Qatar Is Becoming an Art Powerhouse and Its New National Museum Proves It

Eighteen years of development, $400-plus million dollars in construction, a footprint of 560,000 square feet, nearly one mile of gallery space—a lot of significant numbers tell the story of Doha’s new National Museum of Qatar. Officially opened on March 28, the striking complex set between the downtown skyscrapers and Doha Bay was designed by renowned French architect Jean Nouvel, who just two years ago revealed the glittering new home of the Louvre Abu Dhabi. For his latest project, though, the Pritzker Prize winner went even bigger—as befits Qatar, which is now the wealthiest country per capita in the world (as evidenced by everything from the country’s over-the-top national airline to the gold stadium it has planned for World Cup 2020).

Tasked with creating a multi-layered, experiential museum that engages its visitors and invigorates the senses, Nouvel sought inspiration in the “desert rose,” a flower-like formation that occurs when minerals crystalize in the soil just below the surface of a salt basin. It’s “the first architectural structure that nature itself creates,” Nouvel has noted. To bring to life these intricate formations, the visionary crafted a series of 539 large, interlocking white disks of varying sizes and shapes, some set horizontally to form waterside viewpoints, others slightly tilted or cantilevered on another circle to provide natural shade in the desert heat. All are strewn around a restored landmark 1906 palace (now the culmination point of the galleries) and a central courtyard that will host cultural events. It’s all the result of “enormous technical challenges,” says Nouvel, adding that “this building is at the cutting edge of technology, like Qatar itself.”

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Inside the LEED Gold–certified structure, the unique shapes and positions of the disks help create galleries that play with concepts of space, architecture and shifting senses, providing singular backdrops for all the exhibits. And about those exhibits: They were all developed under the stewardship of Her Excellency Sheikha Al Mayassa, a U.S.- and France-educated member of the royal house of Al Thani, who, at 36, is considered one of the most influential people in the art world today. Serving as the Chairperson of Qatar Museums (which oversees all of the country’s museums, cultural institutions, and heritage sites), the Sheikha has helped the country snag important works by everyone from Paul Cézannes and Paul Gauguin to Damien Hirst, as well as works from emerging artists from around the world—many women among them. “Culture connects people, and with this new museum we believe we have created an exceptional platform for dialogue,” she has noted.

For the National Museum, however, the focus is not art, but the country of Qatar itself, from its history to its natural habitat. Organized in three chapters—Beginnings, Life in Qatar, and The Modern History of Qatar—the eleven galleries take you from the peninsula’s geological origins to its present-day culture. Topics like heritage, politics, the discovery of oil, traditional costumes and jewelry and more are brought to life via models, archival photographs, digital learning stations, 360-degree film installations, engaging exhibits—some curated by noted names like Rem Koolhaas—and site-specific commissioned artwork. Among the latter is the largest installation conceived by French artist Jean-Michel Othoniel, which features 114 black fountains—meant to evoke Arabic calligraphy—set around a nearly 3,000-foot lagoon. It all helps tell the story of this tiny country whose global influence—in real estate, finance, and now art—is undeniable.

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