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By Lara Brunt
Asking Manal Ataya, the Harvard-educated Director General of the Sharjah Museums Authority, to name the museum she admires most in the world is like asking a mother to choose her favourite child. “Oh my gosh, I hate to be one of those people who say it’s a hard question to answer, because it really is – and I’m not trying to be diplomatic. I’ve never met a perfect museum – I find strengths in different types of museums for different reasons,” she says.
After discussing the merits of London’s Tate Modern and New York’s MoMA, Manal finally settles on the Chichu Art Museum in Japan. Designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Ando Tadao and set on an out-of-the-way island, the underground museum relies solely on natural light to illuminate the artworks. “For me, Chichu was almost a sacred experience,” she says. “Experientially, it’s very beautiful in all aspects, whereas other museums usually nail one or two aspects.” The only downside, she concedes, is that it is hard to get to.
The 40-year-old is eminently qualified to cast a critical eye over the world’s leading cultural institutions. A family trip to the Natural History Museum in London when she was nine years old sparked a lifelong love of museums. After studying art at Hamilton College in New York and graduating with a master’s in Museum Studies from Harvard in 2004, Manal returned to the UAE and was appointed Deputy Director at the Sharjah Museums Authority in 2005. Promoted to her current role in 2008, she is responsible for managing and developing 16 museums in the Emirate, including the acclaimed Sharjah Art Museum and Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization.
Like many institutions around the world, the authority’s museums are currently shuttered by the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing museum professionals to consider different ways of engaging with the public. “Although we had over one million visitors to our museums last year, we do still have the challenge of attracting people to the museums. We’ve always had a way to see them outside the museum walls, such as at a shopping centre, community center or going to schools, “so this is a new situation for us,” she says. “But when you have a situation like we have now, [virtual programming] allows people to still have art in their lives.”
Alongside an existing partnership with the Museum With No Frontiers, the authority is offering virtual tours of the Barjeel Art Foundation’s exhibition, with further tours of the galleries of Sharjah Art Museum and Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization due to go live this month. The social media team is using the hashtag #MuseumFromHome to share various collections on Instagram, while craft workshops inspired by the authority’s extensive educational programs will soon be available on YouTube.
Despite the forced pivot online, Manal is still a strong believer in the physical museum experience. “I believe visiting museums is such a unique, highly personal experience to each individual, and can keep unfolding over time,” she says. “For a lot of people, a museum is not a space to look at art – it’s a place for community events and social get togethers, so that’s the part technology is not able to really help us bring back. But we’re learning a lot from this experience and I think there will be parts that we will continue to explore in the future.”
Beyond the challenges of a global pandemic, what are the key issues facing museums in the 21st century? “That’s a big question and truly does vary from country to country. But in general, I would say it includes engagement with more complex audiences, rethinking the museum experience to be less authoritative, limited budgets and funding challenges, and the question of whether, and how, museums should involve themselves in socio-political issues such as climate change and the refugee crisis,” she says.
While technology offers exciting opportunities for museums, Manal believes there is a risk of over-digitizing the visitor experience. “Wherever I travel in the world, I specifically look for museums with digital or AI experiences because I like to see how people are responding. I believe 100 per cent [that technology] can add value to the experience, but a lot of the time I see it just being used as a way to make things look modernized, but that isn’t what the experience ends up being,” she says.
So how do museums compete against pop culture in the digital age? “I don’t think of myself as competing against pop culture. We are all consumers of it, whether by choice or subliminally. We have to find a way to make those connections where we can, and try to use the same strategies that create appeal the way pop culture does,” she says. “Museums can really change lives positively and the best visits are those that bring about change in some way, either thinking or feeling differently about something.”
As one of the first, and youngest, women to be appointed to senior executive level in Sharjah, Manal has been a champion of women in her field. In 2015, she launched a mentoring initiative to propel women into leadership roles at the authority. “We recently opened the leadership initiative to men also because I believe as a feminist you have to focus on equal opportunity and gender balance in every aspect you can. We are all links in a chain and we are only successful if we work together,” she says.
The Director General also draws on the values-based, action-oriented leadership skills she learned during a two-year fellowship with the Aspen Institute, which encourages leaders to harness their social impact. Launched last year, the authority’s Museums Express is one such community-focused initiative; a converted bus acts as a mobile museum and visits schools across the central and eastern parts of the Emirate.
“Aspen taught me that one person can mobilise others to really have a major impact on people, whether it’s economically or educationally,” she says. “Last year alone, we impacted 7,000 students with the mobile museum.”
Meanwhile, Manal believes a successful career in the cultural sector is as much dependent on attitude as education. “To do well in this field you have to be someone who understands that what you do is for others, and also be willing to collaborate with others and mentor one another,” she advises. “It’s never been a job where you necessarily make a lot of money, but it is very fulfilling and satisfying.”
For more information about Sharjah’s museums, visit sharjahmuseums.ae
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Lara Brunt is an Australian-British journalist. She has previously written for The Telegraph, Lonely Planet and World Traveller.
The views of the authors and writers who contribute to Sekka, and the views of the interviewees who are featured in Sekka, do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Sekka, its parent company, its owners, employees and affiliates.