In line with my imminent move to the centre of the known local cultural universe, I just paid a visit to the Sharjah Museums Department. Sharjah has more museums than the rest of the Emirates combined and in the past year it really seems to have been getting its act together.
Arty types are more likely to know about Sharjah because of the biennale which predates any substantial ‘arty’ offerings from Abu Dhabi or Dubai. Even so I have never understood why Sharjah and its assets don’t get more press or other coverage.
I suppose it’s partly because Sharjah doesn’t have the manic self promotional tendencies of its neighbours and has nothing to prove in the cultural arena anyway. By contrast both Dubai and Abu Dhabi seem desperate to promote their respective ‘visions’ of the UAE’s cultural future and their roles in it. Unfortunately, the words ‘vision’ and ‘future’ are not much use to somebody who needs a regular injection of ‘reality’ and ‘present’ and this Sharjah visit gave me a good dose of both.
The museums department now has an educational section for promoting Sharjah’s museums of archaeology, natural and social history, calligraphy, art, aviation and several more. Although these institutions are always good for attracting stray tourists, the focus of the educational department’s outreach is decidedly local. This means nationals, residents, schools and universities. There are family activities, school activities, cultural awareness programmes and some very cool stuff to see especially in the jewel in the Sharjah crown, the new Museum of Islamic Civilisation.
The museum only opened last June and contains a fascinating and extensive collection of historical, scientific and cultural artefacts. Some of these have been donated or purchased especially for the museum but the majority apparently constitute the personal collection of Sharjah’s ruler.
The first floor is dedicated to science and technology. This includes astronomy, navigation, medicine and chemistry and I was delighted to see a whole cabinet of astrolabes. I like astrolabes and this is the first time I have actually seen one for real! They are amazing inventions but are also works of art and craftsmanship in their own right.
Another delightful surprise was the ballistics and weapons section which I don’t want to ruin by describing too much. Let’s just say there are certain aspects that animal rights activists may object to, although the animals used in early biological weapons programmes probably survived.
The second floor is dedicated to the art and craftsmanship of the Islamic world. There are pieces of ancient text and Quranic script carved into wood and stone. Ceramics, metalwork, glass, models of gardens, ancient buildings and architecture.
It was very refreshing to be in a building full of old stuff displayed well and relevant to the location. In fact this trip confirmed for me that Sharjah truly is the centre to which all futures must refer if they wish to maintain a connection to their past. Go Sharjah!!