V&A strengthens ties with Qatar by showing pearls exhibition from Doha, despite ethical concerns

Museum closes a cultural gulf



The ties between the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum and the Gulf state of Qatar will be strengthened this autumn by an exhibition at the London museum that has its origins in Doha. “Pearls” (21 September-19 January 2014), a lavish show featuring more than 200 pieces of jewellery, has been organised with the Qatar Museums Authority (QMA), the Middle Eastern cultural organisation increasingly making its presence felt in Europe. Pearls have a special meaning in the Gulf, as pearl-fishing was the main source of wealth there until cultured pearls destroyed the market in the early 20th century.

The show, which tells the story of pearl jewellery throughout history, opened at the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha in 2010. “The original exhibition will be reworked for the V&A, and will feature additional items of pearl jewellery from our own collections as well as loans from organisations such as the British Museum and the Royal Collection, alongside those from the QMA,” a spokeswoman for the V&A says. She adds that the museum is not paying a fee to the authority to host the show. “We are co-organisers,” she says.

The V&A and the Museum of Islamic Art have exchanged loans on a regular basis since the Qatari museum opened in 2008. The V&A lent an example of Fatimid lustreware for its opening show, “Beyond Boundaries: Islamic Art across Cultures”. The Doha museum has sent two important items, which previously belonged to Robert Clive, the first British administrator of Bengal, on long-term loan to the V&A.

Reaching out

Martin Roth, the director of the V&A, recently told the Abu Dhabi-based newspaper the National that the London museum does not usually import exhibitions. He also enthused about the Gulf’s cultural offerings. “People talk about what this huge expansion of museums in the region actually means… shouldn’t we really be celebrating the fact that governments in that region are actually interested in culture and museums?” he asked.

The British Council is co-ordinating events in collaboration with the QMA as part of the year-long showcase Qatar UK 2013. Cosying up to Qatar has raised concerns among ethics professionals, with the organisation Human Rights Watch warning British museums to exercise “extreme caution” in their dealings with the Gulf state (The Art Newspaper, April, p1).

“It’s hardly surprising that, given the global economic situation, links with partners that do have financial capacity, such as QMA, become more attractive,” says Adrian Babbidge, the director of the London-based heritage consultancy Egeria. “But this is not just about opportunism. It’s clear that the QMA is outward-looking and thinks internationally, resulting in funding and participation in exhibitions not only in Doha but throughout the world. Let’s also not forget that brand awareness is characteristic of Middle Eastern states, and the UK has some of the strongest museum brands in the world.”

“Pearls” is not the only exhibition that the QMA is exporting to the West. Another institution overseen by the authority, Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, recently organised “Tea with Nefertiti”, which juxtaposed Modern Arab and Middle Eastern art with Egyptian antiquities and Western art, drawing works from 82 international and local collections. It is now on display at Paris’s Institut du Monde Arabe (until 8 September), and Bozar in Brussels is also in negotiations to host the show.

Meanwhile, the British Museum’s significant role in shaping the Zayed National Museum, which is due to open on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi, in 2016, is underlined in a recent advertisement for the post of project curator (archaeology) based at the London institution. For a salary of £26,820, the successful applicant will be expected to “write summary reports on specific archaeological sites and find contexts in the United Arab Emirates and the Gulf region that will be presented in the Zayed National Museum”.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'V&A closes a cultural gulf'