A Brief Look at the History of Museums in the Region and Wider Middle East, by PAMELA ERSKINE-LOFTUS

In the February 2007 edition of The Art Newspaper the general editorial director wrote in an editorial on the recent announcement of the Louvre Abu Dhabi: “We should all rejoice that the rich Gulf States are beginning to look to the West to give themselves some cultural depth.1 Aside from the blatant disregard for the extent of ‘cultural depth’ already in the Gulf, this statement sums up a general western view that museums do not, and did not, exist in the Gulf before the announcement of projects such as Saadiyat Island. The aim of this article is to look at what has been in the region for millennia – collections and museums.

The history of museums in the Middle East has no convenient starting point like those often utilised in western writing, such as the studiolo of the de’ Medici in Florence, the creation of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, or the opening to the public of the Louvre in Paris. Although some current literature has produced a more nuanced account of the history of the western museum, many texts commence with one or a combination of these starting points. Collecting, whether for personal contemplation, royal or state influence, or for its civic virtues, is a component of many past and present cultures. It may only appear today that some cultures collected, as many did not record the process. What is common to collecting and museums throughout history is the prominence and importance of the ‘original object’ and its contribution to learning and knowledge. The leading Arabic-English dictionary does not give a definition for ‘museum’ but lists the Arabic for museum (muthaf) under the word’s root (tuhfa), which means to present. The other English-language words used in the description of the root of tuhfa include curiosity, rarity, article of virtue, present, and work of art.

Currently within the Middle East region the earliest collections are attributed to the third millennia BCE Mesopotamia, specifically the archives collected in Ebla (adjacent to modern Mardikh, Syria). These contained a considerable number of records of government business but also a collection of dictionaries and similar texts, arranged by subject. It is believed that the palace also contained a library but this has yet to be found by archaeologists. In the second millennia BCE the city of Larsa (southern Iraq) utilised objects in schooling. Today this would be referred to as a museum’s ‘teaching collection’, objects (sometime replicas) which can be used in the classroom to enhance and give tactility to studies. This illustrates that although research into multiple intelligences2 in education is seen as relatively new there was in the past an understanding that all senses contributed to learning. Close to Larsa, the ancient city of Ur was in the second century BCE a coastal city and a centre for commerce with the wider Gulf (current day Tell el-Mukayyar, Iraq). During the reign of Nebonidus (556-539 BCE) his daughter became priestess of Nanna3, the moon god of Ur, under the name of En-nigaldi-Nanna. It was within ruins attributed to her school that archaeologists found a museum, featuring objects dating back over a thousand years.

With these were labels describing the objects and where they had been originally found, written according to the labels for ‘the marvel of the beholders’.

Arguably the most famous ancient museum in the region was founded in Alexandria around 290 BCE by Ptolemy I Soter, former general of Alexander the Great and ruler of Egypt. At this site came together the collecting of scrolls and associated materials including art and natural specimens (mineral, botanical, animal) as well as the ancient Greek understanding of mouseion – the bringing together of the objects and learning of the muses. As such the mouseion functioned as a place where scholars and researchers could come together to learn and share ideas. The closest equivalent today would be specialised university research centres. Again the modern understanding of the museum as a place for learning, where the sharing and interpretation of objects is a primary function is evident. However, this immense collection, reportedly numbering over half a million works at its highest point, was not open to the general public. The support and funding of the mouseion by Ptolemy I Soter and his successors is an early example of the use of collections as an aspect of royal patronage and hence an additional degree of state control. Indeed, Alexandria was not the first place to utilise the mouseion. Aristotle of Stagira’s Lyceum in Athens (established approximately 335 BCE) contained a mouseion, and it was here Ptolemy I Soter was a student. The collections of the mouseion were extensive and broad. There are many other references in literature to collections of natural species, minerals and fossils, which were held in high regard for their rarity and beauty, an example being that reportedly given to Aristotle by one of his other students, Alexander the Great. Under the rule of Attalus I Soter4 (ruled 269-179 BCE) in Pergamon (present day Bergama, Turkey) there also thrived a mouseion. To this Attalus added ‘public art’, large statuary installed in public spaces, and collections for artists to learn from and copy. One of the first private collections to be dedicated to public display is often attributed to ancient Roman general Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa (63 -12 BCE) who considered that good art aught to belong to the public. There are extensive texts, past and contemporary, on the collecting and display of objects within the Roman Empire. Although this essay concentrates on the Middle East, these Roman writings give us an idea of the interest and growth of collecting and museums in the eastern Mediterranean region, where specific administrative offices were set up to oversee collections, ‘public art’, and in which existed the position of curator. Due to the degree of exchange of ideas across the eastern Mediterranean/ Middle Eastern region it is not presumptuous to posit that these practices took place in other cities as well, even though documentation of this practice is not available.

