British scholar appointed director of Qatari museum

LONDON. Dr Oliver Watson is returning to the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA) in Qatar as director, after spending three years as Keeper of the Department of Eastern Art at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

The announcement of his re-engagement with the museum, where he was chief curator between 2003 and 2005 (on leave from the V&A), was made in London in June, at a meeting to introduce MIA to reporters at the British Museum. Dr Watson left the MIA after the financial scandal during which Sheikh Saud Al-Thani, cousin of the Emir of Qatar, was accused of misappropriating government funds (The Art Newspaper, June 2006, pp1,8). Sheikh Saud had been responsible for assembling the MIA’s remarkable collection of Islamic art and spent some time under house arrest but has since been released.

The museum opening, which has been repeatedly delayed, is now scheduled for 22 November, in a building designed by Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei. This is on an artificial island in the bay of Doha, Qatar’s capital.

“The proposal to re-engage with the museum was irresistible,” said Dr Watson, adding that, “Sheikha Al-Mayassa was very persuasive.” Sheikha Al-Mayassa is the daughter of the Emir of Qatar and chairperson of the Qatar Museums Authority (QMA). She is also believed to be a major buyer of contemporary art.

The QMA recently appointed Roger Mandle as executive director. He steps down as president of the Rhode Island School of Design on 1 July. “Over the next few years other announcements like this will be made,” he said in June. “The Qatar National Museum is being redesigned by the French architect Jean Nouvel, and then further institutions will be built.” Qatar’s ambitious plan to build five museums calling on the world’s most famous architects ground to a halt in 2005.

There will be no specific overall acquisitions budget for the museums; “We never put a cap on our ambitions,” Mr Abdullah Al-Najjar, president of the MIA and CEO of the QMA, told The Art Newspaper.

Asked about the “Qatarisation” of the workforce, under which foreign employees are being replaced with locals, he said: “This is the aim, but it is not easily achieved as our country’s population is very small. However, we are asking the British Museum to train our docents and we have a long-term plan to bring in experts to train interns.”

Some museum staff have expressed concerns that the conservation conditions are not ideal; the conservation laboratories are below sea level and a fountain has been placed above storage areas. But, said Mr Al-Najjar, “the building has been designed to cater to the specific needs of the region, the humidity and the heat, and both of these have been carefully monitored.”

“The MIA’s collections are extraordinary in their range and beauty, and there is no comparable institution between Egypt and Malaysia,” said Lord Rothschild, who sits on the museum’s board of trustees.

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