President of the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities, Sheikha Mai Bint Mohammed Al Khalifa previously served as Minister of Culture from 2010 to 2014, Minister of Culture and Information from 2008 to 2010 and Assistant Undersecretary for Culture and National Heritage at the Ministry of Information. MA in Political History from Sheffield University, UK, she was listed as one of the 50 most influential women in the Arab world by Forbes magazine in 2008. She was awarded the Watch Award by the World Monument Fund in 2015 – the first Arab personality to receive the award – in recognition of the singular role she has played in the preservation and protection of culture and heritage in Bahrain. In 2017 she was made the Special Ambassador of the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO).
Sheikha Mai has published a number of books and articles including Charles Belgrave: Biography and Diary (The Arab Publication Establishment, 2000), 100 Years of Education in Bahrain: The Early Years of Establishment (The Arab Publication Establishment, 1999), Mohammed Bin Khalifa 1813–1890: The Legend and the Parallel History (Shaikh Ebrahim Center for Culture & Research, 2014) and The Qarmations: From Concept to State (Shaikh Ebrahim Center for Culture & Research, 2019), among others.
Sheikha Mai is the founder of the Shaikh Ebrahim bin Mohammed Al Khalifa Center for Culture and Research and President of its Board of Directors. An NGO that was established in Muharraq in 2002, the Center has since hosted over 500 speakers, philosophers, poets and thinkers, who have presented their thoughts in the its weekly lecture programme. It has conserved and rehabilitated over 25 traditional Bahraini houses and spearheaded the urban regeneration of the historic city of Muharraq.
Under the leadership of Sheikha Mai, the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities has significantly expanded the number of cultural institutions and programming in Bahrain, including the establishment of the Bahrain National Theatre, the Khalefeyah Library, the Dar Al Muharraq and Dar Al Riffa for traditional music, the Qal’at Al Bahrain site museum and the Al Khamees Mosque visitor centre, as well as the creation of a number of cultural festivals and the inscription of three sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List. She was the commissioner of Reclaim, Bahrain’s contribution to the 2010 Venice Biennale, which was awarded the Golden Lion for best national participation in that year, as well as the commissioner of the Bahrain Pavilion at Expo 2015 in Milan, which was awarded the silver medal for Best Architecture and Landscape.
Recipient of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2019.
The pearling industry was historically crucial to Bahrain’s economy, with the former capital Muharraq as its global centre. Following the development of cultured pearls in the 1930s, the town went into decline and Manama rose to become capital through oil wealth. Muharraq’s indigenous population was largely replaced by migrant workers, mostly single males sharing rented accommodation.
Initiated as a series of restoration and adaptive reuse of a number of edifices under the Sheikh Ebrahim Centre for Culture and Research, the project evolved into a comprehensive programme entitled Pearling Path, Testimony of an Island Economy involving various architects, planners and researchers. The project both highlights the town’s pearling history and aims to re-balance its demographic makeup, enticing local families back through improvements to the environment and provision of community and cultural venues. Facilitated by private–public partnerships, it involves the preservation of a number of sites and numerous buildings, from humble divers’ houses to prestigious courtyard residences to commercial warehouses; plus the upgrading of other façades, and the construction of four new buildings. All of these are connected through a visitor pathway, with vacant plots left by demolitions landscaped as public spaces.
The preservation/restoration of the traditional buildings included reinstating lost wind towers for natural climate control. The materials employed match the originals – notably coral stone reused from demolished structures, and wood. Terrazzo, which became popular in the area in the 1940s for flooring, is utilised extensively for street furniture, and contains flecks of oyster shell. Spherical white streetlamps atop terrazzo posts bring further pearl-related symbolism and assist way-finding.
The new buildings respect the historic environment’s scale and street lines while making bold contemporary architectural statements. The Pearling Path Visitor and Experience Centre and the House of Architectural Heritage adopt a Brutalist aesthetic, the former’s forms echoing the wind towers and coral blocks of traditional neighbouring structures; the Archaeologies of Green Pavilion features a series of interlinking gardens containing indigenous plants; and the Dar Al Jinaa Centre for Traditional Music is inventively cloaked in chain mail, shielding against solar glare while allowing a constant breeze. Music events here and elsewhere in the programme include performances of pearl-fishers’ songs.
Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, all new planning applications are reviewed by the project team to ensure further developments are in keeping with the scheme’s overarching objectives.
Source: Aga Khan Trust for Culture - Aga Khan Award for Architecture