SHARJAH //Attracting Emiratis to museums and galleries in the UAE has not been an easy task - but a doctoral student is trying to find a way.
Mona Al Ali, 30, an Emirati, worked at Sharjah's museums for four years before going to the UK to pursue her PhD, funded by the Emirates Foundation, more than 18 months ago.
After earning a Master's in education, Ms Al Ali began to wonder what kept her compatriots away from galleries.
"I wanted to understand UAE society better and there wasn't much written about this," she said.
While on sabbatical from the museums to study, she conducted in-depth interviews with 25 of the museums' visitors and will hold more over the coming months.
She hopes to learn more about their interests, cultural backgrounds and what draws them to the facilities.
Of the 25 questioned, six were Emiratis. Most admitted it was their first visit to a museum in Sharjah, despite going to them while travelling abroad or at school.
"They all believed museums were important," said Ms Al Ali. "But we must make people realise it's for them to visit, too, not just tourists."
One woman told Ms Ali of her surprise when she went to the maritime museum and learned about her own family's history.
"When she saw her family's names, it finally meant something to her," Ms Al Ali said. "She really engaged with the stories, which is what people need to get them to go to these places. People always want something personal in order to care about it.
"People don't even know what is in the museums and don't realise there are things like natural history, the aquarium - things everyone can find interest in."
Nina Trojanovic, the associate director at Traffic, an art and creative space in Dubai that also holds exhibitions, screenings and fashion shows, said that while Emiratis have accounted for about 10 per cent of visitors since the space opened in 2007, events involving UAE nationals were always better attended.
"When the Emirati artists have shows, that attracts their friends and family, so they are always well attended, as are bigger events such as Art Dubai," Ms Trojanovic said.
Ms Al Ali said museums must look closely at the needs of visitors to attract greater numbers.
"I want to be able to give a more detailed understanding of the UAE community and the reasons they do and don't go to museums," she said.
Ms Al Ali admitted that the concept of museums in the Emirates was new but that interest must be encouraged.
"It's not just about preserving history, objects, but understanding where we've come from, who we are now and where we are going in the future," she said.
At a recent Emirati heritage festival organised at Fujairah fort and museum, 80 per cent of attendees were Emirati. Khameis Al Hefaiti, 31, head of public relations at the Fujairah Antiquities Authority, said this type of event appeals to the local community.
"We have to educate people, especially our children, to teach them about our heritage," he added.
Ms Trojanovic said the galleries and museums may lack ways to connect with an Emirati audience.
"I do question if we're getting the message out there," she said. She suggested that a lot of information was spread through social media to expatriates, and that locals were not always as well informed.
Jane Bristol-Rhys, head of the upcoming Master's in museum studies at Zayed University, said people such as Ms Al Ali can inspire other Emiratis to enter the field.
"Her research topic is very important as we all consider ways to encourage museum-going in the UAE and the Gulf," he said.