As the football World Cup draws visitors to present-day Doha, the Museum of Islamic Art reopens with an expanded vision and presentation of Islamic history.
DOHA, Qatar — As the world’s attention shifts to present-day Qatar for the World Cup in late November, the country’s pre-eminent museum is hoping to direct interest to the region’s past.
Besides the addition of eight brand-new soccer stadiums, the reopening of the history-steeped Museum of Islamic Art represents a bit of national moxie as Qatar, the first Arab state to host the World Cup, prepares for the global spotlight.
The museum, known as MIA (or “MEE-uh,” as the locals pronounce it), is poised to emerge again after a major reassessment of its focus.
“The local audience learns about the history of Islam with an eye toward the future,” she said. “But for the international audience, this is where they learn about the Islamic world, past and present.”
That international audience is about to get much bigger. Qatar is expecting more than a million visitors for the World Cup, which runs from Nov. 20 to Dec. 18. As the museum’s global audience is positioned to grow, it made perfect sense to expand its permanent collection of more than 1,000 artifacts.
The mixture of past and present have been part of the 376,740-square-foot museum’s mission since it opened in 2008 when the architect I.M. Pei was brought out of retirement to design the building, which sits on a man-made island off the main Doha waterfront. But the minimalism of the museum’s original presentation has been rethought for the digital age. For instance, a three-dimensional tour was added to the museum’s website, one step in its augmentation.
The relaunch is also allowing museum officials to try to tie together the many strands of Islamic history — ancient and recent — and reinforce the scope and impact that Islamic culture has had on much of the planet.
“On the one hand our first audience is Qatar because I believe that museums have a local mission,” she added. “But this is the only museum in the Middle East that covers the Islamic world. Most other museums focus on Islam in their countries.”
The new assortment of galleries will include carpets, textiles, arms and armor, manuscripts, ceramics, stone, glass, wood, ivory, and metalwork. Some highlights include artifacts from the Cirebon shipwreck off Indonesia and fragments from an early Quran in Hijazi text.
The main galleries focus on three empires: the Ottomans in what is today Turkey (depicted through Iznik pottery and tile work), the Safavids in Iran (focusing on carpets and textiles), and the Mughals in South Asia (with an emphasis on the jewelry collection). And in a departure from other museums of Islamic art, there are galleries dedicated to China and Southeast Asia.
The museum’s permanent collection ends in the 19th century, allowing it to sidestep modern politics and most Islamic fissures.
The museum, which is overseen by Qatar Museums, a government agency, was closed for 18 months for the renovation (the cost is undisclosed). The building has not been expanded but, rather, repurposed to create more gallery space.
The museum has also added features intended to fascinate young visitors.
“Children can hold an astrolabe and maneuver and point at a star, and a constellation will appear,” said Shaikh Nasser al Nassr, deputy director of curatorial affairs for the museum. “They can magnify a coin or manuscript. We have a smelling station where children can learn about the trade of spices through smell or create their palace in the Andalus gallery.”
The museum’s first exhibition after the reopening, “Baghdad: Eye’s Delight,” runs Oct. 26 to Feb. 25 and charts the city’s heritage from the Abbasid caliphs in the first and second centuries to today. Objects are on loan from 22 institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It’s the kind of exhibit that reflects the museum’s global ambitions.
“A museum is a place for learning, research, and education, and our students use the library constantly because the museum is not only about art but also culture and people,” said Akel Ismail Kahera, professor of Islamic architecture and urbanism at Hamad Bin Khalifa University near Doha. “It has a global perspective. Not just the Arab world, but the Muslim world. The museum educates people on a global scale.”
That education is all about the story of Islam for Ms. Gonnella, who emphasized that many visitors may not understand the global reach of Islam.
“We tell the story of how Islam spread, both to the east in Central Asia, Baghdad, and elsewhere,” she explained. “Then we move toward the west into Africa and Spain and the so-called golden age there.
“But we also include the Indian Ocean region and Southeast Asia,” she said. “This is new for MIA. We have so many residents in Qatar from that part of the world, and it’s very populated with Muslims. We wanted to include that story.”
Part of the new experience, she said, will not be just about viewing but also listening. Audio features will include a focus on the Quran’s history and influence.
“Art is not only an object but also the music of language and poetry,” Ms. Gonnella said. “For example, we have sound included in the Quran display room. You can hear the Quran. We also have poetry, the ‘Shahnameh,’ from Iran,” she added, referring to the epic poem written more than a thousand years ago that recounts the mythological history of ancient Persia.
Ms. Gonnella believes it’s the ideal time for this relaunch, allowing the past to meet the future in the weeks leading up to the World Cup.
“You want to know your past when you look to the future,” she said.
Originally published on www.nytimes.com