Sharjah Museums: A Case Study on the Transfer of Knowledge in Society
تجد/ين هنا النسخة العربية لهذا النص.
By Aisha Deemas (Director of Executive Affairs, Sharjah Museums Authority, United Arab Emirates)
The UAE’s 2021 Vision states that the nation strives to create “a knowledge-based and highly productive economy” (United in knowledge). While the latter is definitely understood to be based on diverse sectors both public and private, for this essay, I will focus specifically on the role of humanities in building a knowledge-based economy in the UAE. Accordingly, I will further focus on museums as agents for the transfer of knowledge into society.
In this essay, I will take the case of the Sharjah Museums Authority (SMA) to examine the role of museums in transferring knowledge to society. I shall begin by introducing the context in which Sharjah Museums operate and why they are important agents for the transfer of knowledge in society. I will then present some of the channels through which Sharjah’s museums produce and share such knowledge. These are the museums’ displays, exhibitions and programs, intercultural exchange projects, research initiatives and digital developments.
Sharjah’s Museums as Agents for the Transfer of Knowledge in Society
Museums play a vital role in building a knowledge-based society – and, in turn, contributing to the economy – as they are institutions that aim to produce knowledge and/or represent people and their cultures and histories. A museum is defined by the International Council of Museums as “a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.”
Focusing on our case study, Sharjah is the third largest emirate in the UAE and has the third largest population of all the seven emirates. Sharjah has been recognized internationally for its cultural endeavors. It was named the capital of Arab Culture in 1998 and the capital of Islamic Culture in 2014. The SMA is an independent government authority in the emirate of Sharjah in the UAE that was established by the ruler in 2006 to manage 16 museums covering Islamic art and culture, archaeology, heritage, science, marine life, and the history of Sharjah and the region. Given the demographic setup of the emirate and its visitors’ profiles, the museums are well aware that they need to cater to a wide range of cultural, educational and linguistic backgrounds as well as diverse age groups.
There are multiple ways in which the organization works to fulfill its mission to deliver the highest museum standards to preserve collections and enhance an appreciation of culture and learning through its exhibitions, and educational and community programs. All of Sharjah’s museums and their projects, programs and exhibitions have an overarching aim to open up channels of intercultural, -faith and -generational dialogue in a manner that fosters and supports knowledge transfer to and within society at large.
In the context of Sharjah, museums are an integral part of society. Established by Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Mohamed Al Qasimi, the current ruler of the emirate, the museums have evolved organically from within the community over the years. The museums in Sharjah understood at an early stage that their connection with the community is integral to their work. Therefore, they always strive to contribute to local causes that people care about, build upon the knowledge of the elderly who are integral to multiple oral history collecting projects and share knowledge with the youth through educational partnerships with schools and universities (See Fig. 1).
Producing and Sharing Knowledge in Museums
The SMA believes that the museums are a platform for producing and sharing knowledge. The rich collections of Sharjah’s museums have a great potential to create dialogues in many areas of interest. The SMA endeavors to make its 16 museums accessible to all of its visitors. In addition to continuously modifying and upgrading buildings in line with international standards to allow easy and comfortable access for all, the SMA regularly explores innovative methods to ensure that visitors get the best out of their visitor experience. Recent initiatives in some sites have included opportunities to use multiple senses to explore objects and their cultural and historical contexts (See Fig. 2).
In addition to considerations regarding physical access, the SMA works to enhance intellectual access to its collections (See Fig. 3, Left). The museums’ visitors come from a wide range of cultural, educational and linguistic backgrounds and belong to diverse age groups (See Fig. 4). Consequently, the SMA aims to provide ongoing exhibitions, events and activities that take account of this diversity and provide meaningful and appropriate opportunities to learn for all of its audiences (See Fig. 3, Right). It is the SMA’s policy to provide all information bilingually in both Arabic and English. Arabic is the official language of the UAE, however, English is also widely and commonly used throughout the country. Nevertheless, promotional material is now also available in a total of six languages and select museums have begun providing curatorial information in Arabic, English, Urdu, Chinese, German and Russian through audio guides. In addition to the extensive information available for permanent museum displays and its regular scholarly publications, the SMA also regularly organizes cutting-edge and groundbreaking intellectual seminars, gallery talks, hands-on workshops and activities for schools, universities, special care centers, families and the community at large (See Fig. 3, Right).
Intercultural Exchange in Museum Projects
Successful intercultural projects reflect practices of knowledge sharing and cultural understanding not only between collaborating institutions but also within them. In this context, I will share an example of such a project that showcases an exemplary intercultural collaboration: The “So That You Might Know Each Other” exhibition. A joint exhibition was devised in a unique and unprecedented collaboration of friendship between the SMA and the Vatican Anima Mundi Museum to give a glimpse of the diverse ways of life Muslims pursue all over the world, their customs and cultural traditions, and the fascinating stories that lie behind some of the objects they made and used. Through this collaboration, not only were unique artefacts from the Vatican’s collection shown in the first ever collaboration with an Arab and Muslim museum but it also resulted in increased intercultural knowledge of each other and promoted tolerance and peace – among Muslims throughout the world and between Islam and other religions.
