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.
Training teachers to use museums as a resource and filling gaps in the curriculum were key. About 10 years ago, more youth programs were launched to meet the needs of teenagers.
More recently, access has improved for those with disabilities, including programs for the blind, deaf and autistic, in English and Arabic.
“In the last 10 years, we’ve really intensified the variety and the audiences that we now work with. And, of course, as you can imagine, with time we have had stronger links with universities, with other community groups and organizations. It’s been very effective.”Manal Ataya
Director general of the Sharjah Museums Authority
“In the last 10 years, we’ve really intensified the variety and the audiences that we now work with,” she says. “And, of course, as you can imagine, with time we have had stronger links with universities, with other community groups and organizations. It’s been very effective.”
A Leading Cultural Space
Ataya says it is immensely fulfilling to make museums more accessible and allow children and youth to develop not only educationally but emotionally and socially.
“I want everyone to have the chance to do as much as they can and to do so for free,” she says.
“Money often is another barrier,” which is why families can enter museums with no charge during Eid and national holidays.
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Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, an expert on Emirati cultural affairs and a visiting lecturer at Boston College and and at SciencesPo, Paris, says Ataya’s innovative ideas have helped the emirate thrive.
He cited her “Museums Express” project, which saw a bus converted into a mobile museum touring Sharjah, and the collaboration between the Vatican and Sharjah’s Museum of Islamic Civilization in 2014.
“These and other exhibitions have positioned Sharjah Art Museum as one of the leading cultural spaces in the region,” he said. (See a related article, “What Art Can Teach Us About the Arab World.”)
A Place Where Artists Want to Be
The United Arab Emirates has evolved enormously in the past 15 years. When Ataya came to Sharjah, the emirate was already established, but her home town of Dubai had just one museum and a handful of galleries, while Abu Dhabi was focused on its Cultural Foundation.
Since then, the Louvre Abu Dhabi has opened and a host of international art fairs and shows have taken place.
“Tireless creative endeavors have evolved and enriched the cultural scene and knowledge in the past 15 years.”Zaki Aslan
Regional representative of the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property
Ataya describes the Emirates as “probably the most innovative” and the fasting growing country in the region culturally. She acknowledges that some other Gulf countries “have done a lot of great work but maybe in different areas.”
The cultural development of the U.A.E. has been helped by the government’s putting money and resources behind it and by its stability, which encourages organizations to set up in the country.
“Artists also feel like this is a place that they can express what they’re doing and with a lot more freedom perhaps than in other places,” Ataya says. “If you’re in a place that has a lot going on in terms of the artistic and cultural landscape and you’re a creative person, that’s where you want to be.”
Among those who have praised her work is Zaki Aslan, regional representative of the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property. Ataya’s “tireless creative endeavors have evolved and enriched the cultural scene and knowledge in the past 15 years,” he said.
Ataya feels hopeful for the cultural future of the region.
“I see more and more commitments to helping revive culture and arts in other neighboring countries,” she said.
“The U.A.E. is also very good at helping through diplomacy to work with other Arab nations and help them either restore cultural heritage or help with different things, so I think that’s also very important that we try to help one another as well.”