Museum and Identity by MONA BIN HUSSAIN

All my life I knew that I wanted to be a teacher, however, the museum field chose me to be part of it as an educator. My story started after finishing my Education degree, I got an offer to work for Sharjah Museums Department in the Education and Interpretation field. At first I didn’t fully understand what I was supposed to be doing. Now looking back one year on I can say that I have a strong passion for museums. This came from my awareness that museums strengthen my identity, culture and tradition.

As a child I have a vague memory of visiting museums with my family or with school. I believe that many children in the United Arab Emirates have a similar experience. Museums were introduced to the local society about 4 decades ago, and people did not fully understand their role in preserving and protecting things we most care about. For instance, the first museum to open in the United Arab Emirates was Al Ain National Museum, founded in 1969. We need museums to capture history because of the rapid speed of time and development in our country. Citizens are trying to keep track of what is happening around them. Therefore, we are in need of living museums where our past comes alive to inspire our

future. Our identity stands both in the past and in the future.

Museums have a major role in protecting, exploring and conserving our heritage. Moreover, museums now are required to take on a variety of social functions -including social inclusion, lifelong learning and recognizing different group identities. They have a vital role to support and interpret local and international cultures and identities. If this role was accomplished successfully people within the societies will use museums as a place to learn and entertain. Identity is a broad concept and individuals need to discover ways to empower their own identities. Museums can help in this process as it can be a place of creativity and inspiration. Local and national museums can help individuals to know more about their heritage, culture and how people lived in the past and try to link this with their present and future. This is in line with the late Sheikh Zayed’s belief that people without a past can neither have a present nor a future. Interviews with Emirati nationals revealed that, for nearly half of them, a key indication of national identity is their common cultural values and traditions (YouGovSiraj, 2008) Personally within my work in the museums’ field I noticed that most of the Emirati UAE have a misconception of the aim of museums and what they contain. Traditionally museums mean “Heritage Museums” to most of the people. They have objects linked to the past and stories from and about different parts of the Emirates. The concept of museums has developed in the region and many museums opened across the Emiratesin the 90s. People need to be aware that museums represent their culture, tradition, art, history, science, technology, astronomy and many more.

Museums and identity

In 1890, William James defined identity as the self in being both the known self (me) and the self as knower (1). He said:

“In its widest possible sense, however, a man’s Self is the sum total of all that he can call his, not only his body and his psychic powers, but his cloths and his house, his wife and children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and works, his land and horses and yacht and back account. All

these things give him the same emotion. If they wax and prosper, he feels triumphant; if they dwindle and die away, he feels cast down”. (James, 1890).

Identity provides motivation during a museum visit in many ways. Visitors can imagine themselves and what they could be artist, scientist, explorers and others. They see different and new life examples in museums (Genoways, 2006). Children mostly like to imagine different future roles for themselves. Moreover, Identity can be developed through culture, heritage, tradition, environment and personal experience. Museums have a major responsibility to help individuals to find their own identities. Visitors can visit museums and see its collections and link it to their own life and culture.

Under the leadership and patronage of His Highness Dr. Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah and Member of the Supreme Council, Sharjah Museums Department was created in 2006. The main vision of Sharjah Museums Department is to preserve the rich legacy of arts, heritage and culture in Sharjah. Sharjah Museums also cover the arts, Islamic culture and history, heritage and history of Sharjah and the region, archaeology, science, children’s learning and natural history.

Giving three examples of how Sharjah Museums can develop a person’s identity will give a full understanding of the importance of these museums for every individual.

In 1997 Sharjah Archaeology Museum was opened for the public and the main mission of the museum is “to preserve, interpret, and exhibit its collections and to disseminate knowledge about them in a manner that encourages appreciation, learning, and enjoyment of Sharjah’s archaeological heritage”. The museum gallery is divided into five time periods. It allows the visitors to walk through time from the Stone Age to the Greater Arabia It is fascinating to see visitors’ reactions when they learn that there were early civilizations in the Sharjah region. Sharjah Archaeology Museum contains inscriptions, manuscripts and objects from Mleiha culture which is considered to be one of the most important archaeological sites in South Arabia. Amr Fahed, sculpture teacher at Sharjah Art Institute, was amazed at the collection he saw and wants to encourage his students to come and explore the history of sculptures and drawing in Sharjah from Sharjah Archaeology Museum.

Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization was reopened in 2008 to give the public an opportunity to discover Islamic culture and history closely. The mission of this museum is to “stimulate knowledge, appreciation and enjoyment of Islamic art, history, science and culture”. For example, a visitor in his 20s from Fujairah came to Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization to see the museum galleries and collections. He was amazed by the collection and ínventions made by Muslims. Therefore, this created, for him, a strong belief about his identity as a Muslim.

Sharjah Maritime Museum was reopened in 2009 and its mission is“ to preserve and interpret the stories and material evidence of the Emirate’s rich maritime heritage”. Many traditional jobs disappear because the change in lifestyle and one of these jobs is pearl diving. Pearl diving was very important for people living on the shore of Sharjah and many of our grandparents used to work as pearl divers. The Maritime Museum gives the new generation the chance to see how hard our ancestors worked for living. The museum gives its visitors the full story of Al Khan village which is one of the oldest fishing and pearl diving places in the emirates of Sharjah.

These three museums are only an example of how Sharjah Museums can help to build individual personalities and identities. Mainly, it helps to develop Arabic, Islamic and Emirati identity. Visitors are also exposed to different aspects of science, art, marine life and natural history.

Interviewing four locals has strengthened my point of view of the huge impact that museums have on identity. Ali Al Louz is 33 years old male working as a banker said that he is a museum visitor and he has an ongoing interest and passion for knowledge of history and the development of civilizations. His best museum experience is The Louvre museum in Paris where he had the chance to see international art works. He strongly believes in the role of museums to develop and maintain any nation’s identity. Nevertheless, it is about the content of the museum and the way it has been defined to represent certain culture. Once the museum is treated as an exhibition area to hang some relatively old pictures and some scattered old stuff, it will then lose the spirit of the place and one can hardly link it to his origins and history, and it will accordingly leave the main purpose behind.

Sahar Abdulla, 27 years, chief accountant, has a great passion for international museums. She has been to most museums in Paris and London but none in United Arab Emirates. Sahar is not sure how museums can develop her personality, however, she thinks it will help her to understand and have an idea of how the past was and how rich our culture is.

Abdul Aziz Al Nuaimi, 44 years, is the CEO of Al Ihsan Charity. He thinks that museums opened his mind about history, tradition, heritage, art and environment. This has helped him to continue learning, understanding and respect for the past and appreciating the present and to be ready for the tomorrow.

Maryam Alsuhool, 26 years old, Reservation Manager is not a museums visitor, however would not mind going if she was invited. She thinks that people in United Arab Emirates do not have an interest in museums. When Maryam travels she often goes to museums and she recalled a visit to an Egyptian museum where she learned about mummies and applied what she saw in her college research. She believes that museums have a vital role in developing ones personality but museums need to be more focused on this message.

The four people that I have interviewed came from different backgrounds and age groups but they all agree on the importance of museums, but the question is why they do not visit local museums? Nowadays people have started to reflect more on heritage and culture. Arts and culture can be developed easily in our country. There are many places which acquire, conserve and present art heritage and culture in its all forms whether tangible or intangible. Museums are one of the most important places to do so. This will help to protect a strong personal identity while dealing with modernity.

Published in 2A Magazine Issue 13  
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