Another such project is the SAWA Museum Academy, the first non-discriminatory and diversity-oriented museum educational program for young professionals in Arabic-speaking countries and Germany. Sawa means together in Arabic. This name was chosen to shed light on the structure of this exchange program through Museum Studies. SAWA is dedicated to the exchange of ideas and cultures to encourage learning from and with each other. The SAWA method combines learning from museum experts with hands-on exercises based on real-life cases from the partner institutions. It allows the participants to gain insights not only into the practice of the Sharjah museums and the State Museums of Berlin but also to exchange best practice from each participant’s institutions. SAWA Museum Academy is a cooperation between the Sharjah Museums Authority, the State Museums in Berlin, the University of Applied Sciences (HTW) Berlin and the Goethe Institut Gulf Region. The aim of the program is to increase the knowledge and competencies of the participants regarding two aspects: To adapt museology to local conditions better and, at the same time, to practice a dialogue based on the similarities and differences of all participants and teachers. SAWA Museum Academy received the AGYA award in 2019, which recognizes initiatives and projects that promote the role and value of humanities in research, education and society and in communicating humanities to a broader public. SAWA was also awarded the ‘Best Cultural Collaboration Award’ during the Leading Cultural Destinations Awards in Berlin in 2020.
Research Initiatives for Knowledge Sharing
In line with the belief that a museum is a place for dialogue and learning, the SMA undertakes multiple research projects that translate into exhibitions and publications accessible to the public. Furthermore, the museums engage in academic research projects with local universities to support their research endeavors and the learning paths of their students. One such example is the collaboration with Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Dubai Campus, where architecture students conducted a thorough study and documentation of Al Mahatta Museum in Sharjah (See Fig. 5). Al Mahatta is the oldest airport in the UAE and now a museum of aviation. The students’ project allowed them to undertake practical work in addition to the theoretical studies in a real-life case. The museum, in turn, benefitted from the outcome of their work: An architectural documentation and analysis of the historic site, in a beautiful example of the museum as an agent for knowledge transfer.
Digital Developments for Knowledge Transfer
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the digital realm has proven to be a great way to reach out to audiences beyond the immediate community as there is an ease of sharing knowledge widely not only in your own society but across the world. With the help of innovative technology, the SMA is continuously looking to extend its commitment to access and engagement to the virtual domain. In fact, since 2012, it has been a major contributor to the largest virtual museum in the world, the Museum with No Frontiers. Over one hundred objects from the SMA collections are featured in its database and its permanent virtual exhibitions.
Furthermore, the SMA has, as a result of the pandemic, created multiple virtual tours of its permanent galleries and transformed much of its programming into digital sessions via platforms such as Zoom (See Fig. 6).
This essay has highlighted the role of the SMA as an effective agent for transferring knowledge by demonstrating examples of the various channels as a means for knowledge transfer in society and, thus, supporting a knowledge-based economy.
The museums in Sharjah contribute to various aspects of society, such as self-development and learning, cultural understanding and tolerance, and multiple areas of study and research, including history, heritage, sciences and arts, through their connection with the community. In order for these endeavors to successfully materialize, museums are required to understand the evolving needs of the community and to open themselves as platforms for an ongoing dialogue between the museum and its audiences, where the museum is a facilitator for learning and knowledge sharing. With such a diverse audience base for museums in the UAE, a country where more than 200 nationalities reside, such open dialogue challenges the museum’s ability to fully embrace diversity both internally and externally. This is also further challenged by the vast digital realm, which takes the museum further from its immediate local community into a more global presence. The role of the museum then becomes embedded in understanding the needs of society and fostering a knowledgeable, open and diverse audience who will hopefully reflect their rich museum experiences in their diverse daily lives.
 Museum with No Frontiers, “Sharing History. Arab World – Europe / 1815 – 1918” [accessed 12 April 2021].
Aisha Deemas holds an MBA and a bachelor’s degree in International Studies from the American University of Sharjah. She joined the Sharjah Museums Authority (SMA) in 2006 and was the Curator at the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization since its opening in 2008 until June 2012. Her work involved caring for the collections at the museum, organizing exhibitions and events, developing national and international collaborations, as well as the overall management and day-to-day running of the museum in general. Aisha Deemas is currently Director of Executive Affairs at the SMA. She participates in the long-range planning and overall management of the services provided to all the museums under SMA management.
This project is part of the activities of the Arab-German Young Academy of Sciences and Humanities (AGYA). AGYA is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The introduction to this blog series by Nuha Alshaar, Beate La Sala, Jenny Oesterle and Barbara Winckler can be found here.
Further articles in this series:
Bashshar Haydar, The Humanities’ Constant Need for Self-Justification, 25.03.2021
Julia Hauser, Out of the Ivory Tower: Broadening Global History in Germany, 01.04.2021
Christian Junge, Why Non-European Languages Matter to European Humanities: Area Studies and Postcolonial Philology, 08.04.2021
Amro Ali, Bringing Philosophy and Sociology to the Egyptian Public, 15.04.2021
Andrea Geier, Challenges in Literary Studies and Gender Studies or Why I Began to Talk Publicly about Relevance, 22.04.2021
Shereen Abouelnaga, The Urgency of Relocating Gender Studies Politically, 29.04.2021
Antje Flüchter, History: An Important but Potentially Dangerous Part of the Humanities, 06.05.2021
Citation: Aisha Deemas, Sharjah Museums: A Case Study on the Transfer of Knowledge in Society, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/28560, 12.05.2021.