Bahrain National Museum expands horizons

Bahrain National Museum director Rashad Faraj explains why they are opening site museums

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It is 25 years since the opening of Bahrain's iconic National Museum - the oldest in the Gulf, and the first among its neighbours to house locally discovered artefacts. Now it is finding ways to take the project forward.

As a mark of the anniversary's importance, Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman paid an official visit, timed to coincide with the country's National Day and with a significant temporary exhibition.

The crown prince's viewing of a Russian exhibition of hundreds of pieces of textiles and costumes, as well as the museum's permanent collection of archaeological finds, suggests that new cultural links could well be paving the way for more wide-ranging collaboration.

The rare and extensive collection of Russian textiles and costumes from the 18th to 20th Centuries is the third collaboration between the museum in Manama and Moscow's Museum of Applied and Folk Art.

Rethink

As Shaikha Mai bint Mohammed Al Khalifa, Bahrain's dynamic Minister of Culture points out, the Bahrain museum is entering a new phase of its life.

"We have enjoyed the current displays for a quarter of a century," she says. "It is now time to rethink our galleries and exhibits, bringing them up to date."

Bahrain, National Museum, Close-up of bronze pearl fisherman with museum in background Bahrain's National Museum was the first of its kind in the Gulf
Bahrain, National Museum, Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, the Crown Prince of Bahrain (LHS) at the 25th anniversary on the opening of the National Museum Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa visited the museum for its 25th anniversary celebrations
Grave from Dilmun period in Bahrain National Museum The museum features this grave from the Dilmun period, which is said to date from the third millennium BC
Bahrain, National Museum, display, Bull's Head artefact from Dilmun period Dilmun was one of the most important ancient civilisations of the region

Considered a pioneering institute when it opened in 1988, the Swedish-designed modern museum brings together a collection of unique objects excavated on the island and dating back to the Dilmun period.

According to Pierre Lombard, a French archaeologist and adviser to Bahrain, the pottery, jewellery, coins and statues on display provide important information about the ancient civilisation.

They were made at a time when this smallest of Arab nations was the capital of a huge commercial network stretching from Mesopotamia to the Indus Valley.

"Expeditions from all over Europe came to excavate sites that provided rich finds," Mr Lombard says. "So many objects were found that this museum had to be built to house them."

This contrasts with the mega museum projects of Abu Dhabi and Qatar, which are being constructed as architectural extravaganzas in their own right.

Leading role

According to US-based museum adviser Nadine Boksmati-Fattouh these new behemoth museums are to be filled with recent acquisitions or loans from European and American museums such as the Louvre or Guggenheim.

"In comparison, Bahrain's museum is modest in size," Ms Boksmati-Fattouh says. "But it had no equivalent in the Arab world when it opened and it continues to lead the way."

Bahrain National Museum at night The museum was built specifically to house artefacts discovered in Bahrain
Detail of a screen in Bahrain National Museum It is hoped that new cultural links could bring new opportunities

This unassuming building is showing that Bahrain - in common with other Gulf countries - is allowing culture to play a pivotal role in promoting identity and taking a leading role in piloting new international partnerships.

While the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar are acquiring art objects from around the West, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have a different cultural outlook.

Far from Islam being the sole cornerstone of cultural institutions, pre-Islamic sites are the subject of new research and site museums.

According to Sheikh Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the Saudi Arabian Minister of Tourism and Antiquities, Saudi Arabia will not be opening up to mass tourism any time soon.

"We have dozens of site museums in the pipeline," he told the BBC. "We are also building new airports and roads. But these are aimed at our own people not foreign travellers."

As the Bahraini crown prince and his entourage made their way back in to the museum's main galleries, Sheikha Mai pointed out plans for new site museums that will connect the visitor with specific civilisations that flourished in particular areas on the island.

"We are entering a new phase of our activity," explained Rashad Faraj, the museum's director. "We are making new connections with different countries.

"Our pearl collection is currently on loan to Russia. We are broadening our cultural reach."

The Russian textile exhibition will be followed by a Turkish calligraphy display.

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