Appointed General Manager of the Bait Al Zubair Foundation a few months ago, Paul Doubleday first arrived in Muscat in 2010 to assume the post of Director of the British Council. Paul's career, which will soon span a quarter century, has taken him to five different countries in the region (Sudan, Yemen, Pakistan, Jordan, Syria), as well as the South Caucasus. His working life has been marked by adventure and interesting projects in education and the arts.
After finishing his first degree, the young Paul Doubleday hopped on a plane to Sudan where he taught English as a volunteer. It was a modest start to a career in which he would head British Council Offices in four countries. Paul was awarded an OBE by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth for developing cultural relations between the arts sector in Oman and Syria, which included production of the first major children's exhibition at Tate Britain in 2007.
You were just finishing your term as Director of the British Council when you were offered the GM post at Bait Al Zubair Foundation. Please recount some highlights in your career that might be of interest to our readers.
I think many readers would have been excited to see an exhibition which we held in the atmospheric setting of a caravansari in Damascus in 2008. Titled Masterpieces in Ceramic, this amazing exhibition came from the renowned Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
There are many stories to tell about historic events in the region such as when British Council staff had to be evacuated because of imminent civil war or military coups, but what is most memorable for me are the creative activities. A highlight was when I was in Georgia producing a theatre piece called 'Do we look like Refugees?' which travelled to the Edinburgh Festival and won 3 gold star prizes.
The late Sarah White held your post for almost two decades and you were among her closest friends. In some ways, you must be carrying on her work. Tell us what you feel Sarah achieved and how you are building on that.
I am. Sarah's work lives on day by day in Bait al Zubair. Her hand is apparent in nearly everything that has been done in the Museum. You can almost hear her speak in some of the texts. Sarah helped shape an amazing museum and cultural space. Under the leadership of Mohammad Al Zubair, Sarah White and the Bait al Zubair team built a comprehensive collection of Omani heritage items and contemporary art, encouraging millions of visitors to learn about Oman's culture, its history and its future. That was an amazing feat.
I see Bait al Zubair's role moving into further cultural development work, such as assisting arts professionals to enhance their skills and networks. We will host more exhibitions, featuring both Omani and international artists, building on connections and providing new opportunities for people to present their creativity. We hope that in the future we will be known as an innovative cultural hub that promotes past, present and future creativity.
Bait Al Zubair is a multifaceted institution with two art galleries, a museum, an exhibition hall, and a historic house. What does Bait Al Zubair offer to the public that is special – and how do you envisage the institution's on-going relationship with Muscat's other museums and galleries?
What is special about Bait al Zubair is precisely that link to the past, present and future. It is not a place stuck in the past, but a unique space for people to explore the past in the dynamic context of the present and future. Our relationships are very good – it is all about networking, sharing and complementing one another.
No single organisation has a monopoly on culture, no one space surpasses another. Each space has its own character, each collection is special – and, taken together, they offer a rich and panoramic insight into this diverse nation.
What do you personally especially like about Bait Al Zubair?
The atmosphere – it is purely magical from the minute you walk into the buildings, through the collections at Bait al Bagh and Bait Al Oud, then into Bait Dalaleel for refreshments - and on to Bait al Nahdah to explore some of the finest art produced in Oman. Every day I discover something different, learn something new and listen to amazing stories about this country.
A while ago, you and Sarah organized Out of Britain, a major exhibition of works from the British Council's extensive art collection. It was an impressive exhibition – visually as well as educationally.
Tell us about your philosophy of exhibiting and what we might expect from Bait Zubair in the future.
Bringing international exhibitions to Oman is a huge privilege. I believe by doing so, a little of the world comes to Oman to share its beauty, to discover what is happening here and to stimulate artists to push themselves just a little bit more.
Over the coming years I hope to do more of this, supporting Omanis to discover something new, something beautiful - sometimes sad, sometimes exuberant - but most of all something of a shared heritage. Artistic expression comes from one's experience, one's history and heritage, often transformed into something else. By sharing that something, one can learn just a little more about the other.
Bait Al Nahdha has a permanent collection of works by local artists that spans the last few decades.
Please tell us a little about this collection - what a few of your favourite pieces are and why you like them.
Bait al Zubair Foundation has been collecting and commissioning contemporary Omani art since its inception in 2005. Bait al Nahdha now exhibits over 30 Omani artists, including leading as well as emerging artists. The collection encompasses the art of photography, including a stunning series of photographs by Mohammad Al Zubair called 'Our Beautiful World'.
Bait Al Zubair Foundation is proud that the Bait Al Nadha collection, along with sister collections found in The Zubair Corporation headquarters and throughout Shangri-La's Barr Al Jissah Resort & Spa, constitutes the largest collection of works by Omani artists in the Sultanate.
Some of my favourite pieces include Juma al Harthy's Masterpiece of Jabreen 2; Heritage 1 by Mohammed al Mamari; and, one of Alia al Farsi's earlier works, Spaces of Eternity. Sarah White's A life Eclectic is wonderful - a piece which, for me, evokes Sarah's life and personality.
Gallery Sarah has had a number of excellent exhibitions since it opened last year and is proving very popular.
What draws people to Gallery Sarah between exhibitions?
What draws people to Gallery Sarah is primarily the atmosphere and the service, the way in which Farah, our Gallery Manager, works with the public, the knowledge she has about the artwork and the time she spends with people. She enhances the visitor experience by offering coffee, engaging people in the art, and introducing them to something new and fascinating.
You could have stayed with the British Council and moved on to an assignment somewhere else in the world.
Apart from the job, what is it about Oman that led you to stay?
A good friend of mine lives here. We first met some twenty-five years ago in Yemen. My friend said Oman will pull you in; it will keep you - its beauty, its calmness, its sense of being, and most of all the relaxed sense of time. My friend was right!!!
It is obvious that you are well-organised, work hard and are dedicated the advancement of art & culture.
What do you like to do in your leisure time that is different from your job?
I love cooking, creating something lovely to eat in the evening, walking on the beach, seeing the early morning light – and, when there is time, catching up with the latest TV detective series.