x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Recruiting Emiratis to sell the past

American University of Sharjah is offering a course to train the country's curators of tomorrow.

An archive photo shows maritime activity in the UAE before the prosperity that followed the discovery of oil.
An archive photo shows maritime activity in the UAE before the prosperity that followed the discovery of oil.

SHARJAH // Heritage is becoming big business in the Emirates and the demand for home-grown experts, particularly in the tourism industry, is increasing. In an effort to meet this challenge, the American University of Sharjah (AUS) has created a graduate certificate in Museum and Heritage Studies that will target local people as part of a drive to recruit more Emiratis to the heritage and tourism fields.

"With all the new museums they are building they have a real need for qualified people and they shouldn't need to fly them in," said Dr Pia Anderson, the course head. "It's better if they can hire people from here, locals or people who have been here a long time at least." The programme, which will be launched in autumn 2010, was created in response to the demand for expertise from the city's 16 museums and heritage sites.

Officials hope the year-long course will provide a pool of talent for Sharjah and develop experts who will also be available for places such as Abu Dhabi, with its array of museums and galleries due to open in the coming years on Saadiyat Island. Many curators currently working in UAE museums are imported from around the world. But it is vital to have nationals in positions to educate others on Emirati culture and heritage, said Dr Stephen Keck, the head of the International Studies department at AUS.

"It's not always good to have expats in the field of culture. Westerners across the world such as in the field of Orientalism have often misunderstood things about Asian culture," he said. "Locals will just understand the finer points far better." Since he began teaching at the university, Dr Keck said, he has found that many local people feel that their heritage has become cliched, with a superficial focus and too great an emphasis placed on camel racing, pearling and the traditional yola dance, performed by men.

"Many locals feel their culture is much richer than that. They can open doors that outsiders can't." As well as course work, the programme will give students 180 hours of field work, "gearing them for the workplace", said Dr Keck. They will be encouraged to find placements in Abu Dhabi or abroad. Subjects will include exhibition design, museum management, programme administration, history of heritage, world heritage sites, material culture in the Gulf and the conservation of buildings.

There will also be an emphasis on the tourism industry and its dependence on heritage in the wider context. "Tourism is one of the biggest industries in the world now," said Dr Keck. "We think this should be very versatile so that people can go and work in any number of possible fields." The course is the first of its kind in the country and it has taken two years for the department to receive accreditation for it from the Ministry of Higher Education.

"Students shouldn't have to travel abroad for these kind of subjects," said Dr Anderson. The idea for a new programme began when the Sharjah Museums Department approached the university, asking it to provide a course for its staff, Dr Keck explained. "There is a significant gap in Arabic heritage," he said. "We are serving a wider region and are hoping to be a beacon here for the region." The Museums Department has offered its locations and experts, as well as museum space, for students to take part in on-site education.

The course will also focus on the heritage of the Gulf region. With new museums and galleries such as the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha opening, the university hopes that students will be able to use their skills in the wider world. Last year, the department began its drive to Emiratise, reporting 83 per cent nationalisation of jobs across its museums which include the aquarium, archaeology, maritime, calligraphy, Islamic civilisation, natural history and science museums. It currently offers traineeships for graduates, reaffirming its commitment to recruiting and developing the careers of nationals.

The Emirati curator Nasser Mohammed, of the Sharjah Archaeology Museum, said that the proposed course has received a lot of interest from his Emirati friends and colleagues. "It's going to be perfect for the industry. We have been having many meetings on this with the university and it will focus on so many areas that will develop the sector, everything from the interior design of a museum and exhibition curation to management and day-to-day operations."

When he studied for his degree in history and archaeology at Al Ain University, just 10 per cent of the studies were focused on archaeology. He has now worked at the museum for three years and believes there will be a big change in the UAE's heritage industry with the help of such developments. "We are just 38 years old. We don't have a 200- or 300-year history in this field. But the change has started and things will be very different over the next five years."

The country is learning, he added, to sell its heritage to the world, introducing other societies and cultures to the rich history of the UAE. Aicha Dimas, the curator of the Museum of Islamic Civilisation, who is also an Emirati, is hoping to be one of the first students to take the course next year. Ms Dimas, who studied International Studies at AUS, has worked at the Museums Department since 2006 and said that the course would open many new doors for Emiratis.

"People are very attached to their families here. It's not always possible to get up and travel abroad for a number of years to study a course like this so the fact we have this here is great. It will allow us the chance to look further within our own identity." Ms Dimas, 25, gained her experience on the job and has been at the museum since it opened last year. She said stereotypes about working in industries were changing as people realised the importance of tourism and heritage from a cultural and economic point of view.

"It's a growing industry here in the UAE, not just in Sharjah," she said. "We are very lucky to have the support of the Government, which can make taking these jobs very financially viable. "For Emiratis, culture and heritage is a part of who we are. It's part of our identity. Whether they realise that or not is a different issue." Many Emiratis agree about the importance of heritage. Abdallah Rashed Mattar Abdallah Bellushi, 46, an engineer, said: "People need to understand how we were living before, and how this nation came into being. We were living as fishermen and on camels. Before petrol there was nothing, we built what we had: this is our heritage and this is what people should know about the UAE. Look how far we have come, now we have stability and peace and success."

Mohammed Khalifah Mohammed, 57, who is retired, agrees. "We should teach the new generation about how we lived before the union [in 1971], before the oil, and what they learned and how they struggled. People should visit our heritage spots when they come, they should see the old villages and the old houses - without these things we would not be here today.

Sara Hassan al Marzouki, 30, said: "I think we are missing a focus on heritage in this country, and it's sad. It's as if we're trying to become this European entity, which we are not. We have aspects that we should highlight and be proud of; we should have our own prestigious museum instead of importing others." mswan@thenational.ae * Additional reporting by Zahra Hankir