Within the early centuries of the Common Era (CE) the practice of the collection of objects for the benefit of the citizen is not recorded in the Middle East outside of informationally important objects, which were collected and preserved in either schools (madrasas) or through the waqf pious foundation philanthropic endowment system. These primarily consisted of manuscripts, miniature paintings and drawings, and natural specimens. These collections constituted libraries, based on the Alexandrian model and were prevalent across the major cities of the Islamic world including Baghdad, Cairo and Damascus.

Royal collections were, as with their western counterparts, part of the process of collecting and display as a component of power and its legitimisation. In Arabic these were called dhakhira (palace museums) and were only made available to important visiting dignitaries. From a collection of travel chronicles by eminent Arab writers between the ninth and thirteenth centuries, such as Ibn Iyas Al-Misry, Al-Hafez Ibn Hajar Al-Askalani and Al-Khateeb AlBaghdadi, dhakhira collections appear to have been extremely large and consisted predominantly of natural specimens including rare and precious stones. Documentation of these collections consists mainly of lists of objects however some do use narrative to describe the display of the objects in detail. Through court and royal documents it is also clear that Abbasid (750-1258 CE) and Fatimid (909-1171 CE) rulers amassed extensive collections of art including works made from glass, highly prized carved rock crystal, textiles and miniature paintings. Natural collections greatly aided researchers of the time in compiling texts on the natural world, most notably those by Ahmad al-Tifashi (1184-1253 CE). He utilised the collection of a Northern African dhakhira to write his text on minerals and stones and their uses, creating the most comprehensive text of its type in the Islamic Golden Age (European Middle Ages).

Unlike the monasteries and churches of the European dark and medieval periods there were no sites for collection of Muslim artistic objects. The strong importance attached by Islam to words and writing, as opposed to the Christian practice of pictures and icons, accounts for the much smaller number of artistic objects available. The extensive practice of Islamic building and architecture did not lend itself to collection, however calligraphy and the ornamentation of texts such as the Qur’an, were highly prized and respected. The commission of such texts is a parallel to the patronage in Europe of artists by rulers at the time, so routinely cited as a major contributor to art production during the Renaissance, and therefore of collections today.

One, if not the first, recorded Middle Eastern modern museum occurred in Ottoman Turkey in 1846 when Ahmet Fethi Pasha created the Armaments Museum (later called the Military Museum) in Hagia Irene5, in the grounds of the Topkapi Palace. From this time considerable effort was put in to collecting antiquities and art from across the Ottoman Empire for display in Constantinople under the direction of the Directorate of Imperial Museums. Constantinople, from the time of Emperor Constantine (272-337 CE), had received extensive collections of public art, spoils of war from the Empire’s extensive campaigns, which were, according to an edict of the time, for the “common use of the people” and to be “measured by the value of their art”6. The Directorate of Imperial Museums therefore had plenty of objects to collect. In 1881 the eminent archaeologist, writer, artist and intellectual Osman Hamdi Bey (1842-1910) became Director of Museums, and ushered in an era of museum creation and training not just in Constantinople but across the country.

Afghanistan’s Kabul Museum opened in 1924 (although the collections had been displayed as early as 1919) in the Koti Baghcha (garden pavilion) including a fine collection of illuminated manuscripts collected by Amir Habibullah Khan (ruled 1901-1919) and his brother. By far the greatest body of western literature on museums in the region centres on the creation of museums during colonial rule. A review of literature would actually suggest that it was colonialism that brought the idea of the museum to the Middle East. From the early formations of ‘national’ museums in Egypt (1880s) and Iraq (1920s), the two countries with by far the greatest literature on early Middle Eastern-based collections and museums, the works collected and exhibited were not contemporary but from the ancient past. The growing western interest in the region grew out of the belief that the civilizations of the ancient past were superior in comparison to the present. This created the preferencing of the ancient over the modern, as objects began to be used to depict the forerunners of western civilization within display, a practice still in place in many western museums today7. This preferencing still impacts contemporary art production in the Middle East, and the understanding in the west of the regions contemporary art.

A comparison of the two main artistic museums in Cairo in the early 1900s sums up many of the issues and ideas about contemporary artistic work and antiquities at the time: in 1913 the Egyptian Museum (antiquities), situated in Cairo’s central square, received six times as many visitors as the Museum of Arab Art, whose building was located off the beaten track and which cost three-quarters less to build. From this basic example one can see the manifestation of several of the social, cultural and political discourses associated with colonialism and their impact on the creation of museums and their collections in the region. Similar uses of location, collection type and expenditure have been recorded regarding museums in Iran. Colonial powers were also avid museum builders (wholly or in collaboration with local officials) in Lebanon (the American University of Beirut Museum founded in 1868 and the National Museum, started in 1923 but only opened in 1942), Morocco (Dar Batha Museum in Fez and Oudaias Museum in Rabat in the mid-1910s), Syria (National Museum first opened in 1919) and in Jerusalem (Studium Biblicum Franciscanum Archaeology Museum in 1902 and the Islamic Museum situated within the Al-Haram al-Sharif in 1923). Antiquity museums such as these allowed the west to exert authority through the presentation of their choice of cultural artefacts presented as the most valuable form of cultural creation available. The local population was therefore presented with collections from their collective history but interpreted in such a way as to make them peripheral through the forms of exhibition and collections used by the museum.

