On the Move: About the Galleries

The galleries in On the Move highlight the complex and beautiful cultural forms created and maintained by pastoralists.

Share with a friend

Between Prejudice and Romance

The nomadic pastoralists of the central Sahara and Qatar and the herders of Mongolia have been widely misrepresented by outsiders, whether within their regions or in Western imaginations. Sometimes feared for their independence, they are also disdained for their rough and rugged lives. Other times they are romanticised as fierce warriors or as people living close to nature. These stereotypes are perpetuated in mass media and advertising, and in art, cinema and literature. Even some academic works contribute to these impressions. Can we get beyond these stereotypes? This section of the exhibition invites you to reflect: What lies beyond the ‘tunnel of narrow-mindedness’?

Black and white photograph of two people constructing a tent

© Moesgaard Museum

Homes for People on the Move

Portable dwellings in various parts of the world share common features. For pastoralists who move with their herds to new pastures as seasons change or for social reasons, the dwelling is designed to be readily dismantled, packed and transported.

The interior is carefully organized, with areas dedicated to specific tasks or members of the household.

The living space includes the area around the dwelling as well, where for example meals may be prepared or other domestic work done.

Great skill and knowledge go into making the dwelling, which is made from felt, woven wool, leather or other natural materials and may feature elements such as carved wooden tent poles, decorated partitions and painted roof wheels.

In the Mountain Valleys of the Central Sahara

During winter, the Imuhar nomads live in and around tents. These dwellings afford protection against cold winds and sandstorms but are light enough to be transported on one camel. A camp of a few tents, each home to a family, is set up in a valley near a pasture for the herds and a source of water and wood.

The mother and her children travel with this household, at times every two weeks, to another valley, while her husband often travels without a tent searching for lost camels.

Al Barr of Qatar

Easily packed and transported, the dwellings of the nomads of Qatar respond to the needs of a population on the move in the harsh and changeable desert environment. The camp usually houses an extended family. Relatives tend to camp together, with six or more tents pitched in a single line or arc. The living space includes the area immediately outside the tent. The space inside is divided into separate sections for men and male guests on one side and women on the other.

The Mongolian Ger: One Dwelling, Two Ways of Living

The sturdy, transportable domed-shaped ger of the Mongolian steppes is used as a home today by both mobile herders and those who have settled down on the outskirts of towns and cities.

About half of the gers in Mongolia are fixed dwellings on plots of fenced-in land, in ger districts in the capital city Ulaanbaatar and province centers.

For those who move with their herds seasonally, gers are usually set up together to form an encampment that can include the homes of several family units. For some families the homestead also includes permanent structures such as animal pens, utility sheds and small storage gers.

Intertwined Living: People and Animals

Pastoralists live in close proximity with animals. Their interdependence with the herd animals they care for is based on close attention, intimate knowledge and incredible skills related to different animals’ needs and natures.

On Familiar Terrain

For the mobile pastoralists who live and move through them, what appear as majestic or barren landscapes are deeply known and familiar terrain.

They meet the challenges of living in some of the world’s most extreme environments with ingenuity, turning what might appear to be scarce resources into valuable sustenance.

Intimate knowledge of their environments infuses their language, their imaginations and their spiritual lives.

Wind and weather, birds and animals, the mountains, the wilderness and water appear again and again in the songs, poetry and proverbs through which they express feelings and pass on life’s lessons.

The Art of Living

Mobile pastoralists, like most people, interpret and make sense of their lives and the world around them through a rich array of cultural practices and creative forms.

They respond to the demands of a challenging environment and the herding way of life with inventiveness, imagination and the support of others around them, whether family, neighbours or friends.

Through the vibrant imagery and emotional power of their songs, stories and poems, they express themselves, instruct their young, re-interpret and re-invent tradition.

In the moments when people get together in the evening or when women gather during the day to work together on their weaving or other tasks, when they go visiting or receive guests or when they gather for festivals and religious feasts, they strengthen the social bonds that connect them, celebrating the joys of life and supporting each other through difficult times.

Working Together

Mobile pastoralists value teamwork. Collaboration makes certain large-scale projects possible, easier and fun. Just as important, working together is an occasion for people to come together as a community to affirm bonds and to display their personal skills.

Clothing and Fashion

Apparel is shaped not just by climate and the availability of materials, but also social values, aesthetics and transnational trends. Whether store-bought or home-made, clothing is part of the way we all express and re-imagine our identities.

The symbols and motifs women incorporate in the finely crafted textiles and beautiful embroidered clothes they make are part of their community's heritage. At the same time these objects tell a story about the sense of self of those who wear them and the appreciation of beauty, propriety and grace of those who make them.

