In Riyadh’s Al Murabba neighbourhood that’s steeped in heritage, a historical building evocative of the Red Sand echoes with the Kingdom’s storied treasures. It’s The National Museum of Saudi Arabia, where you’re in for an experience of slow-down, move-close looking and thinking. It’s home to over 3,700 artifacts including scripts and sculptures that of- fer scintillating insight into representations of the region, from prehistoric to modern ages.

Envisioned by Canadian architect Raymond Moriyama, The National Museum of Saudi Arabia was established as part of the King Abdulaziz Historical Center in 1999 to mark the cen- tennial celebration of the Kingdom’s unification. It’s a place of learning and discovery—designed as a symbol of reverence for Islam and Arab heritage. “At the time of its inception, there were no other public museums around,” says Laila Alfaddagh, Director General at The National Museum of Saudi Arabia. “The institution was conceived to provide a space that show- cases our national heritage.”

Laila Alfaddagh, Director General at The National Museum of Saudi Arabia
Laila Alfaddagh, Director General of The National Museum of Saudi Arabia Image Credit: Courtesy of Photo, R.R

The building’s central feature is a curved west wall of local limestone, stretching along the Murabba Square and Palace Garden, which forms a crescent shape that points towards Makkah. It has a contemporary design language and the visual impact of a canyon wall lining a wadi, nodding to Riyadh’s ori- gin as an oasis in the desert.

“You’ll be amazed to know that almost everything that’s on display at The National Museum was found in the Kingdom,” states Laila. “What’s fascinating is that most of the objects it houses come from numerous excavation sites located across the country. Through international partnerships with entities such as universities, the Museum has been able to share local treasures with the world. As we continue to grow, we’ll secure and nurture new and existing partnerships to broaden and en- hance its collection.”

Inside The National Museum, an experiential journey unfolds across eight galleries, starting from one dedicated to Man and the Universe. This section features interactive showcases that survey areas like the solar system, early days of human society, and regional geology, geography and flora and fau- na. The whole historical vocabulary of the Kingdom is on view here, with the display including a large meteorite fragment that was part of the Wabar Craters, a group of meteorite craters discovered in 1932 in the Rub’ al-Khalī desert of Saudi Arabia.

The Arab Kingdoms gallery presents 14 pre-Islamic king- doms that existed in the Arabian Peninsula from 5000 BCE to 700 AD, housing ancient artifacts originating from the Ubaid Period to the Ghassanid Dynasty, among others. Laila reveals that the section is home to the treasures of Tarut, a historic is- land in the Eastern province of Saudia Arabia. “Whilst a group of archaeologists was excavating in Tarut, they came across a coffin that looked like it had statues for legs. When it was opened, they found skeletal remains of a pre-teen girl who was covered in a gold mask, coins and jewellery,” she shares. “No one knows who she was or where she came from, so we fondly call her the ‘Unknown Queen’. You can see some of her trea- sures on display at the Museum.”

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In front of the curved wall of the The National Museum of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh. Image Credit:

Next is a hall dedicated to the Pre-Islamic Era, also known as the Jahiliya Era, which reflects Arab life before the arrival of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), and highlights life at the time in cities like Makkah and Yathrib. This is followed by a hall on the first floor, devoted to the PBUH Mission—charting his life and lineage with a tree illustrating his family members. Here, visitors can walk through a bridge that’s connected to the next gallery, symbolically depicting a cross-over from a time of ignorance to the birth of Islam.

The next three galleries are dedicated to; Islam and the Arabian Peninsula with a focus on the advent of the religion, and World War I when the Ottoman Empire was dissolved; the First and The Second Saudi States that spotlights their culture and his- tory from 1744 till 1824; and the Unification of the Kingdom, which examines how King Abdulaziz Al-Saud regained Riyadh and formed the Third Saudi State in 1902.

The journey is rounded off with The Hajj and the Two Holy Mosques section, featuring a large model of Makkah and its surroundings. It highlights the significance of Masjid Al Haram and Masjid Al Nabawi, and the role King Abdul Aziz played in developing these structures that are unifying forces for Muslims around the world. “Across the galleries, visitors can enjoy learning about the different civilisations that existed in Saudi Arabia, and their way of life and arts and culture,” Laila notes.

Among the pièces de résistance at the Museum is the ‘Van Cleef & Arpels: Time, Nature, Love’ exhibition that runs until 15 April 2023. The showcase offers a luminous look inside the universe of the French high jewellery Maison, presenting ex- quisitely handsome creations that combine fine artisanship with mechanical ingenuity and operational delight—from pieces previously owned by Monaco’s Princess Grace Kelly to Queen Nazli Sabri and Princess Fawzia Fuad of Egypt.

“Societies around the world are intricately connected through our shared histories, and this exhibition activates a cultural dia- logue between them—promoting art, culture and heritage as glo- bal languages of communication,” Laila holds. “It was curated with the intention of providing an extraordinary experience centered around three themes, Time, Nature and Love, which represent the core values of Van Cleef & Arpels. The pieces are characterised by exceptional storytelling, and the immersive exhibit design reflects the unique work of the Maison.”

A first in the Kingdom, the Van Cleef & Arpels display features around 280 pieces of jewellery, watches and precious ob- jects, and over 90 archival documents, sketches and gouaché designs created since the brand’s founding in 1906. Curated by Alba Cappellieri, Professor of Jewellery Design at Milan Polytechnic University and President of the Milano Fashion Institute, with scenography by architect-designer Johanna Grawunder, the exhibition also offers an extensive program of talks with regional and international speakers on topics, such as ‘Saudi Arabia’s Influence in Local Industry’, adult and child- ren’s workshops, and other educational activities.

Whilst a new strategy for the Museum’s curatorial direction is being developed, the space currently comprises a few signi- ficant works by Saudi artists like Saad Al Howede. “Saad’s pieces exemplify the ceaseless search for innovation, preci- sion and artistry, whilst remaining close to tradition,” explains Laila. “Drawing inspiration from the urban diversity of Saudi Arabia, he created a decorative unit titled Shamsa that cap- tures the timeline of the country’s architecture and preserves its unique identity.”

Laila shares that Saad’s artwork incorporates elements of bisht, the traditional men’s cloak made with gold and silver threads, which has been worn for thousands of years. “It re- flects a journey of rediscovering the homeland—from Bedouin

tents and mud houses to modern urban renaissance, and the luxurious handcrafted bishouts with hand-stitched intricate detailing along the seams.”

As Saudi Arabia continues to experience a cultural sea change as part of the Vision 2030 plan, the Museum is playing a si- gnificant role in bolstering the Kingdom’s position as an es- sential stop in the international art circuit. “We’re nurturing an enthusiastic domestic audience through diverse programming aimed at raising awareness about how museums can celebrate culture and enrich lives,” states Laila. “With a great variety of exhibitions, seminars, workshops and activities, the Museum has the power to shape our society. It addresses key social is- sues that help us learn from the past and transform how we see the future.”

The National Museum of Saudi Arabia promises an expertly executed balancing act, with upcoming projects that’ll conti- nue to be developed both in-house and curated alongside na- tional and international partners. “We’re excited to share the country’s unique story and maximize our role in providing do- mestic and international visitors with access to high quality exhibitions that contribute to the development of the local mu- seum sector,” notes Laila.

“We’ll also look for innovative ways to highlight our permanent galleries and objects on display whilst showcasing them in a different light. We’re committed to ensuring that our exhibi- tions are accessible to all. There’s something for everyone at The National Museum of Saudi Arabia.”