These early museums created and run by westerners paid little or no heed to local custom, society or values as forms of possible inclusion and were very much transplanted rather than hybrid institutions. Western values of taxonomy and classification were applied, anchored to western schools of scholarly disciplines, arranging history based not on the local understanding but that of western academia. Exhibition followed the style of the time and the museum’s expectations of the visitor (dress, decorum, social behaviour) were merely relocated to the new, ‘foreign’ cities. Additionally, architecture followed the western museum style of neoclassical design. From these and other examples contemporary writers in the region assert that the identity and ‘construction’ of the museum as a western institution was seen (then and now) as universally understood in the region, and (unfortunately) not questioned. Based on these models museum building continued through the mid-twentieth century with a sharp upturn starting in the mid-1970s.

Due to the Bedouin tradition and culture of the Gulf there does not appear to exist records of possible collections prior to the 1960s. Many of the museums in the Gulf today opened in the 1970s and 1980s. During the 1970’s museum openings included the Fujairah Museum in 1970 (with a new building in 1991); Dubai Museum and the Al-Ain National Museum in 1971; Omani Museum (now the Museum of Omani Heritage) in Muscat in 1974; the Qatar National Museum in 1975; and Oman’s National Museum opened in 1978. It cannot escape attention that these museums coincide with the creation of the nation state of some Gulf countries. As Suhail Bisharat has noted museums are the trophies of stability and showcases of unity, in the Middle East as in other parts of the world.

One of the most unique museums in the Gulf opened in 1980 – the Tareq Rajab Museum in Kuwait City, one of the very few private (in other words not government funded) museums in the Gulf. Due to the dedication and collecting of the museums founders, Tareq Sayed Rajab and his wife Jehan, this museum now occupies three sites in the city, with the latest addition opening in 2007 to display Islamic calligraphy. Also emerging in the 1980s was Kuwait’s National Museum in 1983; Qatar’s Folklore Museum and an art museum in 1984; the Omani Natural History Museum in 1985; Ras al-Khaimah Museum in 1987; and in 1988 the Bahrain National Museum, and the first of two Qatari ethnographic museums (the second in 1991).

A report by the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) in 1991 included a section on museums within its member states8. For its 28 members it gives a total of 543 museums: ranging from Turkey with 172 to several countries with three or less (including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and Bahrain). It is clear from the data collected by the OIC that at that time there was a large number of “archaeology and history” museums spread across the member states, by far the largest museum ‘type’ represented. For many countries in the Middle East the prevalence of archaeological sites means that the number of museums dedicated to archaeological objects is necessarily high, compounded by the summer weather discouraging the possible use of in situ display.

Since 1990 museum growth in the Gulf has not abated. Bait al Qur’an in Bahrain, opened in March 1990; Ajman Museum in 1991; the Omani-French Museum in 1992; Sharjah Archaeology Museum 1993; and the National Museum of Saudi Arabia in 1999 in Riyadh. The largest art museum in the Gulf, Sharjah Art Museum was opened in 1997, and now comprises one of the 17 museums in the emirate of Sharjah. This level of museological commitment by Sharjah must have been a major contributor to the emirate being chosen as the UNESCO Cultural Capital of the Arab World for 1998. Recent additions to the Gulf’s civic society include the magnificent Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, and the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization (which not only features art but also faith and science collections). Both museums opened in 2008. Several museums originally opened in the 1970s and 1980s have also received new, larger homes due to the growth of collections and the need to accommodate growing audiences. An example is Sharjah’s Maritime Museum, whose new waterfront building opened in June 2009. In-progress projects such as the Oman Botanic Garden, approximately 30km from Muscat, near Seeb, will feature exhibition spaces, educational programmes and materials that all build on their extensive living collections.

And these are only some of the larger institutions – many historic houses, forts, dhows, schools, heritage and harbour areas, and even an airport (Al Mahatta Museum, Sharjah) are now open to the public. Museums range from natural history, to heritage and ethnography, to military and police collections, to numismatics and banking, to science centres. One of the difficulties with the research of institutions within the Gulf is the lack of readily available information on their foundation and history. Hopefully greater availability online of information on museums will allow for greater knowledge outside the region on what is already well established.