Like other cultural expressions, dress can change in form and meaning. Designers today in Qatar are creating abayas using new prints, fabrics and shades of colour to reinterpret tradition.

While traditional garments can be influenced by fashion trends and changes in popular taste, they also serve as inspiration for fashion and the arts. The world, and Hollywood in particular, has long been fascinated with Mongolian deels, hats and boots, while contemporary fashion has drawn on motifs and designs from Imuhar indigo clothing and silver jewellery.

Celebrations of Community and Heritage

Gatherings such as festivals, religious feasts and sporting events are an eagerly anticipated opportunity for people to spend time with family and friends, reconnect with distant relatives and celebrate their heritage and faith.

Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha celebrations in Qatar and across the Muslim world, and more recent music festivals, such as the Festival de l'Air in Niger, are also occasions for men and women to dress in their finest clothes and jewellery.

In Mongolia, the centuries-old Naadam summer games were given nationalist meanings after the Soviet-backed 1921 revolution, while from the 1930s, military parades were added. Today the festival brings together tens of thousands of people to watch competitions of archery, wrestling, horseracing and knuckle-bone shooting.

Negotiating the Unknown: Amulets and Divination

Human beings everywhere negotiate their relationship with the unknown. We can see some of the ways they do so through their religious practices and objects.

In Qatar, women and young girls in the pastoral communities used to wear a tableh, a pendant in which verses from the Qu'ran were placed as a protection.

Many Imuhar nomads used to wear one or more of the flat leather pouches called teraut, into which are sewn religious texts to protect them from illness or bad luck.

Mongolians also wear amulets or keep them at home as protection and use various forms of divination, such as 'readings' of the pattern of cracks and colours made by putting a sheep scapula (shoulder blade) into the fire to get answers to questions about livestock, health and social relations.

The Virtues of Hospitality

In all three regions, being a good host and a good guest is expected and respected.

In the central Sahara, guests are welcomed with a bowl of fresh milk, followed by tea. The sugar for the tea was, in the past, chipped from a sugarloaf with a small, often richly decorated hammer, an unusual and rare single-purpose tool that shows how important offering tea to guests was among these nomads.

In Qatar, guests are received in the majlis, or the guest section of the tent, where they are served coffee with dates, provided meals and offered sanctuary if needed.

In the Mongolian countryside, visiting occurs on many occasions. Passing travelers can expect milk tea and cheese curd or fried breads from their hosts.

Time Together

Mobile pastoralists gather to spend time with friends and family and other members of the community. These occasions can range from impromptu encounters when travelers cross paths and exchange news to holiday celebrations and family reunions, such as the Tsagaan Sar lunar festival in Mongolia.

In the central Sahara, older men and women meet in the evenings in front of a tent to talk, catch up on news, make plans and drink tea, while the young adults gather off by themselves to hang out, share stories and play or listen to music. In earlier times, young women used to play a single-stringed bowed instrument called the imzad, while others sang along.

For men in Qatar, the majlis is still to this day the place where people can meet to exchange news, discuss work and politics, but also to play music and recite poetry. In women's gatherings (Mag'ad) different types of food are prepared while women sing, dance and weave together.


The lives and land of nomadic pastoralists and mobile herders in the central Sahara, Qatar and Mongolia have been profoundly affected by economic, political and environmental developments over the past century, sometimes for the better but mostly for the worse.

The discovery of oil and gas in Qatar and the investments in infrastructure and education that followed brought greater prosperity and social benefits.

But elsewhere, the ruptures created by colonial interventions, resource extraction, overgrazing of shrinking pastures and escalating climate change have undermined livelihoods, degraded the environments that sustained herds and people, and, along with new opportunities, have led many to migrate to towns and urban centers.

Shared Futures

Mobile and nomadic pastoralists navigate with resilience the changes that affect their livelihoods and communities.

The nomads of central Sahara transformed the traditional arts of making silver jewellery and music to create popular global commodities that promote the recognition of their identity and provide new sources of income.

Mongolian herders today use cars, buses and motorcycles instead of horses for the convenience they provide. Mobile pastoralism, however, remains a source of pride in the collective imagination.

Qataris keep the traditions of the majlis and falconry alive, while Mongolians are remaking practices from the pre-Soviet era such as traditional medicine and Mongol script.

The creativity and innovation of nomadic pastoralists continue to inspire other people and cultures. The architecture of mobile dwellings has influenced the tensile structures of world-famous pavilions and stadiums. The intimate relationships mobile pastoralists forge with their animals and their humility in knowing that they are not alone on this earth can inspire global values for all of us concerned about our individual and collective responsibilities to preserve our planet.