Museum Expansion in the Global 21st Century: The Case of Abu Dhabi

Students and faculty conversing with Andrew McClellan before the program.

This post published on the Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums Blog on November 23, 2010.

November 18, Seton Hall University welcomed Andrew McClellan, Dean of Academic Affairs for Arts & Sciences and Professor of Art History at Tufts University, for his program Museum Expansion in the Global 21st Century: The Case of Abu Dhabi.

This incredible program included information about the unfolding developments in the cultural and tourism sectors in the United Arab Emirates. Recent revenues from the oil and gas industry have spurred economic booms in places like Qatar, Dubai and Abu Dhabi. These areas are utilizing this opportunity to build their cultural sector in order to create sustainable tourism and financial stability for the future.

McClellan briefly described the current impacts of growing tourism and cultural enhancement in Qatar and Dubai but the majority of the program was spent explaining the Saadiyat Island Cultural District that is being built in Abu Dhabi. The island will be home to four large museums and a performing arts center whose architecture, designed by five different Pritzker Prize winners, will be as stunning as the institutions themselves. The District aims to, “fuel the imagination, foster interaction, and encourage people of all backgrounds to embrace a common bond of creativity.” (Saadiyat Cultural District Website)

 

Projected view of the Saadiyat Culture District (photo from Saadiyat Culture District website).

Though some of the institutions aim to open their doors by 2013, the overall one hundred billion dollar cultural complex will not be completed until 2018. The following are the cultural institutions planned for the Island:

Sheikh Zayed National Museum, designed by Lord Norman Foster + Partners, will provide a testament to the life and times of Sheikh Zayed and his inspired vision. This museum with house both permanent and temporary exhibitions based in five categories: Environment, History, Education, Unity and Humanitarianism. A temporary exhibition at the Emirates Palace will open as an extension of the existing exhibition and will explore the concept and vision for the new museum.

Maritime Museum, designed by Tadao Ando, will shed light on the U.A.E’s relationship with the sea and their maritime activities. This stunning bit of architecture will actually allow for boats to pass through under the museum.

Louvre Abu Dhabi, designed by Jean Nouvel, will be a 24,000 square meter museum which will include 6,000 square meters devoted to permanent collections and 2,000 square meters for temporary exhibitions. This partnership with The Musee du Louvre and Agence France-Museums will seek to present paintings, drawings, sculptures, manuscripts, archaeological findings, and decorative arts collected from all over the world.

Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, designed by Frank Gehry, “…will be committed to representing the international nature of Modern and contemporary art, presenting key aspects of the Western historical canon while simultaneously highlighting the richness and diversity of Asian, African, South American, and Middle Eastern art during this period.” (Saadiyat Cultural District Website)

Performing Arts Centre, designed by Zaha Hadid, will host cutting-edge theatre, music and dance from around the world. The Centre will also house an Academy of Fine Arts.

Aerial Shot of the Culture District (photo from Saadiyat Cultural District website).

McClellan raised a number of interesting points/issues/thoughts about this large cultural complex and the potential impact it may have on the future of museums.

Many museums are merging with their cities’ identity. As the Louvre is synonymous with Paris, so will these museums be with Abu Dhabi. Can and/or will other museums start to strive for this recognition in their own cities?

The museums are located directly on a large body of salt water which will be in actually be in contact with some of the institutions. What effect will this have on the architecture and what conservation issues will it raise?

Who will visit Saadiyat? With such a large cultural complex going up at once how expensive will visiting be, and will it be a location people wish to go more than once? Will they be able to persuade 150,000 people to move to the island where condos and housing are being built?

New York University will have a campus of Arts and Science on the island. Will they be able to attract enough students, or will the program fail as did the program Michigan State attempted to start in Dubai?

Is there a plan for the museums to stand on their own? Most of the museums are currently partnering with other institutions for both curatorial assistance as well as collection loans. Will the museums have compiled enough collections to stand on their own when the current agreements run out?

A large issue discussed was the criticism of western museums “selling their names”. Will this hurt the respected image of The Louvre and The Guggenheim? 4,000 professionals in France petitioned against the Louvre partnering in Abu Dhabi, stating that France was selling its culture and heritage. McClellan stated the bottom line is that money is scarce and many institutions are struggling to survive. Also, we should guard against condescension of what’s happening in Abu Dhabi. There is an entertainment/tourism factor being tacked to Saadiyat, but that does not mean the institutions will have any less integrity

Visit the Saadiyat Island Cultural District website for more information and photographs.

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