I work in museums because I like what and why they collect, and what they have the potential to offer audiences. The more, the merrier. The Gulf will undoubtedly benefit in many ways from the large, new museums being built over the next few years, whether in collaboration with western museums or not. However, it should not be presumed that bigger (or newer) is better. Many museums, and entire museum systems, exist around the world that are not imitations of western versions, most successfully in the Pacific Rim. Christina Kreps has termed this ‘appropriate museology’9: systems and practices that incorporate local, regional, and global best practice in order to create museums for their unique cultural context and designed to better serve their specific region’s audiences. The western museum, though certainly the dominant version, is oneof the versions of the museum, not the version. Existing museums in the Gulf already play an important role in the cultural fabric of society – education, conservation, research, commerce and tourism, and entertainment – due in large part to the understanding and inclusion of local sensibilities combined with components of the global nature of the Gulf today. Hopefully the museums that will open in the Gulf over the next few years will value and incorporate what has already been achieved, and therefore writers will look a little deeper and see the ‘cultural depth’ already in place.


1 Cocks, A. S. ‘The Louvre’s loans to Abu Dhabi are soft power in action’, The Art Newspaper, no. 177, February 2007, p. 30

2 Developed by Dr. Howard Gardner, Harvard University, the theory of multiple intelligences posits that all humans have multiple ways of understanding the world and multiple abilities. For overview see Smith, M. K. ‘Howard Gardner and multiple intelligences’, The Encyclopaedia of Informal Education, http://www.infed.org/thinkers/gardner.htm.. (2008)

3 Nanna was the moon god of Ur; know as Sin to the Babylonians. A full account of the archaeological dig that uncovered the museum can be found at Woolley, L. & P. R. Moorey. Ur ‘of the Chaldees’, (London: Herbert Press Ltd., 1982)

4 ‘Soter’, although used as a surname, means Savior. Ptolemy and Attalus were not related.

5 This site is often incorrectly referred to as St. Irene. The military museum was housed at this site until 1978, when the site was handed over to the Culture Ministry.

6 See Bassett, S. G. ‘Excellent offerings: The Lausos Collection in Constantinople’ Art Bulletin, no. 82, vol. 1, p. 6-25.

7 For example, the British Museum, London, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. In both museums visitors’ first choices of galleries are ancient (in the Met, Egyptian Art to the right of the main entrance and Greek and Roman to the left.)

8 Cultural Dimensions of Development in the OIC Member States, Ihsanoglu, E. ed. (Istanbul, Turkey: Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture (IRCICA), 1991). It is clear from the data in the OIC report and the list of museums in Gulf countries in this paper that there is some discrepancy in numbers. However, notes that accompany the OIC data indicate that information was compiled from a variety of sources (not directly from each country) and some data was collected as early as 1988.

9 Kreps, C. F. ‘Appropriate museology in theory and practice’, Museum Management and Curatorship journal, vol. 23, no. 1, March 2008, p. 23-41. See also Kreps, C. F. Liberating Culture: Cross-Cultural Perspectives on Museum, Curation and Heritage Preservation (London: Routledge, 2003)

Published in 2A Magazine Issue 13

Other resources:
Abranches, H. ‘Museums and Cultural Identity’, Museums for a Developing World: Proceedings of the 13th General Conference and 14th General Assembly of the International Council of Museums, London, 24 July – 2 August 1983, p. 19-31 (The Netherlands: International Council of Museums, 1983)
Bisharat, S. ‘Museums, Collections and Collecting in the Arab World’, The International Journal of Museum Management and Curatorship, vol. 4, no. 3, September 1985, p. 279-287
Malt, C. Women’s Voices in Middle East Museums: case studies in Jordan (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2005)
Mozaffari, A. ‘Modernity and Identity’, Museum Revolutions: How museums change and are changed, Knell, S.J. & S. MacLeod et al, eds. (Oxon: Routledge, 2007)
Musées, Civilisation et Développement (Paris: Conseil International des Musées, 1994)
Önder, M. The Museums of Turkey (Ankara: Türkiye Ìs Bankasi Cultural Publications, 1983)
Reid, D. M. Whose Pharaohs? Archaeology, Museums, and Egyptian National Identity from Napoleon to World War 1 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002)
Rharib, S. ‘Taking stock of Moroccan Museums’, Museum International, vol. 58, no. 1-2, 2006, p. 97-103
Wehr, H. Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic 4th edition, Cowan, J. M. ed. (Ithaca: Spoken Languages Services, by permission of Wiesbaden, Germany: Otto Harrassowitz, 1994)
Zeitgenössische Kunst der “Fünf” aus den Vereinigten Arabischen Emiraten (Aachen: Ludwig Forum für Internationale Kunst, 2002)

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