x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

UAE’s museum boom promises a bright future

While many western museums struggle to manage with reduced funding, museums across the GCC are a growth industry, and a very promising one.

Around the world, museums are the time capsules of civilisation, preserving and explaining the best of human accomplishment and understanding. From ancient pottery to space flight to artworks made on computers, museums are the repositories where humankind protects and presents its best.

But if the artefacts are often timeless, museums themselves cannot stop the flow of time, and powerful trends are bringing new challenges to the global museum establishment. Some of the biggest of these developments promise good things for the cultural sector in Abu Dhabi, the UAE and the Arabian Gulf countries.

In the GCC, long-term planning backed by solid financing is creating a new range of cultural institutions that will take prominent places among the world’s museums.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi is now rising from a bustling construction site on Saadiyat Island, and projects for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and the Zayed National Museum, to celebrate the country’s founder and its natural and human history, are not far behind: the Zayed Museum is to open in 2016, the Guggenheim one year later. Meanwhile Dubai’s planned opera house district is to include a modern art museum.

The UAE is not alone. Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art is already world-famous, and a new National Museum of Qatar (designed, like Abu Dhabi’s Louvre, by French architect Jean Nouvel) is under construction.

In other parts of the world, meanwhile, many museums are languishing. Across the West, hard times and government deficits have forced some institutions to impose or increase turnstile fees, reducing attendance. Museums in Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad have had grave problems because of violence. In bankrupt Detroit, the city-owned Institute of Art may be forced to auction off many artworks. The UK has cut grants to its museums by 15 per cent since 2010. In Spain, 18,700 people applied for 11 guard jobs at the Prado.

To be sure, major western museums are still crowded, some more so than ever. And as the UAE’s Guggenheim and Louvre demonstrate, the rest of the world still has much to learn from western expertise in the field.

But it is not difficult to discern a change. As cultural tourism grows worldwide, as GCC cities grow in importance, and as the world becomes more aware of Arab culture and history, museums will become an increasingly important element of the region’s allure.