Inside Qatar’s ‘desert rose’ museum

April 07, 2019

On March 28, Qatar made a statement to the world. A US$434mn statement in stone, the inauguration of the National Museum of Qatar was the very definition of opulence. Opened by Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani, Emir of Qatar, himself under the watchful eyes of the world media, the guest list saw the likes of Victoria Beckham, Johnny Depp and Naomi Campbell among dignitaries from across the region and the world.

Despite being in a ‘blockade’ for almost two years, Doha has consistently promoted itself as a progressive country in the Middle East. In line with that, art and architecture have gained more prominence now than ever in the country. Against that backdrop, the museum designed by renowned French architect Jean Nouvel stands as a fine piece of an architectural statement. 

Spread across 52,000sq m, the museum building that took almost a decade to materialise is a work of modern art signifying a ‘desert rose’ - a flower like aggregate of mineral crystals occurring only in arid coastal regions. Nouvel said, “Taking the desert rose as a starting point turned out to be a very progressive, not to say utopian, idea. I say ‘utopian’ because, to construct a building 350m long, with its great big inward-curving disks and its intersections and cantilevered elements – all the things that conjure up a desert rose – we had to meet enormous technical challenges. This building is at the cutting-edge of technology, like Qatar itself.”


Inside the museum however, the narrative is somewhat different and moves away from the expectation of expensive art collections that the ruling family of Qatar is known to be in possession of. The galleries are dedicated to an immersive narrative that reflects the history of Qatar, its culture and its rapid evolution as a progressive state. Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, chairperson of Qatar Museums, said, “A future must grow out of an understood and integrated past. So, as we move forward, we are focusing strongly on culture, in diverse forms. We are delving into our Arab heritage while also exploring the arts as they are evolving today, both within Qatar and far beyond.” 

The two-hour tour of the museum is captivating through music, storytelling, commissioned artworks, ancient artifacts, rare and precious objects, oral history films, archival photographs and digital learning stations, among others, that establish the narrative in its 11 galleries. 

“Qatar Museums and the National Museum team felt strongly that we wanted to create a living experience for our people - a museum with a heart,” said Sheikha Amna bint Abdulaziz bin Jassim al Thani, director of the museum. “That meant, first of all, that our galleries should be full of movement, sound, colour, and a sense of discovery.”

The galleries have sections dedicated to the formation of Qatar, its natural environment, flora and fauna, archeology and its people, among others. There are also spectacular recreations that highlight the nomadic way of life in the desert or ‘Life in al Barr’. 

Among other aspects of Qatari history and culture, there is a gallery dedicated to pearl culture. The ‘Pearls and Celebration’ gallery includes a sparkling display of jewellery, costumes, and rare and splendid objects showcasing the role of the pearling industry that for many years was Qatar’s main link with the world. Among these is one of Qatar’s greatest national treasures, the renowned ‘Pearl Carpet of Baroda’, commissioned in 1865 and embroidered with more than 1.5mn of the highest quality Gulf pearls, along with emeralds, diamonds and sapphires. 

In a way, the museum is the latest addition to Doha’s commitment to further grow an emerging art economy in the country. The National Museum, under the umbrella Qatar Museums, aims to promote and nurture artistic talents and encourage public art initiatives within the country.