DUBAI—Culture has been in Manal Ataya’s heart since childhood, so it was a dream come true when she became director of museums in Sharjah, the first city in the Gulf region to be named Arab Capital of Culture.
As a child she traveled around the world with her family. “I’d be in Europe in different places and I would start to think, ‘Oh, it’s so nice to work in a place like this, how lovely would it be for this to be your place of work.’ It just seemed like a dream kind of a job,” she said.
Later she studied fine arts in New York before taking a Master’s in Museum Studies at Harvard, one of a handful of such programs available at the time.
“It’s a much more popular degree now,” she says. “It’s a lot more diversified and it’s taken more seriously.”
“People realize that actually if you want to run a museum, you can’t just be someone who is an art historian, you have to have a lot of knowledge in all areas from education to technology, finance to business planning and fund-raising.”
Finance, diversification and education have been key elements of the strategy of Sharjah since it was named Cultural Capital of the Arab World by Unesco in 1998—a strategy that Ataya pursued after she moved to the Emirate 15 years ago.
“The concept of the museum (as) an educational space was there when I arrived,” she said, noting that the ruler of Sharjah had an academic background as a historian. “Being someone who is very in tune with the importance of cultural heritage and art, it was important to ensure young people were involved,” she said.
Supplementing School Education
The ruler, Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, “felt that the museums have to supplement the current education of the U.A.E. … He was very well versed on the curriculum of what was being taught in schools, in the U.A.E. in general and in Sharjah, and he knew that there were gaps.”
It became compulsory for schools to include museum visits but also for museums to be informal learning spaces where children can learn about multiculturalism and emotional expression through art.
Ataya’s role was pivotal: “to hire more people, more specialists, trained education specialists to deliver programs, to start creating and designing programs for children and for families,” she says.