Approaching the cubistic building along a path of luscious palm trees, I knew there was something special inside this Museum. In my travels across the Mid-East, there was an alarming dearth of cultural artifacts. The National Museum in Kuwait City was appalling, and impossible to find, as well. The excuses for cultural artifacts were dark dioramas of ‘life’ in these countries from the nineteenth century – mannequins leaning over fires making jewelry or molding tools, somehow providing some insight into their history; sadly this was the case as well in Dubai. I pondered why a culture of many thousands of years was so poorly represented. Was it the Bedouin lifestyle or the tribal aesthetic or possibly the harsh environment that created this vacuum? Possibly all three. The relatively youth of these ‘re-drawn’ nations may contribute to this lack of historical reference.
Occasionally, as in The Citadel in Amman, the modest but fascinating museum atop the Roman hillside, contained metal works, pottery and artifacts of life over several thousands of years was engaging.
But in Doha, The Museum of Islamic Art was a show-stopper! As soon as one entered the airy interior courtyard of the Museum, (opened in 2008) one knew a master architect created this, and indeed it was, I. M. Pei. (I had to ask the reception desk immediately!)
At once awe-inspiring, influenced by ancient Islamic architecture, and welcoming, it draws one to the water beyond its massive five-story window, overlooking the impressive skyline of Doha, located on the Corniche –posing on the Arabian Gulf on a man made peninsula. A very dramatic setting indeed.
The interiors were designed by another firm, aside from the major features, general lighting, staircases and crossing balconies, Jean Michele Wilmonde, of Paris. I confess to being a museum freak, and always seek them out around the world; I feel it is a bellwether of a city.
Sumptuous interiors of a corrugated-styled (ridges pulled apparently by hand) concrete walls, bordered by wenge (native of central Africa) wood panels, delineate the niches displaying often a single artifact with dramatic lighting, was a breath-taking artistic experience. Each Section on the sides open up to a refreshing light filled atrium of the center court, a respite created by the gifted Pei. The collection was only recently acquired in the last twenty years, and ranged from Early Islamic art of the 7 – 12th Centuries to a contemporary exhibition of women’s influence in Qajar Women: Images of Women in the 19th century Iran, shown in photographs.
The collection is very strong in ceramics, glass and metal works. The work is both religious and secular in nature, which provides a rich insight into the culture from which it came. The sources are vast, from China (textiles and ceramics), Central Asia, India, even Spain under the Moorish occupation, as well as many places in the Middle East, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey.
Both the collection, and the museum itself, are remarkable. One supports the other in this dialogue so infrequently found in contemporary museums. The fashion, dating from the nineties, of architecture first, then collection was found in many cities, from the Centre George Pompidou in Paris, to the Seattle and San Francisco’s museums paraded rising atriums at the expense of wall space and ‘invitability.’ Hopefully the soon to open extension of the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco will correct this dilemma. But this gem by Pei, does in fact sport a souring atrium, but not at the expense of wall space and ease of viewing. There is enough room here for both dimensions, and such a wonderful viewing experience, I was lost there for hours.