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Abu Dhabi Update: British Museum Participates in Saadiyat Island’s Museum-Development Spree

Thumbnail image for Zayed.jpg
Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, for whom a planned museum in
Abu Dhabi is to be named

There’s not going to be a British Museum Abu Dhabi, but Neil MacGregor is joining his directorial colleagues from the Louvre and the Guggenheim in contributing his institution’s expertise and lending its objects to another new museum in the Saadiyat Island Cultural District.

According to a press release that hit my inbox Saturday morning, the British Museum will serve as a “consulting partner” for the Zayed National Museum, scheduled to open in 2012 or 2013. That 130,000-square-foot facility, to be designed by British architect Norman Foster (who also designed the British Museum’s Great Court, completed in 2000), “will recall the life and values of His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (1918-2004), the late Founder and President of the United Arab Emirates,” according to the press release.

That dispatch, issued by Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC), the developer of Saadiyat Island’s Cultural District, reads as an extended paean to the Arab leader, who is extolled for his concerns for environment, heritage, unity, education and humanitarianism—the new museum’s five areas of concentration.

The British Museum, according to the announcement, “will advise on a full range of issues, from design, construction and museography to educational and curatorial programming as well as training.” But the press release give no clue as to whether the British Museum will loan objects or receive a hefty fee for its services. Nor does it tell us the duration of the agreement.

For that, we must rely on the U.K.’s Sunday Times, where arts editor Richard Brooks reports:

The British Museum has struck a multi-million-pound deal [with TDIC]….As part of a 10-year contract, the British Museum will lend some of its treasures to the venue and help it set up and curate exhibitions….Its undisclosed annual fee could help fund a £135m extension in London as government spending for the arts faces cuts. [Links added.]

Then again, that extension was recently dealt a setback when it was nixed by the Council of the London borough of Camden.

Brooks further reports:

Artifacts may be borrowed from the British Museum’s Middle East department, which has the largest collection of cuneiform tablets in the world outside Baghdad, consisting of 130,000 texts and fragments.

Temporary exhibitions, such as last year’s British Museum blockbuster on the Roman emperor Hadrian, could also be transferred to Abu Dhabi.

Cuneiform is one of the subjects of the museum’s planned “Education” section. Loaned objects will also presumably be part of the “Unity” section of the museum, where “displays will use objects from across the region to explore political and cultural unity from the Sumerians to modern times.”

This project is part of MacGregor’s strategy of entering into reciprocal relationships with cultural entities in other countries. But it differs in its ambition to help create an entirely new foreign museum. It also likely differs in its the amount of remuneration accruing to the British Museum from the relationship.

[Speaking of munificent remuneration, many warm thanks go to recent CultureGrrl Donors 51, 52 and 53, from Middleburg, VA; Long Island City, NY; Brooklyn, NY.]

At this writing, as far as I can see, the press release is not online on the websites of the British Museum, Ruder Finn (the publicity firm that sent the release to me), or TDIC, which issued the announcement.

So I’m providing you the text of the release, at the link below.


Cornerstone Museum in the Saadiyat Island Cultural District Will Draw on
Counsel and Advice of British Museum as Consulting Partner

ABU DHABI, UAE, 25 July, 2009 – Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC), the developer of Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island Cultural District, today announced an agreement with the British Museum to provide expert advice and counsel on the development of the Zayed National Museum. The British Museum will serve as a consulting partner to the Zayed National Museum’s operating body and will advise on a full range of issues, from design, construction and museography to educational and curatorial programming as well as training. The Museum is scheduled to open in 2012/2013 as the cornerstone project in the Saadiyat Island Cultural District, planned to be the largest concentration of premier cultural institutions in the world.

The 12,000 square metre (130,000 square foot) Museum will recall the life and values of His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (1918-2004), the late Founder and President of the United Arab Emirates. An international statesman and award-winning pioneer of environmental conservation, Sheikh Zayed forged a federated nation out of seven independent Emirates and led this new state into peaceful engagement with the modern world, while strengthening his people’s respect for their centuries-old heritage.

A unique institution, conceived as a place for discussion, learning and inspiration for the entire Arab region, the Zayed National Museum will feature the story of Sheikh Zayed to explore the history and culture of the UAE, and the story of the UAE to illuminate life throughout the Middle East.

The Zayed National Museum will carry out this mission in part through a
schedule of temporary exhibitions but primarily through an ensemble of
permanent galleries in which visitors will be introduced to five themes of
Environment, Heritage, Unity, Education and Humanitarianism.


  • Environment: Sheikh Zayed’s interest in protecting the environment
    will establish the key questions addressed in this theme. It will explore the physical landscapes, flora and fauna, and mineral resources of the UAE and the wider Middle East. It will be shown how humans have interacted with and shaped the environment, and how resources have been used to make products that have been traded across the region.
  • Heritage: Sheikh Zayed was born into Abu Dhabi society before it had been modernised, and he held traditional values close to his heart throughout his life. This pavilion will feature the pre-modern communities in the desert and on the coast, and examine particular aspects such as life around the oasis and pearl fishing. These are contrasted with traditional lifestyles elsewhere in the Middle East.
  • Unity: Sheikh Zayed’s role in uniting the Emirates allows an
    investigation of this accomplishment in the context of other forms of
    political and social unification known from the archaeology and history of the Middle East. Displays will use objects from across the region to explore political and cultural unity from the Sumerians to modern times.
  • Education: By establishing education for all in the UAE, Sheikh Zayed was building on a seven thousand year old Middle Eastern tradition, perhaps the region’s greatest legacy to the modern world. The first writing, cuneiform, was developed in southern Iraq and Iran and spread to other areas of the Middle East. Islamic learning preserved and developed ancient knowledge – Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Greek – passing it to the West.
  • Humanitarianism: Sheikh Zayed’s belief in and support of Islamic values and religious tolerance is central to understanding the modern UAE. An examination of regional faiths at the time of the Prophet Muhammad provides the background to the core of the exhibition. This explores the revelation of Islam and the breadth of Islamic art and culture in the Middle East and the wider world. The gallery will conclude with an exploration of Sheikh Zayed’s humanitarian works across the globe.

The architectural design of the Museum is by Foster + Partners, London, under the leadership of Norman Foster. An unveiling of the design will be held in Abu Dhabi later in 2009.

“In developing this project, which is so significant not only for us but
for the entire Middle East, we could have no better advisor than the British
Museum,” stated His Excellency Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan,
Chairman of TDIC and of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture & Heritage.
“This great and historic institution, known for its unsurpassed expertise
in every field and its profound respect for every culture, will help us make
the Zayed National Museum a place of inspiration and pride for Emiratis, a
beacon for the people of our region, and a source of information and
understanding for our visitors from around the world.”

“We warmly welcome this opportunity to work with TDIC on a project of
profound significance to the people of Abu Dhabi and the UAE and of
extraordinary interest to the international community,” stated Neil
MacGregor, Director of The British Museum. “The British Museum has gained hugely through the reciprocal relationships it has formalised in recent years with cultural organisations and governments worldwide. We look forward to forging productive new friendships, and gaining new perspectives on our own collection, through this partnership with TDIC.”

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