In Singapore there resides an enormously valuable gem. Precious and symbolic this jewel is actually a reconstruction of a 9th century Arab dhow and a “shining example of what can be achieved by international cooperation,” according to Terry Garcia, Chief Science and Exploration Officer, National Geographic Society. In 2010, following ancient maritime routes the Jewel of Muscat travelled from the Sultanate of Oman to Singapore over a period of five months. The joint project was a historic undertaking and involved the creation of an exact replica of an Arabian ship carry Chinese artefacts (Tang Shipwreck Treasure), which had been salvaged off Belitung Island in the Java Sea in 1998. A gift from His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said of Oman to the people of Singapore, it is the highlight of the Maritime Experiential Museum.
Oman has been an outwardly looking nation since the Bronze Age. From that time onwards Oman has established strong international links: evolving across the millennia to reach as far as China, Indochina, East and Central Africa, Europe and the Americas. It is no wonder then that the National Museum of Oman, which opens later in 2016, celebrates and reflects upon the tradition of exchange and development of the Sultanate. Encyclopaedic in scope and diverse in its collection all the museum artefacts are either of Omani origin or relate to Oman, making the museum truly unique. In an interview with Mr. Jamal Al Moosawi, Acting Director General followed by a guided tour, I discovered how truly remarkable this new museum is on a visit to Muscat in May of this year.
According to Mr Moosawi, “The Museum showcases and celebrates multi-dimensional facets of Oman’s cultural heritage from the earliest traces of human presence all the way to the present day. If we take a macro approach to the museum collection, we can witness the balance that has been created between displaying original artefacts and creating digitally immersive experiences.” The museum has around 7,000 objects on display and 15 permanent galleries. It is in the digital arena that the museum is particularly impressive as it has over 43 digital experiences. The highlight of which is an ultra-high-definition (UHD) cinema with a seating capacity for about 80 visitors. In addition, there are touch screens, smell and audio devices.
On a micro level, the niche of al-Uweyna Mosque stands out. The niche is covered with geometrical decorations, quotes from the Holy Qur’an and fine inscriptions documenting the name of the builder, designer and patron. The 16th century is considered the richest period in producing mosque niches (mihrabs). Another highlight at first glance is a humble box. However, closer inspection reveals that it depicts the oldest written story in Oman. Discovered at an early Iron Age collective burial at Diba in the Governate of Musandam, this rectangular box represents a goat and a wolf and is carved on the opposite long sides. The four sides form a continuous scene with the two animals in a thicket of short bushes.
In addition to the aforementioned artefacts, Mr. Moosawi, said that, “importantly the permanent gallery collections also show the oldest musical instrument in Oman that dates back to about 8,000 years and the oldest coin struck in Oman that dates back 2300 years. The coin has the image of Alexander the Great as the Macedonians were the first to introduce the concept of coinage to Oman.”
The museum differs in its vision from other museums in the region. From the start, the museum executive board embarked on the development of mutual relationships with respected international museums. Signing co-operation agreements with the Tate, the British Museum, the Smithsonian Institution, Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and the State Hermitage amongst other venerable institutions, there has been a strong emphasis on training and capacity building of Omani nationals and the prime focus over the last six years has been to offer the best international exposure for young Omanis. The museum aims to build a sustainable institution that will continue to develop. “As a result of the signed agreements and training, the National Museum has a well-versed Omani staff I preventive conservation and restoration, curators, as well as in visitor services.” said Mr. Moosawi.
The learning process for the museum’s development does not stop with the opening of its doors in July. The timeline gallery has been designed to showcase the changing displays based on the feedback received from visitors to the question: What are the key moments of Oman’s history or cultural heritage that seem the most significant? Based on the responses that the museum staff receive, the gallery displays will be updated accordingly. The museum’s intention according to Mr Moosawi is, “to offer a dialogue between us as an official guardian of the culture and heritage of Oman and between the Oman’s and the expatriate communities that reside with us. It is for this reason that you will find a series of discovery areas in a number of the galleries offering opportunities for children to engage mentally and physically with the exhibits.”
A particularly innovative form of engagement is the open storage plan concept. For the first time in the Middle East, visitors can register for programmes that will allow them to engage physically with real objects so that the knowledge associated with preventative conservation, handling and packing, as well as basic cleaning of the items from the museum collection will be shared by the conservation team. Visitors will be allowed to interact with the objects on a completely different level. For the immediate future, the focus of the museum will be on the permanent collections not on temporary exhibits. For this reason the focus will be on curating a programme of rotational displays.
I asked Mr. Moosawi whether the museum was supportive of modern and contemporary art. He responded affirmatively, “the manifestations of contemporary art form part of the permanent displays. We have engaged Omani artists and have worked closely with a number of painters, sculptures and photographers.” This embrace of the modern reflects the notion that the museum is not intended to function as an archaeological museum but rather encyclopaedic and for this reason will always be relevant to audiences in a way that looks to the past, present and future. The visitor can, therefore, experience the ancient past to the present and gain an understanding of what young Omanis are thinking and feeling. Moreover, there says Mr Moosawi there is a “chrono-thematic approach to each gallery’s storyline enabling the space to stand on its own as a holistic experience”. A theme could be jewellery, faith, society, local industry or the arts. During my tour of the museum apart from being personally delighted to observe the attention to detail with the use of braille description panels for the exhibits, I noted that a theme such as jewellery is reintroduced across different epochs and experiences. There is, according to Mr. Al-Moosawi, “an interconnected grid system that allows even Omanis who are well-versed in history to experience their own history in new dimensions and from new perspectives”.
Mr. Moosawi’s hopes that, “guests depart with an appreciation and respect for the rich and diverse cultural heritage of Oman and the people who have contributed to its development across the millennia. Furthermore, he wishes for, “visitors as a result of their experience to become a kind of ambassador: willing to remove take the positive messages associated with Oman from a historical and present viewpoint”.
I personally enjoyed how the museum has embraced technology and created a series of galleries that were consistently engaging and informative. Having visited Nazwa Fort and Castle, which are about an hour and a half’s drive from Muscat. I was intrigued to see the silver for which Oman is famous. The silver souq in Nazwa is renowned as a centre for making one of Oman’s most important culture icons – the coffee pot (dallah). The classic Nazwa-style coffee pot is characterised by a very narrow waist, a gracefully arched handle and a long, emphatically curved spout.
According to The World Museum Community, there are more than 55,000 museums in 202 countries. The National Museum of Oman with its commitment to providing excellence in service, learning, community as well as art outreach and promoting historic and scientific research is surely destined to rank at the top of this listing over time. Its relatively young staff with an average age of 30 have a bright future ahead given the efforts undertaken to ensure a solid educational platform. A real jewel of a museum, it too can be designated as a “shining example of what can be achieved by international cooperation”.