Saturday, 2 November 2019

The Bahrain National Museum - A History

The Bahrain National Museum has a long history preceding its current location. Despite it being one of the earliest modern museums in the Gulf (opening in December 1988) and being a lot more humble than their Gulf counterparts, it is not the first 'version' of the museum. To delve more into this topic, we're going to look at what the United Nations' cultural agency UNESCO reported from its 20th century archives.

Building off from our last post on archaeology in Bahrain, it's important to note that there was very little coordinated archaeological excavation of the ancient sites of Bahrain. These sites included the ruins of the old Portuguese fort outside Manama, the thousands of artificial mounds that covered modern-day A'ali, Hamad Town and Saar, and other various pre-historic temples in Barbar & Saar.
Burial mounds of Bahrain, 1918. (QDL)
The first modern archaeological mission was the Danish expedition in 1952 (This is an excellent article reviewing the history of archaeology in Bahrain) began excavating the Bahrain Fort ruins & burial mounds. Fast forward to 1957 and the first public 'museum' per say opened as a temporary exhibition at the Hidaya Khalifa School in Muharraq. This exhibition of artefacts found in the excavations lasted for a few days but succeeded in drawing crowds and interest in the field of archaeology from the Bahraini community.

A UNESCO report by A. Ghosh in 1968 reported that all excavated artefacts were shipped back to Denmark because of the lack of local museums to showcase them in. An agreement was made between the Danes and the Bahraini govt to return at least 50% of  artefacts if a permanent museum was constructed. In the report (page 20), Ghosh recommended the creation of a national museum, an archaeological society, a law protecting historical artefacts. The report also identified potential national heritage sites for conservation such as the medieval agricultural water canals that enabled agriculture in the north of Bahrain, and other architecturally distinct houses in Manama and Muharraq.

In 1970, the first national museum was opened in Government House in Manama. It was temporary until a more permanent museum was built. The photos below show the opening ceremony of the museum. The same year, the country passed the Antiquities law that protected national artefacts and sites.
Government House museum opening in March 1970
(Source: Bahrain News Agency)
Government House museum opening in March 1970
(Source: Bahrain News Agency) 
Government House museum opening in March 1970
(Source: Bahrain News Agency) 
Government House museum opening in March 1970
(Source: Bahrain News Agency)
A grainy scan of the Government House museum, 1972.
A UNESCO follow up mission in 1972 even provided the architectural blueprint for a National Library and Museum right next to each other. The map shows sites considered for construction of the complex. Plans were even considered to relocate the museum to the planned city of Isa Town but it was decided it would be better to place the museum in the capital.
Map of Manama with potential sites for the museum (UNESCO 1972)

Proposed plans for the National Museum and Library (UNESCO 1972)

ADDENDUM: Although the dates are unclear, the museum was relocated from Government House to the officers' mess at the former site of the Royal Air Force base in Muharraq island.

Evidently, none of the above plans took place as the museum was finally shifted to a purpose-built complex on reclaimed land off the Al Fateh highway in Manama, in 1988. Deemed architecturally pleasing, it was shortlisted for the Aga Khan Architecture Award in 1991.

Note: As of 1 November 2019, all of this is also coincidentally covered in a current exhibition at the Bahrain national museum, I recommend a visit.


  1. Great stuff, you're missing a few steps however. The museum was also housed in Muharraq at the RAF, and then temporarily in the Law Courts and Bab Al Bahrain - although the dates for these periods are a little unclear.

    1. Thank you for your comment, I recall reading something along this line in the museum's official history book from the 1980s, I will appropriately update the text. Thanks for reading and bringing this up!

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