Preserving the past



Aftab H. Kola

Published — Wednesday 4 September 2013

Last update 26 December 2013 3:55 pm

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A journey through the privately owned Bait Al-Zubair museum in Muscat is one into the past as the artifacts reflect the legacy of the period in which they were used, and symbolize the superb craftsmanship of those times. They are also mute witnesses to the social and economic prosperity of the past. The museum provides a crucial link between the past and the posterity of Oman.
The richness and culture of Oman is aptly treasured in Bait Al-Zubair Museum. Housed in a building originally called Bait Al-Bagh (The House of Gardens) amid the meandering lanes of mystical Muscat and close to the old Bab Al Kabeer (The Large Gate), the museum has one of Oman’s finest and most comprehensive collections of heritage items. Opened in February 1998, originally Bait Al-Zubair (House of Al-Zubair) served as a meeting place for poets, scholars and culturally inclined persons. Today, the building combines traditional Omani architectural design and modern elements, a reflection of its former owner’s interest in culture.
As I enter the museum compound my gaze falls upon an old Omani Town House, which graphically depicts the architectural style of homes and the lifestyle of its people between the 1920s and 1970s. It has been recreated using traditional material and design. The museum enables the visitors to step back in time and experience how people lived. Inside the compound you can also see the falaj, once the lifeline of Oman. Furthermore, the Arab dhow in the compound is a reminder of Oman’s maritime past. It also features a souq, palm-frond summerhouse, locally called barasti and Omani miniature village.
Moving inside the main museum, the sight of a treasure trove of heritage items neatly displayed and bathed in a glow of light feasts my eyes. It is Oman of yore encapsulated. Mohammad Al-Zubair, the founding owner of the museum, once noted, “The aim of the collection is not only to promote the value of Omani heritage but it is to maintain, preserve and study it, so that the future generation will be able to sustain their Islamic and Arabic identity and tradition.” — Wise words from a man who, increasingly aware of historical heritage, has painstakingly collected artifacts in order to preserve them for posterity. Sarah White, who played a leading role in the creation and later development of Bait Al-Zubair and who was the arts adviser of the Bait Al-Zubair Foundation and museum director of Bait Al-Zubair Museum, died recently. Her loss is greatly felt. She was a great friend of mine and was well versed with Oman’s cultural heritage and I felt that a mention to her is a must when talking about Bait Al-Zubair Museum.
Bait Al-Zubair’s displays encompass traditional costumes, weaponry, jewelry, household utensils and body adornments. Young Omani guides, armed with a sound knowledge of museum exhibits and Omani history, take visitors around the museum to explain the exhibits.
The vast repertoire of weapons leaves visitors spellbound. It tells the tale that Oman had a chequered past of fighting outside forces and dealing with intra-tribal rivalries. Prominently displayed are the khanjars (curved daggers in ornamental scabbard) in distinctive styles representing different regions. The ornate silver work on the khanjars varies in design according to where they originate. There is a spectacular display of swords, used as weapons until the introduction of rifles in the 19th century. Among the array of weaponry collections, a pair of handsome cannons, placed at the end of the gallery inside the main museum building, stands out. His Majesty Sultan Qaboos Bin Said presented the cannons to the museum at the inauguration.
The section that displays women’s jewelry and attire always attract a good crowd. In olden days, jewelry in Oman was predominantly of good quality silver. The exhibits here include a wide gamut of jewelry like the hirz (a sort of lucky charm box, which would traditionally contain a verse from the holy Qur’an or other script deemed to have protective powers to ward off bad spirits and keep the owner safe from harm and ill health), elaborate necklaces, head ornaments, anklets, bracelets (called bangeri or hajala), rings, etc.
Interesting displays in the costumes gallery are the orhaf (original platform shoes), amazingly high-heeled sandals that kept the feet dry and clear of dirt. Dishdasha (the Omani male dress), kumma (embroidered cap), msarr (head turban), bisht (the black cloak worn by men on formal occasions), etc. make for the male costumes displays.
The ladies costumes are elaborate, multi-layered and very colorful. Bait Al-Zubair Museum shows the regional differences that make Oman’s women distinct. Displays show variations of traditional female dress from Muscat, Batinah, Musandam, Sharqiyah and Dhofar.
Among the prized rare collections are the hand-written holy Qur’an scripts dating back to 1908, given to the Zubair family as a gift by a close friend; the title deed of the house, signed in 1914 when it was known as Bait Al Bagh; two soap stone vessels that date back to the third and first millennium BC; and swords dating back to 400 years, some of which were used by the Portuguese. The household display enclave features cookery items, furniture articles, incense burners (called majmars), coffee pots, pottery and artifacts that demonstrate Omani craftsmanship spanning centuries.
The museum is equipped with a moderate library offering scholars and researchers an opportunity to extend their knowledge of Oman and its cultural heritage.
The museum has produced three well-documented publications — the first launched in 2002 entitled “Oman, My Beautiful Country,” was the first in a series dedicated to highlighting Oman’s diverse landscape and promoting it as a tourist destination. It features the photographs and writings of Mohammad Al-Zubair, who is not only an avid collector but also an ace photographer. The second in this series is called “Landscapes of Dhofar.” Another book published recently, co-authored by Mohammad Al-Zubair and Professor Vincent McBrierty, reveals Oman’s development over the last six millennia and examines it’s past, present and future. This book is called “Oman, Ancient Civilization: Modern Nation, Towards a Knowledge and Service Economy.” Windows on Oman is the last published book by Mohammad Al-Zubair. The latest projects entitled Oman Architecture Journey took seven years to be completed.
According to Abdullah ibn Nasser Al-Busaidi, the communications and public relations manager of Bait Al-Zubair Museum, “The museum has facilities for private banquets and curator-led museum tours, staff parties, workshops and conferences, lectures, press conferences, meetings, product launches and commercial exhibitions. The halls for the purpose include the 200-people capacity Bait Al-Oud, 50-people capacity Bait Al-Dalaleel, the Barasti Hut and the Terrace.”
He adds, “Museum professionals have created colorful and lively PowerPoint presentations in Arabic and English that introduce a variety of topics relating to Oman’s history and cultural heritage. Each lasts 30-45 minutes and must be selected from the lecture menu and booked at least one week prior to an event.”
Bait Al-Oud (grand house), opened at the beginning of 2008 as part of the museum’s 10th anniversary celebrations. This three-story building contains a large temporary exhibition hall and reception area on the ground floor, while the first floor includes early European maps of the Arabian Peninsula and typical Muscati furniture. Lastly, the second floor includes early prints of the Arabian Peninsula and photographs of Muscat with an exhibit of historic cameras.
Bait Al-Nahdhah (House of the Renaissance) pays homage to the Renaissance (Al Nahdhah) period led by His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said. It is dedicated to the promotion of the arts and was opened in 2011. There are four floors on which an ever-growing art collection can be viewed. On the first floor there is also a multi-purpose hall with a stage and state-of-the-art audio visual equipment that can hold 250 people, as well as other venues in the same building that take from 20 to 250 people. Exhibited is the work of over 30 Omani artists that form part of the museum’s permanent collection.
It includes artwork by some of Oman’s leading and developing artists together with international artists. There is a vast range of themes and concepts. Artworks have been collected over a number of years and some Omani artists also produced special pieces. A series by Mohammad Al-Zubair called ‘Our Beautiful World’ is also displayed in a series of photographs. Bait Al-Zubair Foundation is proud that this art collection, together with its collection exhibited in the main building of The Zubair Corporation and throughout Shangri-La’s Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa, forms the largest art collection of Omani artists in the Sultanate of Oman.

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