Museum of Islamic art in Doha

We talk to Michelle Walton, head of research at the Museum of Islamic Art, about the new Unseen Treasures exhibition, on until the end of Ramadan

Museum of Islamic art in Doha

There are 50 items on show as part of the exhibition. What are they and how are they organised?
The new items on display include woodwork, manuscripts, glass, textiles, ceramics, jewellery and precious objects, metalwork and arms. At the moment, many of the new objects are placed a bit randomly within the permanent exhibitions. Some immediately confront the visitors as soon as they walk into the gallery space, while others challenge them to notice something different. After a period of time, some will be moved and some will remain on exhibition, settling in comfortably within a thematic or historical display.

How do these items differ from the other collections?
Essentially, because only so many items can be displayed at a time, there are always some great themes and objects left to be explored. For example, the great wooden Moroccan arch in the introduction gallery; this single item has three aspects we could expand upon – Northern African culture, architectural elements and historically later periods in Islamic art. Several items are exceptionally different in this way.

Why is the exhibition called Unseen Treasures? Have these items never been seen before?

There are one or two items that actually have been either published or briefly exhibited, which isn’t surprising since they have a long history, but having new items is only a small part of the installation idea. The whole concept behind Unseen Treasures has more to do with taking a very close look at these new items, in seeing the details. The details tell more of the story of the object and the culture that created it. People will immediately notice a new object, but take a further step by having a closer look.

What is the message of the exhibition and what do you hope it will teach people?
Hopefully, people will see things with new eyes and learn something new about a people hundreds of years in the past – that seems to be the obvious answer, but it is presented by way of discovery. Curiosity should be encouraged and nurtured, to see details about the recent additions and also the older displays. Perhaps we can inspire visitors to make new connections even beyond our presentations and ideas.

What is the oldest item you have on display?
With these new items, the earliest pieces are glass vessels from the ninth century. As a glass specialist, I am very excited the museum has acquired these early and rare pieces, and am pleased to be able to introduce them to the public in this way.

Any unusual items on display? Anything people might be surprised to see?
There are several very rare pieces one would be challenged to find in other places, like the grand set of Mongolian ladies’ clothing, made from cloth of gold and silk, or the Abbasid floor tile in glass. One of the great stars, though, is the carved and painted beam from Umayyad Spain; with painstaking efforts in conservation, an amazing and lively scene has been uncovered. The detail of the figures in action is like nothing I’ve seen before.

What can you tell us about the children’s activities?
During Ramadan, the museum decided to have some late-night openings, so we naturally wanted to have something special for the children. Since our goal with this exhibition is about discovery, we have treasure trails with clues to find the new objects. For the month of Ramadan, with each trail completed, the treasure trail map is officially stamped and each winner has the chance to win prizes in a nightly draw.

Do you have any items on display from Qatar?
Not with this exhibition. Every now and again, visitors will be able to see a few pieces mixed into temporary exhibits at the museum, but I believe the upcoming National Museum of Qatar and the archaeological and heritage sites will have the majority of their displays solely dedicated to the display of items from Qatar.

Tell us how you are working with Bloomsbury. When will the book about Unseen Treasures be out?
Bloomsbury, in association with Qatar Foundation, has been working closely with us to produce the catalogue for the exhibition, soon to be coming to our gift shop. We hope to have the opportunity to work with Bloomsbury again in the future.

Why is it important for artefacts from Islamic culture to be displayed like this?

Museums are living entities, not just pretty things in glass cases, and each object has a story to tell about the culture they represent. The museum should be driven towards education, research and conservation, but deliver it to the public in an entertaining way with programmes for all ages and levels. In learning about Islamic culture, we learn about the culture of the world – one more piece of the story of our humanity.
Unseen Treasures runs until September 15. Ramadan opening times for the museum are Sun, Mon, Wed 10am-2pm; Thu, Sat 10am-2pm, 8pm-11pm; Tue, Fri closed

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