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Commercial, Not Collegial: British Museum’s Major Loans to Abu Dhabi’s Zayed National Museum

My praise was premature in my Apollo magazine piece on satellite museums, where I favorably mentioned the British Museum’s “collegial sharing” of “objects, exhibitions and expertise” with Abu Dhabi’s planned Zayed National Museum, contrasting this with the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi arrangement.

Rendering of Zayed National Museum, designed by Norman Foster

Rendering of Zayed National Museum, designed by Norman Foster

It now seems, according to Martin Bailey‘s recent report in the Art Newspaper, that major objects traveling from the United Kingdom to the United Arab Emirates will be dispatched not as a collegial loan, but for an undisclosed “substantial fee” that may deprive the hometown audience of their presence for as many as five years.

Bailey writes:

The London institution generally makes loans free of charge, although some international loans and touring shows are subject to a fee. The scale of the proposed loans is partly the result of the financial pressure faced by the museum after the UK government’s cuts to its subsidy.

In response to my queries, Olivia Rickman, acting head of the British Museum’s press office, stated that her institution’s contract for providing loans and assistance to the Zayed “is commercially sensitive [emphasis added] and so we are unable to provide financial figures for this.”

Since neither the British Museum nor the Zayed is a commercial enterprise, why does the “commercially sensitive” rubric apply here?

While awaiting Olivia’s reply to that question, which I sent her last week, I confirmed my suspicion that the legalistic lingo—“commercially sensitive”—echoes the language about exemptions from disclosure under Great Britain’s Freedom of Information Act (FOI). Organized as a public body, sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the British Museum is subject to FOI laws.

According to UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office:

The Freedom of Information Act recognizes that there will be valid reasons why some kinds of information may be withheld, such as if its release would prejudice national security or damage commercial interests [emphasis added].

It’s not clear to me what “commercial” interests could be jeopardized. Perhaps the British Museum’s director, Neil MacGregor, an attorney by training, can craft an argument to make that case. (MacGregor will be stepping down at the end of this year.)

According to Bailey’s report:

The museum initially planned to send objects from its stores [storage facilities], excluding works that were on display or were likely to be shown. But the loans now include important pieces that the museum classes among its 5,000 “highlights” (these items are lent to international exhibitions, but nearly always on a short-term basis, usually three to six months). Critics are likely to ask whether so much should be lent to the Gulf for so long.

I am one of those critics “likely to ask” that question. Here’s Rickman’s reply:

The Trustees of the British Museum are always very conscious of the balance to be found between displaying objects to people around the world and having them available in Bloomsbury. This process, of cultural exchange and redisplay, is vital to the British Museum’s long term planning with regard to how best to share its collection with the wider world.

Bailey reported that the British Museum planned to dispatch 500 objects on five-year loans, but Rickman said that “the objects that Martin refers to are currently under reserve as part of a preliminary pool of objects that are to be considered for loan….It is important to recognize that these loans will only supplement the permanent collection of Zayed National Museum. Discussions will take place with colleagues in Abu Dhabi over which objects will be loaned and for how long when the core collection is in place [emphases added].

See Bailey’s article (linked at the top) for more details about objects in the “preliminary pool” of possible loans. According to its website, the museum is to open next year. According to the 2009 announcement of the planned collaboration, the Zayed National Museum was to have opened in 2012/2013. Bailey says that the British loans are planned for 2017.

an ArtsJournal blog