Jutting out at the start of the Corniche is Qatar’s extraordinary, new national museum. It is symbolically placed as the starting point of your journey into the heartbeat of downtown Doha and as the previous historic home to the son of the founder of Qatar, Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim Al Thani in the early 20th century. The museum opened its doors to the public on March 28 and we’ve taken a tour through one of Qatar’s most exquisite creations yet to bring you the essential ins and outs.
Built on history
A portion of the site of the new museum is dedicated to the extensive restoration of the former palace of Jassim Al Thani. Built in the early 1900s, it is a national symbol and was part of the former national museum that existed on the same site from 1975 to 1996. Former residences and a mosque can be viewed and going forward the space will host a number of special programmes and events.
The interior of the new national museum tells the story of Qatar in three distinct chapters: Beginnings, Life in Qatar and Building the Nation. Presented across 11 galleries, the visitor’s chronological journey, which extends more than 1.5km starts in the geological period, long before the peninsula was inhabited by humans, and continues to the present day.
The Beginnings take us back to 700 million years ago to explore the biological and geological evolution of the Qatar peninsula. Fossils of long extinct plants and animals are delicately exhibited on display, along with a display of an ancient meteorite that crash-landed in the desert long ago. Life size models of indigenous plants and animals, from the oryx, sandcat and the rather friendly sounding deathstalker scorpion can be seen. A breath-taking film by Jacques Perrin envelopes you into the desert and the sea. Five years in the making, it is unique to the museum and this gallery.
A treasure trove of archaeological artefacts also shows the day-to-day life of Qatar’s inhabitants thousands of years ago in the thriving towns and settlements during the 1500s.
Life in Qatar
At the heart of Qatar’s story is its people. The history and traditions of Qatar’s nomadic past is illustrated beautifully through rare archived images showing Qataris trading, searching for water, hunting and diving for pearls. Rare artefacts from the shipwreck of the Cirebon show the kind of merchandise that was traded and sought after more than 1,000 years ago.
Expect to find everything from a stunning recreation of a sandstorm to a beautifully shot film enacting the life of a traditional family in their desert home. The gallery is a multi-sensory experience, with displays of traditional sadu weaving, the image and sound (but thankfully not the smell) of herding camels, cooking utensils, the sound and harmony of poetry and the aroma of coffee brewing that transports you to a different era. This particular gallery was the result of a two-year consultation and workshops with the local community to create as authentic an experience as possible.
Qatar’s rich history also includes coastal tribes. The life by the sea exhibit includes a scale model of Al Zubarah Fort and a short film by Abderrahmane Sissako that captures the hustle and bustle of life there in the 18th and 19th centuries. Alongside this gallery is a jaw-dropping visual projection of the dangerous, exhilarating experience of pearl diving.
The pearling industry was so prominent as Qatar’s trading link to the rest of the world that it takes centre stage in this area. A unique national treasure made in 1865, the pearl carpet of Baroda, with its 1.5 million pearls adorned with emeralds, diamonds and sapphires, is a must-see.
Building the nation
The final set of galleries share the story of Qatar’s society from the 1500s to the present day. The tales of historic figures from Qatar’s past history from Rahmah Bin Jaber and Isa Bin Tarif to the Al Thani founders of modern Qatar are shared for the new generation. Archived documents and historical maps enrich the visitor experience.
A second space shares the transition of Qatar from its reliance on the pearling industry to the discovery of oil. A stunning sculpture by renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei symbolises the discovery of oil in 1939.
In the adjacent gallery, John Sanborn’s alchemy is projected onto 30 high resolution monitors, displaying the significance of Qatar’s discovery of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) and its significance to the urban boom and prosperity of modern day Qatar.
Careful thought has been put into the experience for visitors with disabilities. As well as the multi-sensory nature of the galleries, exhibits also have detailed descriptions in braille. The buildings are absent of any staircases, with gentle, sloping floors that guide you fluidly from one end to the other.
Learning is fun
Multimedia work-stations are found at various points in the galleries, offering a chance for intergenerational learning. Both children and adults can explore key themes from the galleries and experience the subject matter in a tactile way. The museum has worked closely with the Supreme Education Council to ensure that learning spaces have activities tailored to the Qatar history aspect of the national curriculum.
The National Museum also hosts artwork from a number of emerging talents in the Qatari art scene. We speak to Bouthayna Al Muftah whose work Kan Ya Ma Kaan is located in the café with the same name. “My work is all about reconstructing past experiences into a contemporary setting. The name 875 refers to ‘Thahab’, the 875 gold (21 karat) that is crafted for traditional ceremonies in Qatar. The movement and sound of the jewellery is incorporated into the artwork,” she says.
Adorning the walls in the café area are phrases in the local Khaleeji dialect that mimic snapshots of everyday conversations. The café is a testament to Qatari-inspired cuisine in a contemporary setting.
Artistic detail is abundant in the museum, from the curved wooden free-flow of the gift shop to where geometry meets geology in the black-circled ceilings in the Beginnings gallery.
The desert rose
You may have wondered what the inspiration is behind the unique shape of the building. Jean Nouvel, world-renowned French architect and designer of this dramatic addition to Qatar’s landscape, tells us of his vision for the museum and what it represents. “The idea behind the museum was inspired eight years ago. It is a dialogue between ancient and modern and the system of blades that you see are interlocking at random in the way that the desert shapes the desert rose,” says Nouvel. “The construction system is efficient and logical and the whole building has a unitary ‘skin’. When you enter, the walls and ceilings are oblique and the future space has the appearance of being in ever-changing flux,” he further explains. He also adds, “The museum is separated into fragments that are waiting to be discovered and put together.”
A feast for the senses
The museum is an exemplary demonstration of the latest cutting-edge technology. Images and videos create an aesthetic that enrich your experience. You will also notice there is no music in the museum but natural sounds fill the spaces and immerse you. The interior of the blades become curved screens with incredible tailor-made projections which fill the wall spaces from top to bottom.
Eat, shop, play
As well as Café 875, the museum hosts the Desert Rose café and Jiwan restaurant on the upper levels with beautiful panoramic views of the sea.
The museum is well-stocked with gift shops with plenty of educational items for parents and teachers including souvenirs, activity books and games. For grown-ups, there is a selection of exclusive merchandise by several Qatari designers.
Surrounding the main building is a gorgeous park with concrete dunes, planted areas for children and a 900 metre-long lagoon. Over a hundred fountains are surrounded by Arabic calligraphy in Jean-Michel Othoniel’s ALFA art installation.
Open Sat-Thu 9am-7pm; Fri 1.30pm-7pm. National Museum of Qatar, Museum Park Street, Corniche
Street (4452 5555).
Sq m of landscaped parkland surrounding the museum
Sq m of projection surfaces
The length of the building in metres
Seats in the auditorium
Fountains in the ALFA installation by artist Jean-Michel Othoniel
Pearls adorning the famous Pearl Carpet of Baroda