New horizons - Museums Association

New horizons

As museums and galleries in the Middle East continue to expand, Deborah Dunham looks at how their staff are being trained and developed
Deborah Dunham
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While museum spending languishes in many European countries under the post-credit-crunch pall, investment in cultural institutions in the Middle East continues apace. In recent years, three important trends – economic, demographic and political – have come together to make this possible.

First is the realisation by many countries (especially within the Gulf Cooperation Council) of the need to diversify their economies in advance of the time when oil and gas production severely declines.

The development of tourism will not only provide cultural enrichment for local citizens and foreign visitors, but also give career opportunities for burgeoning young populations: approximately half of the Middle East’s population is under 25 years old. Museum building also satisfies the desire to celebrate cultural identity.

There has been ample press coverage of projects such as the recently opened Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, and the Louvre, Guggenheim and Zayed National Museum in Abu Dhabi, which are planned to open between 2012 and 2013.

But what about the infrastructure of these museums? Who will develop and run these institutions in the years to come and who is helping these organisations prepare for the future?

Bob Barnett, president of international consultancy Cultural Innovations, sums up the importance of the issue: “If one thinks of the museum building, its collections, budgets and exhibits as hardware, and the museum people as software, it is obvious that all hardware is useless without the right staff to plan and implement the programmes that make it useful. Simply put, trained and engaged museum people are the key success factor for any museum plan.”

The following interviews with museum professionals in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Doha in Qatar, and Damascus in Syria provide insights into the challenges and opportunities in capacity building in a sample of three of the region’s cultural institutions.

Given the pace of construction, it is unsurprising that Middle East cultural institutions are adopting a range of approaches to development.

They are also looking up the supply chain to the education sector and forming partnerships with tourism authorities and universities to meet the demand for a steady stream of well-qualified young people who will become the next generation of museum professionals.

Barnett says this is a positive development: “In many ways, the planning of the functioning organisation within its new or renovated home is every bit as critical as the physical planning. I believe that those organisations which recognise the role of staff in the physical planning process will see a return on that investment tenfold.”

Equally, the UK professionals now working there acknowledge the experience that they in turn will be able to share with European colleagues. Sue Underwood, director of the Qatar Children’s Museum, says she wants to stress that success is not a one-way street. “The Gulf has a lot to teach us in terms of regional culture, architecture, and of course the breadth of amazing collections.”

Sharjah, United Arab Emirates

Institution and staffing: The Sharjah Museums Department (SMD) is responsible for 16 museums and employs about 500 staff, though this number is expected to rise.

Vision: The mission is to deliver the highest quality of museum services for the people of the Emirate of Sharjah and all its visitors, through its facilities, exhibitions, and programmes of learning, research and community outreach.

Interviewed: Sue Underwood, director of SMD from 2004-2008; Manal Ataya, director general of the SMD.

Sue Underwood has years of experience working in the Middle East. In her role as the first director of SMD, Underwood was charged with bringing 16 museums together, while implementing a succession plan for her replacement.

“You have to know what it is you are going for. You need to be clear, transparent and open about the development process and make sure everyone understands the goals. It is a balancing act between developing people and delivering the project at the same time,” says Underwood.

This was no mean feat with an organisation that has now grown to more than 500 staff. To initiate the programmes now in place, Underwood utilised her wide network of contacts to establish partnerships for the department with the British Council and many museums around the world.

“For young graduates new to the profession, there was more of an apprenticeship where a customised modular programme was developed with a combination of courses, conferences and learning on the job,” she says.

Staff development is so vital that learning is written into the department’s policy, which states that “in addition to its focus on museum visitors, it aims to serve its ‘internal clients’ by providing comprehensive educational and training opportunities to staff”.

Underwood emphasises the importance of selecting the right people for the roles, with the capacity to take on the challenges, then providing those challenges while supporting key staff. “We wanted to give them the opportunity to work with sponsors and observe managing upwards which becomes increasingly important as one progresses.”

Manal Ataya is one of the new generation of local professionals leading a Middle Eastern cultural institution. Following a graduate degree in museum studies from Harvard University and a year working closely with Underwood as part of the succession plan, Ataya (who is an international Chevening scholar on the Clore leadership programme) succeeded her as the director of the department.

In addition to continuing her own development, Ataya is working on local capacity building, especially challenging in a country that has traditionally relied on an expatriate workforce: Emiratis account for only about 18 per cent of Sharjah’s population.

“When I was here as deputy of the department I was practically the only person in the country with a museum studies degree – that should not be the reality!”

