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Story | Education
27 January 2021

In her own words: Why COVID-19 should make us all appreciate the value of art


The Doha Fire Station arts hub, with an installation on its exterior reading “A blessing in disguise”.

Marwa Ahmed, a member of QF’s Internal Communication team, looks back on her experience of completing a Master’s degree amid a pandemic, as part of the final graduating class of UCL Qatar.

In balancing remote working, researching and writing a dissertation, and attending online modules, the past year could be considered less a course of study, and more an extreme sport.

As 2020 turned into 2021, it allowed me to reflect on my academic journey during the pandemic

Marwa Ahmed

But it actually made my Master’s degree in Museums and Gallery Practice from UCL Qatar – as part of its graduating class of 2020 and its last cohort as a Qatar Foundation partner university – an even more significant milestone in my life. And as 2020 turned into 2021, it allowed me to reflect on my academic journey during the pandemic, the university’s impact on my life interests, and its role in Qatar’s burgeoning museum and art scene.

While the country was under lockdown, it was a challenging task to balance the many hats I was wearing while still working on my time-management and engaging in healthy coping skills. Time – especially screen time – was compartmented throughout the day with the aim of not just being productive, but also tending to my mental health.

Marwa Ahmed (right) during her UCL Qatar Master’s degree course.

Finding healthy, emotion-focused coping activities for myself was very crucial, such as exercising around Education City. Although I wished to be with my family during these times, I’m lucky to have been safe and cared for while quarantining in Education City, which relieved a lot of anxiety.

With the lack of human interaction, the lockdown period has also blurred the lines between physical reality and the virtual world

Marwa Ahmed

With the lack of human interaction, the lockdown period has also blurred the lines between physical reality and the virtual world. Museums, much like social media platforms, are considered an abstract form of communication. They involve lots of research that is organized and designed to communicate ideas in a creative or informative display.

During my last semester of studies, digital culture and heritage were important topics in our online class discussions and were, understandably, very relevant to the times. We saw many museums in Qatar and across the world shut down, revert to digital platforms, and open their collections for a larger and more international audience. We cannot ignore the fact that online museums take away from the unique experience of visiting a museum and the real-life, non-pixelated interaction with artefacts. Social media platforms carry huge amounts of content which can distract the viewer from effectively contemplating, reflecting on and exploring art pieces or ancient artifacts.

The Student Housing area at QF was Marwa Ahmed’s quarantine zone during her studies.

I personally believe that the physical space of the museum is now more important than ever. I’m the type of person who will travel to a country or a city just to check out a specific museum. Being in the physical space of a museum gives me the opportunity to unplug and disconnect from the outside world and get lost in an artist’s work or a moment in history – a feeling I cannot get from any technological device. I hope the post-COVID world and future generations continue to advocate for and recognize the need for museums, along with their new virtual extension.

During the final semester of my program, I was also enrolled in a Placement module, which required us to gain some real-world experience and insight through a 20-day internship at a cultural institution of our choosing. My interests at the time were mostly focused on cultural heritage policies, ethics and law and luckily, I was offered an internship opportunity at the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) at their regional ICCROM branch in Sharjah, UAE. It worked perfectly because the project I was assigned to do at ICCROM was extremely relevant to my dissertation, which focused on the importance of community museums in Sudan.

Msheireb Museums

Although I couldn’t travel for my internship, I’m very grateful for all the opportunities UCL Qatar has provided for myself and many other students, providing us with the knowledge and expertise, and preparing future cultural leaders through their post-graduate and doctoral education programs. UCL’s Qatar campus was an opportunity for those of us who live here, while also bringing in an international crowd of students to be enrolled in a unique range of post-graduate degrees that are highlighting the importance of museums, libraries and cultural heritage. That’s especially true in this part of the world, where there is a great deal of historical art for people to learn about, such as historical artifacts or modern, experimental art pieces.

A year of self-isolation and social distancing has brought a new appreciation for museums and cultural heritage sites around the country

Marwa Ahmed

Although UCL’s Qatar campus has now come to an end, its influence and partnerships in research will continue to impact Qatar’s cultural heritage sphere, which remains a national priority. The museum and art scene in Qatar have come a long way in promoting cultural heritage and the arts - from the National Museum of Qatar, to the iconic Museum of Islamic Arts and the first of its kind Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art. Msheireb Downtown Doha has become a vibrant design district for art enthusiasts with galleries and exhibitions that showcase remarkable works by local or Qatar-based artists.

The Museum of Islamic Art

A year of self-isolation and social distancing has brought a new appreciation for museums and cultural heritage sites around the country. Families and expats who were not able to travel outside of Doha became local tourists and visited exhibitions, whether viewing Picasso’s studio works at Doha Fire Station or peeking into Sheikh Saoud Al Thani’s impressive collection at MIA. For those who wanted an outdoor experience, they could visit Al Zubarah, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Zekreet, or Richard Serra’s East-west / West-east in the desert. Public art installations are appearing more frequently and street murals are now adding positivity to the streets of Doha, while artists can now express their creativity, culture and stories.

As the art scene continues to grow in Doha, museums have become progressively more popular, offering residents and tourists not only entertainment, but also an active, learning experience. The region also plans to encourage creation of art and to support local artistic talent as part of strategic objectives for cultural development and economic opportunity. I believe art in all its form is the most important thing we can create or experience, because of its power to connect us during these isolating times.

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