x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

A glimpse of Abu Dhabi's treasures to come for Zayed National Museum

First Splendours of Mesopotamia, and now Treasures of the World's Cultures, give an insight into what's to come in two years' time when Zayed National Museum opens.

The Reliquary of St Eustance made from silver-gilt, rock crystal, chalcedony, amethyst, carnelian, pearl and glass. Just one of the treasures on display in Abu Dhabi.
The Reliquary of St Eustance made from silver-gilt, rock crystal, chalcedony, amethyst, carnelian, pearl and glass. Just one of the treasures on display in Abu Dhabi.
Treasures of the World's Cultures has been the second hit exhibition at Manarat Al Saadiyat in a joint venture between Abu Dhabi and the British Museum. It gives a glimpse of what is in store when the Zayed National Museum opens in two years' time.

If last year's Splendours of Mesopotamia exhibition was a long-overdue reminder of the forgotten part played in the birth of civilisation by the peoples of the land known today as the United Arab Emirates, then the show that has held crowds spellbound for the past three months at the Manarat Al Saadiyat has offered an inspirational insight into what visitors can expect to find behind the doors of the Zayed National Museum.

The second in a series of major exhibitions mounted jointly by Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority and the British Museum, Treasures of the World's Cultures was designed to address some of the universal themes - such as heritage, leadership and faith - that will underpin the galleries of what is already referred to throughout the museumworld as ZNM.

The exhibition, which closes on Tuesday is the second of a planned series of exhibitions which, says Thorsten Opper, the British Museum's lead curator on the project, will "prepare the field" for the opening of ZNM on Saadiyat Island; the next - still in the planning stage - can be expected next year.

"This is a young and developing museum sector," he says, "and first of all we want to flag up what is going to happen, to give a flavour of some of the collections and themes that will be in the museum, and also to show how objects can be used to tell stories."

Mounting and transporting such ambitious exhibitions - the majority of artefacts in both shows to date were on loan from the British Museum's vast collection in London - also serves as a rehearsal for many aspects of operating the new museum, which is now expected to open as the jewel in the crown of Saadiyat's museum district in 2014.

"These special exhibitions help us to work with our colleagues and rehearse the logistics and the programming. It is a huge and extremely useful dress rehearsal for what's going to happen on a much bigger scale later," Mr Opper said.

They are also an opportunity to develop the working relationships between institutions in the UAE that will be vital for the new museum.

The Treasures exhibition, saysMr Opper, "to the best of my knowledge, is the first time there have been loans within UAE institutions, from Al Ain museum in Abu Dhabi but also from Sharjah, and that of course is really important.

"Again, the whole infrastructure needs to be set up, and it's a wonderful opportunity because people now are familiar with the processes and they now know their colleagues."

Central to the success of ZNM, says Mr Opper, will be the engagement of Emiratis - not just as museum-goers, but as the curators, archaeologists and other specialists who will bring the museum to life.

"From the very beginning a large proportion of the posts will be filled by Emiratis. It's about training them up, providing internship opportunities and so on, and again these special exhibitions fullfill a role there."

"I think there is a huge opportunity. Of course, you have to be patient and this expertise will develop gradually, but young people in the UAE are extremely well educated and have great language skills and going forward I think they can really be at the forefront of museum development in the Arab world."

Although both of the major exhibitions so far have hinted at the type of material and themes one can expect to find in ZNM, few specifics have leaked out, although it is widely expected that finds from the sites of the Umm an Nar people - the founding coastal culture of the Emirates, of which artefactual evidence has been found dating back to the third millennium BC - will feature strongly.

In the background, however, the British Museum has been assisting with a national inventory, designed to identify suitable objects not only in existing museums but also in private collections.

But whatever finds its way into the opening version of the museum, says Mr Opper, "it will continue to evolve and develop. I am sure the galleries will see a lot of changes and additions and that's the beauty of it. It is a giant laboratory, if you like, and will continue to be one where Emiratis can define for themselves what makes Emirati identity and how that fits in with the wider world."

A number of initiatives are being developed to engage Emiratis in the process, starting with the already successful schools programmes. The British Museum says that the education sessions and public programmes staged alongside the Treasures show were sold out before the exhibition opened on April 18. Between May 20 and June 16, for example, 1,838 schoolchildren took part in workshops and other events.

More than 30,000 visitors have passed through Treasures of the World's Cultures in the past three months, according to the Tourism and Development Investment Company. Throughout the show, there has been a daily average of 230 visitors during the week and 544 at weekends - not bad for what Mr Opper calls "a young and developing museum sector".

"We arereally pleased with these figures for Abu Dhabi," said a spokesman for the British Museum.

The museum, says Mr Opper, will have to serve "a hugely diverse audience", including tourists, expat residents and Emiratis, "but mostly the core audience is Emiratis".

They, of course, are most familiar with the story of Sheikh Zayed, "but the museum will be there to facilitate conversations and contact within families", says Mr Opper, "so that people who were there in the hard years, in the pioneering days, can tell their children and grandchildren about it".

ZNM will, he says, serve as a focus for national pride.

The history and the story of the development of the UAE "is a very good story to be told. And with all the events now of the Arab Spring you can really see the achievement, in that this is the only successful federation in the Arab world."

The museum, he says, has a living part to play in the evolving story of a nation that, while young, has deep historical roots, not uncovered until the 1950s, when the first Danish archaeological expedition was invited by Sheikh Zayed to examine the burial remains on the island of Umm an Nar.

"It is fascinating," says Mr Opper. "From pretty much a blank spot on the map, this area is now among the best-researched. I hope that the museum will make that clear to an international audience, but to Emiratis also, that it has always been interconnected, that there has always been trade.

"Some of the galleries will talk about the landscape and resources and help [visitors] to understand how these patterns continue. You need to have that deep background story to appreciate what has happened in the past 30 or 40 years.

"They had boom and bust in history - it was copper in the bronze age, then the pearling industry and, in theory, it could be the same with oil. Of course all these policies, including the development of the museums, are now exactly about planning for the time after oil."

Mr Opper says he has no doubt ZNM will prove a great draw for tourists: "We get something like three million visitors a year to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and I am certain that another stopping point on itineraries will be the Saadiyat museums, particularly ZNM."

He also believes that, far from robbing local museums of artefacts and visitors, the museum will whet the appetite of tourists to visit some of the smaller museums throughout the UAE.

"Certainly there will be special exhibitions at ZNM and, in terms of facilities and infrastructure, it's a totally different proposition and you will be able to do things there that you couldn't do in the smaller local museums.

"But they can complement each other. I hope that local museums and authorities begin to see the museum as one of the spaces they have to show off the fruits of their work."

Mr Opper, an archaeologist seconded for the project from the British Museum's Department of Greek and Roman Antiquities, says, "what makes the UAE so exciting is that in terms of archaeology it is absolutely a frontier country.

"They constantly make new discoveries and I am sure there is an awful lot waiting to be discovered yet. The early Islamic history, for example, is not yet well documented and I think that will really be a space to watch."

This, he says, "is a fascinating part of the world, one where you can feel the pulse of globalisation. It is great to be part of it and it's really goodto work with Emiratis because these guys will be big players.

"I am sure the day will come when loans from the Emirates will come to the British Museum and into exhibitions here. By then, we will know them really well and have a great working relationship."