the region’s earliest museums ‘were originally modest institutions focusing on national
identity and relying on structures and models inherited from Western European and North American museums’ (2016: xv). Museums in the Arabian Peninsula have therefore used development models based on consultation and partnerships with international museum and heritage practitioners for several decades. Furthermore, as Wakefield argues in Chapter 8
international collaboration and exchange has served a fundamental role in international museum practice for centuries.
Literature discussing cultural heritage and museology in the Arabian Peninsula has begun to emerge in the last decade, alongside cultural developments in the region, presenting new challenges and opportunities for the development of professional practice and critical academic analysis. This volume differs from previous edited collections that have primarily focused on the relationships between museums and identity – regional and transnational (Exell and Wakefield, 2016), representation and collecting practices and policies (e.g. Erskine-Loftus, 2013, 2014; Mejcher-Atassi and Schwartz, 2012), the theorisation of cultural heritage narratives in the region (e.g. Exell and Rico, 2014), and the relationships between national identity and Gulf museology (Erskine-Loftus et al., 2016). Furthermore, these titles pre-date more recent contemporary developments such as the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi in 2017 and the opening of the National Museum of Qatar in 2019.
This book is unique in its analysis of both the historical development and contemporary growth of museums in the Arabian Peninsula. The volume explicitly explores the purpose of the museum in identity construction and audience engagement using an analytical and reflexive lens. This volume contributes to the development of key critical works in this area, offering high-quality analysis and discussion by leading academics and experts in the field of cultural heritage museums in the Arabian Peninsula. The chapters in this volume discuss, taking varied methodological and theoretical approaches, both the historical and contemporary development of museums and heritage institutions in Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the UAE. The individual authors illustrate how museum development is intricately connected to the individual states’ socio-cultural contexts and their differing engagements with global processes and international relations.
This volume brings both new empirical data and critical evaluation by exploring the emergence of museums in the Gulf, their role in shaping and re-shaping material and immaterial practices, the global circulation of professional practices in the field, and the processes of facilitating learning for both visitors and museum practitioners. This publication recognises and engages with varied approaches to museum development and practice, offering in-depth critical case-study analyses from a range of viewpoints and disciplines. As such, the volume draws together contributions by established academics as well as museum and heritage practitioners working in and on the region offering fresh insight and perspectives on the role and development of museums in the Arabian Peninsula.
Structure of the volume
The book is divided into four parts, addressing the themes of museum trajectories, development models and policies, cross-border practices, and community engagement and professional practice. In the ‘museum trajectories’ section, authors provide a critical discussion of the development and institutionalisation of cultural heritage through the development of different forms of museum and heritage institutions and their role as distinctive ‘apparatuses’ (Bennett 1995; Harrison, 2013) of state and emergent nation-building processes. The next section explicitly engages with the implications of varying ‘development models and policies’ on the shaping and re-shaping of museums and practice within the region. The section ‘cross-border practices’ contributes further understanding to the processes of global museology and trans-border practice from different perspectives, including the histography of transnational processes, patronage, soft power and bilateralism and global communicative practices. The final section ‘community engagement and professional practice’ examines the role of communication in engaging various stakeholders including both museum institutions and their professionals in Saudi Arabia and visitors to museums in Sharjah. The authors address how museums have played a central role in constructions of power, identity and cultural policy, which is shaped by regional dynamics, conflict and international ‘best’ practice through time.
The first section of the book, ‘museum trajectories’, analyses and traces the emergence of museums in the region, particularly as they relate to the politics of power and national identity formation, and broader economic and political developments in the region. Irene Maffi (Chapter 2
) maps the historical trajectory of museum developments in
Jordan. She examines key museum trends from the second half of the 20th century up to the present in order to understand the context in which the
Jordan Museum was created. Maffi argues that the role of museums in the Hashemite kingdom is politically laden and complex by tracing the development of state-led museums from the ancient Levant to contemporary times. Maffi contextualises the development of specific national and regional representations of the past within shifting regional and domestic concerns and colonial and post-colonial identity politics. The result, she argues, has been a shift away from state-run museums and the emergence of new
narratives, which challenge and bring forward previously marginalised materialities. In doing so, Maffi presents an ideological trajectory that is explicitly linked to the political and economic landscape of the Arabian Gulf, a trajectory that is politically laden and transient.
In the next chapter, Stephen Steinbeiser (Chapter 3
) historicises the role that museums have played in the development of
Yemeni cultural heritage, which he critically interrogates through his analysis of contemporary regional conflict and its effects. The chapter offers a detailed examination of museum development in Yemen by analysing how cultural heritage has been produced by Yemeni actors, at state and individual grass-roots levels, through the establishment of officially sanctioned museums and private museums and collections. In doing so, he examines the role of collecting and collections and the limits of international efforts towards the protection and preservation of...