In her first year as director she managed to increase the recruitment of nationals by 80 per cent, although at first the department could not find enough people with the right background.

“There were few regional programmes to develop young people,” she says. In response to this, over the past two years Ataya has led an effort to develop the graduate certificate in museum and heritage studies at the American University of Sharjah, which is unique to the UAE and is the only such programme to be accredited by the UAE ministry of education.

The SMD uses a mixture of formal and informal ongoing development for its staff in addition to local training programmes, plus customised curatorial seminars developed by the Goethe Institute.

Staff are given the chance to attend international and regional conferences such as the American Association of Museums and the British Council’s Gulf Museum Management seminars.

Doha, Qatar

Institution and staffing: Qatar Museums Authority (QMA) runs eight museums with about 500 staff. That number is expected to double in the next three to five years.

Vision: The QMA wants to create a comprehensive umbrella service. It is charged with providing the leadership and accountability necessary for the development of a strong and growing system of national museums and an effective system for protecting, preserving and interpreting historic sites, monuments and collections.

Interviewed: Roger Mandle, executive director, QMA; Dana Al Malki, deputy director of information technology, QMA.

The QMA was created in 2005 to combine the resources of all museums in the state of Qatar. Roger Mandle, who brings a wealth of experience from several museums, has led the organisation since 2008. He says there are great opportunities in Qatar to establish new cultural institutions.

“This includes educational, social, environmental and economic elements,” says Mandle. “We are directing our efforts to all of these goals while also challenging ourselves to rethink museums and cultural institutions in the 21st century.”

Mandle feels that the key challenge is to build a quality international infrastructure of staff. He says that while the QMA is fortunate to have sufficient funding to do this, it wants to make sure that it is spending resources well. More than 60 per cent of staff are Qatari nationals.

“We fully support Qatarisation with a strong education and training programme. We are preparing to vacate the very chairs we [expats] are in.”

With a PhD in information engineering from City University, London, Dana Al Malki (pictured above) is now deputy director of the QMA’s IT department. She says a highlight of her development was the opportunity to obtain hands-on experience in the year leading to the opening the Museum of Islamic Art in 2008.

“Working closely with the museum’s curators and staff has helped me learn a lot about museums’ core business,” says Al Malki. “Appreciating the activities QMA is involved in enhanced my ability to envision how technology can be used in museums to enhance the staff’s and visitors’ experience.”

Damascus, Syria

Institution and staffing: the Massar Discovery Centre, part of the Syria Trust for Development, comprises four regional and touring centres and the Damascus Discovery Centre (to open in 2013), which is expected to attract 500,000 visitors a year. There are about 70 Discovery Centre staff, which should grow to 300 within the next few years.

Vision: Through science-based, hands-on experiences, the national programme will foster in Syria’s young people a deeper understanding and appreciation of their world, and empower them as individuals to contribute positively in building their future.

Interviewed: Robin Cole-Hamilton, former executive director, Massar Programme in Damascus, 2005-2010; Massa Mufti, content and programmes director of Massar.

Robin Cole-Hamilton, a freelance cultural consultant, has observed the role external experience has played in the region’s development over the past five years.

“UK institutions like the British Museum and the Natural History Museum have for many years collaborated on projects with institutions around the world. This vital process of exchange has provided reciprocal learning opportunities.”

Beyond collections management and curatorial expertise, he says the UK is especially well placed to share its knowhow in a wide range of areas.

He believes that the new institutions can benefit from the insights born of years of experience, but stresses the need to adapt to the reality of starting from the ground up.

“My lesson for traditional organisations is to acknowledge that it can be frustrating and slow to develop people and the institution at the same time,” says Cole-Hamilton.

“While it is very tempting to look for short cuts, because everybody is keen to see results accomplished quickly, our people need to know what they need to know to do it themselves.”

He concludes: “If you’re going to take it seriously, you have to invest the time to build relationships. It is important to demonstrate appreciation and respect in this part of the world. Outsiders have to be prepared to invest in conversations.”

Massa Mufti, content and programmes director of Massar since 2007, acknowledges the challenge of finding good frontline people in the region.

“What we look for in Massar is an additional value that is fundamental for a sustainable success, and that is the conviction of, and passion in, the cause we work for,” she says.

“Massar is a new project, unique in its goal. It is not a place where you are filling a gap or where things are clear – here you contribute and shape it with the power of inspiration.

“Learning and professional development are happening by default because, on one hand the team is empowered to take charge in working with the consultant teams, and secondly because everything we’re doing is new and requires new knowledge and skills.”

Deborah Dunham is a learning and organisational development consultant who works with museums and international cultural organisations

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