The Queen of Art

With 17 museums under her management, director general of the Sharjah Museums Authority (SMA), Manal Ataya, is an inspirational figure in the art and culture sector in the UAE. Here she tells us what drives her, her achievements and what’s coming up next



Manal Ataya
Manal Ataya

By Shilpa Chandran

Published: Sun 31 Oct 2021, 3:41 PM

What are your thoughts about the art sector in the UAE, and GCC?

There has been a rapid growth over the last two decades in the art sector in the UAE in particular and the GCC in general. This is evident by the number of cultural establishments that have opened across all emirates inspite of the pandemic. One such example was in Sharjah, with the opening of new projects including the House of Wisdom (HoW) and two new museums to our network, Hisn Khor Fakkan and the Resistance Monument. The region has also witnessed a stronger government focus and investment in creative industries including art and cultural heritage, museums, publishing, writing, and music.

One of the latest government decisions for this purpose was the decision of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, to launch ‘Dubai Creative Economy Strategy’ last April aimed at stimulating the growth of creativity industries, that would consequently contribute to the emirate’s economy. All of this has led to an increase in cultural production, the opening of new small to medium sized creative businesses and a surge in the number of art exhibitions and fairs across the country, many of which are jointly organised with international institutions and have helped enrich and empower UAE’s art ecosystem.

How can more youth get involved in art, and embrace it as a viable career option?

Fortunately, parents’ attitudes have changed over the years, and the number of arts-related degrees have increased significantly including at several UAE universities such as the University of Sharjah, the American University of Sharjah, Sorbonne Abu Dhabi, New York University Abu Dhabi, and Zayed University among others.

Educational institutions now offer Bachelors and Masters programmes in visual communication, film studies, architecture and design, archaeology, studio arts, multimedia design and even Arab music studies. A recent partnership between SMA and ICCROM-Sharjah Regional Conservation Centre, led to the support of the only Master’s programme in Conservation Management of Cultural Heritage (CMCH) in the UAE at the University of Sharjah.

At SMA, we also encourage youth and adults to get involved in the art-making environment not only for personal enjoyment but also for potential career building, and for this purpose, we have produced a number of programmes including the Mini Guide Programme and the Museum Ambassador Programme. All of these initiatives have contributed to increasing interest art-related studies and helped create stronger workforce and future leaders in the country’s cultural sector.

Can you describe the concept of a museum as an ‘educational space’?

Museums complement the education ecosystem of a country and play a key role as informal learning spaces where people from different abilities and ages, and students in particular, can learn about history, science, heritage, and art. In Sharjah, pupils’ visits to SMA museums became part of activity calendars in schools and universities, where teachers and professors are given support to use our collections as resources.

Also, SMA staff regularly create and deliver programmes that are specifically designed to meet the needs of children and families, as well as other activities in English and Arabic for people with disabilities, including the blind, deaf, and the autistic community. We have also built strong relationships with local universities, including the American University of Sharjah and the University of Sharjah, where we deliver lectures to students in disciplines relating to art, architecture, and conservation management.

Our collections and libraries are also available for students to use in group research projects while also providing them with opportunities for workshops alongside established artists who are part of our exhibitions. Aside from completing an educational ecosystem, museums can also be communal spaces where learning happens not only to individuals but also to groups and families while exploring art, attending an exhibition or taking part in a workshop. Learning happens as visitors share experiences and opinions that help them make a sense of how museum collections relate to their understanding of the world, in connection with the world around them.

These moments are very important and I truly believe that all families should make a habit of visiting all the wonderful cultural organisations including museums as part of their everyday life. This way, they will be exposed to a wealth of knowledge and new ideas that will make them more culturally aware and appreciative of diversity and multiculturalism.

What does it mean to be the director of museums in Sharjah?

My job is one of great responsibility as I was given this opportunity by the ruler to build and strengthen the cultural activity and offerings to our community in Sharjah, and beyond.

For this reason, I’m fully dedicated to providing the best that we can in terms of a museum experience with learning and education at its heart but also including other aspects, which are about family bonding, increasing social cohesion, and making it an enjoyable and safe experience for everyone coming to our museums.

The overall management of 17 museums as director general of SMA involves implementing directives for major refurbishments, overseeing the authority’s centralised departments in order to ensure we deliver best practices in museum services, and most importantly, developing and implementing the museums’ strategic plan for the next 10 years. My role also involves strengthening existing partnerships with local, regional, and international museums as well as cultural organisations and educational establishments while also fostering ties with new entities. Moreover, I lead the designing and launching of community-focused initiatives on various issues including environment and health as part of our commitment to social responsibility, community outreach, and accessibility.

What is in the pipeline for the Sharjah Museums Authority?

There are currently a number of recent exhibitions showcased at our various museums, such as the ‘Luminous Letters’ at Sharjah Calligraphy Museum, ’Sharjah, the First UAE Flying School’ at Al Mahatta Museum, and ‘Drop by Drop, Life Falls from the Sky: Water, Islam and Art’ hosted at the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization. I can confirm that we have three major new projects underway in different phases of design and planning over the next five years.

What attracted you to art, and how did this help you carve your path to success?

My attraction to art has always been derived from my natural curiosity to learn and understand different things. Therefore I had an early interest in art as a child, which continued throughout my high school years and then in university where I chose to study art history and later museum studies.

Additionally, my appreciation of the expression of ideas and emotions and my exposure to diverse cultures through travel and visits to different countries have helped me develop my passion for arts. Consequently, upon completion of my studies, when I was asked to join SMA, I did not hesitate to take this opportunity to learn and do what I love. At SMA, I have been privileged to be mentored by His Highness Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, Supreme Council Member and Ruler of Sharjah who holds two PhDs in history and political geography of the Gulf. He has taught me so much and instilled in me the desire to be a lifelong learner.

Please tell us a little bit about yourself – your likes and hobbies, and what you enjoy most aside from museums.

I am a passionate fan of contemporary art, reading non-fiction, watching foreign films, and travelling. Given how special Sharjah is to me, I enjoy the Sharjah Art Biennial and its book fair. Aside from museums, I really enjoy the opera and recently have developed an interest in learning about architectural design.

Digital technology acts as a disruptor in most sectors today. How has it impacted art and culture?

When our museums had to shut down due to restrictions on movement following the outbreak of Covid-19, we accelerated our digital transformation and took many of our collections, exhibitions, and activities online, making them accessible to people from across the world.

Almost all museums and cultural venues across the globe had to close their doors and turn to the digital world in order to remain accessible and relevant to their communities. For us at SMA as I’m sure it has been for other cultural establishments, digital technology has contributed to reaching out and attracting new audiences.

Therefore, at SMA, we don’t look at digital technology as a disrupter. For us, it’s a new channel providing a virtual experience that doesn’t replace but rather complements the physical experience of actually visiting and being inside a museum. In this area, in particular, we hope to learn more about how we can improve what we do digitally and we are doing our best to anticipate future trends.

Do you feel there is a lack, or no dearth of talent in this region?

No dearth of talent, for sure. People in this part of the world are as gifted as those from any other place. If I was to be specific about the UAE, it’s clear that our nation is progressing rapidly in every sector from the economy to culture and space exploration.

There is nothing that we cannot do with the right support system in place and official patronage for our various endeavours. We are very fortunate to have visionary leaders in the UAE. It’s for this reason that we attract talent to a great degree and retain it because of what the country has done in the past few years and is doing now in the form of various policies and incentives. This has created enormous opportunities and an environment filled with potential prospects for all to succeed in their respective fields.


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