As director-general of Sharjah Museums Authority, Manal Ataya ’01 manages a diverse range of museums in her native United Arab Emirates. France recently awarded Ataya its Chevalier des Arts et Lettres, one of the country’s highest awards for cultural contributions. In the last few years the two countries have engaged in joint cultural initiatives. We asked Ataya to tell us about her work.
Why is the Sharjah Museums Authority important?
Culture is central to social cohesion and lays the foundation for intercultural understanding and dialogue. [The authority] was established in 2006 to strengthen and nurture the cultural scene in the UAE and the emirate of Sharjah in particular. For the last 10 years I have been responsible for the overall management of 17 museums ranging from art to archaeology, the strategic planning of future cultural projects, and building partnerships with global museum institutions. My role also includes work in the area of cultural diplomacy and cultural heritage preservation.
How did you get from Hamilton to where you are now?
I owe being in Hamilton’s environment to giving me a strong belief in myself and what I could accomplish. Particular faculty members encouraged me to pursue postgraduate study, so after I graduated I applied to the few U.S. programs in museum studies. I knew I would not be a practicing artist; however, I wanted to combine my love for art and education. Museums were the obvious career move for me. After graduating with a master’s from Harvard, I came back to the UAE in 2004 and was the only person in the country with a degree in this field. Fortunately I was recommended for a position as the founding deputy director of a new authority. Two years on I was promoted to my current position.
Among your accomplishments, what are you most excited about?
What excites me the most about my career so far is that I have witnessed unbelievable milestones in the development of the arts and culture arena in my country. I am proud to have played a significant role in this and know that I have built, with my team, a sustainable institution from the ground up. I recently launched a dream project of mine called Museums Express, which was in the making for two years. It’s an arts education initiative that brings a mobile coach bus fitted with an exhibition to schools in rural areas of the Emirate of Sharjah. I wanted to find a solution for children unable to experience museums because of their geographical distance to the city. The program provides free visits to schools alongside art workshops we deliver onsite. We are impacting thousands of students by the end of this year, and I hope to take it nationwide.