Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Museum Bridges the Cultural Gap between East and West

Photo Courtesy: Museum of Islamic Art

By: Sally Ann Cruikshank

The building rises out of the bay, its unique angles carving a new shape in the Doha skyline. It is the new $300 million Museum of Islamic Art, commonly referred to MIA. It represents not only a change in the aesthetic of the Qatar city, but also a shift in the country’s future as a cultural hub of the Middle East.

The Museum opened its doors to the public in December 2008, and one visitor calls it a “treasure of ancient Islamic history.” The MIA’s design is the work of renowned Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei, who designed the glass pyramids that are now part of the Louvre in Paris, France. The Museum sits on a man-made island in Doha Harbor because Pei did not want any other structures to compete with it.

Pei’s task was to blend the Islamic traditions of the past with modern architecture. Nesma Adb Elaziz, an editor for IslamOnline.net who visited MIA to cover its inauguration says Pei has succeeded. “In every corner you will find both styles going side by side,” says Elaziz.

It is that blending of Islamic tradition and modern ideals which authorities in Qatar hope will translate into a learning experience for visitors to MIA. Inside the Museum, more than 14 centuries of Islamic art and culture are on display, a collection over a decade in the making. Philip Beech, editor of the Qatar Visitor website, says the country’s Emir and his wife want to emphasize Islam as a humanitarian religion and “emphasizing the artistic and scientific achievements of Islam adds another facet to this.”

It is a notion that struck Roxanne Piper Davis, a U.S. expatriate living in Qatar, when she visited MIA for the first time. She calls the Museum a “unique place that allows Muslims and non-Muslims to appreciate their religion and culture at the same time.” “One of my favorite pieces is a picture of the Virgin Mary with Arabic Calligraphy written at the top: ‘There is no God but God,’” Beech says. “There’s speculation that this is meant to emphasize the similarities between Islam and Christianity.”

The opening of MIA could mean more people will get to experience those similarities. The Museum is the first step in Qatar’s plan to become a tourist destination. Elaziz says it is a plan that’s working. “The museum has already attracted the attention of the whole world, with its grand design and extravagant inauguration,” she says. “It gives an opportunity to Qatar to establish itself as a cultural center after being labeled as an oil rich state for a long time.”

Beech says preparations are already underway across Qatar to prepare for an increase in international visitors. A new, larger airport is under construction and more hotel rooms are being built. He says the hope is people will come to see MIA and stay to enjoy the other attractions in the area, such as the singing sand dunes, camel racing, and world-class golf courses.

The curators are already working to make MIA more appealing, by partnering with the British Museum and other museums around the world to display its rare works of art. The Qatar Museums Authority has also announced plans to open a library inside MIA next to an educational center. Piper Davis says it all could lead to a greater understanding between the East and West. “We obviously cannot expect MIA to solve major conflicts, but perhaps it will contribute at least to a small level of understanding and tolerance.”

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