Spotlight on Professor Thilo Rehren

18 March 2014

Thilo Rehren

This week the spotlight is on Professor Thilo Rehren, Director, UCL Qatar.

What is your role and what does it involve?

I lead a relatively young department of UCL; we were formally established in August 2011 as the second international incarnation of UCL, in Doha, Qatar. 

Our academic mission has grown out of the UCL Institute of Archaeology, with whom we continue to work very closely with joint teaching and research activities. 

Within the last two years we have hired more than 30 new staff and faculty, establishing ourselves as a postgraduate teaching and research department in the centre of the Arab and Islamic worlds. 

Situated outside the M25, we need more in-house professional services than other UCL departments. For instance, we need to report to three different financial years, all our staff and the majority of our (current) 75 students need immigration visa and housing provision, and procuring supplies is not as easy as in a common market such as the EU. But then, our range of activities is much broader than that of other departments. 

We maintain a wide range of activities. We have a very active outreach and public engagement unit, almost every week we provide a professional development course for cultural heritage professionals from Qatar and wider regions, and organise monthly public lectures that attract around 100 guests on average. 

We have a lively academic visitor programme that brings both established scholars and PhD students to Qatar for periods of typically three months, in addition to many day visitors. 

Being the only UK university with a public presence in Qatar places UCL very much on the plate, regarding visibility and scrutiny, which makes for many exciting VIP visits and interesting contacts one would not otherwise expect.

My role in all this is to ensure that there is cohesion within the department, and a clear direction and focus on our mission as a research-led higher education institution. 

We are here to act as a bridge between the east and the west, which means strengthening UCL’s research portfolio and outreach as well as contributing to capacity building for the cultural heritage sector in Qatar and the wider region. 

We are establishing UCL’s postgraduate teaching and research culture in topics that are highly relevant for our hosts and the challenges that they face.

How long have you been at UCL and what was your previous role?

I joined UCL in 1999 to take the newly-established Chair for Archaeological Materials & Technologies at the UCL Institute of Archaeology. 

The Institute already had a long and respected tradition in the study of archaeological materials, developed and maintained mostly by honorary professors who were among the founding fathers of our profession.

They continued to teach for several years and were great mentors for my new role. I benefitted even more from the incredibly welcoming and supportive academic and collegial environment at the Institute and the exceptional quality of its students.

I also learned to work with a large analytical laboratory comprising five electron beam instruments, an XRF, optical microscopes and sample preparation, among other equipment – something one would not normally expect in a department of archaeology!

Most rewarding, though, was seeing the tremendous growth of our doctoral programme, with high-flying students from the Americas, Africa, across Europe and throughout Asia. 

For several years we had special studentships for Chinese students as part of the International Centre for Chinese Heritage & Archaeology, a joint centre with Peking University’s School for Museology and Archaeology. 

It is one of the many legacies of Professor Peter Ucko at the Institute, which I looked after for several years after his untimely death in 2007. 

I also lead the Institute for Archaeo-Metallurgical Studies, a UK-registered charity affiliated with the Institute, which for over 40 years now has provided support for students and research projects, which has done a lot to develop archaeometallurgy as an academic discipline.

Before joining UCL, I worked for nearly 10 years as a research scientist at the German Mining Museum in Bochum – their worldwide coverage of early metal production prepared me well for London’s global university and gave me some grounding in archaeology as well.

What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of?

The main big project I’m involved with is UCL Qatar. UCL entrusted me with developing its academic profile and aspirations prior to its formal establishment, as well as with leading it now that it exists.

I can only hope that in years to come I will be able to look back at this as a fair achievement, brought to full splendour and capacity by my successors in this post.

Besides this, I am most proud of the PhD students I have been working with, many of whom have gone on to lectureships and research positions elsewhere, from Cape Town to Beijing, to London (not only at UCL), Greece, Jordan and North America.

Getting these positions is their achievement though, not mine, and they can be rightly proud of this, not me. I am proud of having facilitated an environment here at UCL in which they were able to benefit from the Institute’s unique academic environment, whether they then went on to academic careers or not. 

I may have been a challenging supervisor at times but I like to think that they still have good memories of their time at UCL, and that I have helped them to achieve one of their dreams.

Academically, I think I have made a lasting contribution to our understanding of Bronze Age glassmaking, particularly in Egypt. For over two centuries, Egyptian glass has been admired for its strong colours, artistic beauty and excellent preservation in the dry desert environment. 

However, until quite recently we had hardly any idea how it had been made. Thanks to my work with colleagues and several of my PhD students, we now have a much clearer picture of this marvel of high-temperature technology and applied chemistry.

Tell us about a project you are working on now which is top of your to-do list?

How much time have you got? Prioritising among the many priorities is an ongoing project. 

At present, we are developing a new strategic plan and implementation plan for UCL Qatar. This is replacing the original business plan on which we established ourselves but which we have now outgrown, a year or two ahead of schedule.

The three top priorities here are to simultaneously deliver excellent postgraduate teaching attracting Qatari as well as international students; to establish a cutting-edge research team with PhD students, postdocs and permanent staff and to develop a diverse outreach programme for school children, marginalised communities and expatriates.

None of this would work without the right professional services and administration in place.

What is your favourite album, film and novel?

Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 movie Battleship Potemkin is one I like to watch. On music, I like Bizet’s Carmen, but also Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”. To read — Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

What is your favourite joke (pre-watershed)?

Life — but don’t take me too seriously on this.

Who would be your dream dinner guests?

People who are content with my cooking, don’t bore me with talk about fashion or football and enjoy each other’s company.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Stay in touch with those that are close to you; people die more suddenly than you think.

What would it surprise people to know about you?

It wouldn’t be a surprise any more if I told you now, would it?

What is your favourite place?

Warm springs — both as in a thermal spa and as in the season.