Mega-Museums in Abu Dhabi — cultural imperialism in reverse?

(Cross-posted at BlogHer)

In museums, who gets to represent whose culture? It’s an old question that in the U.S. tends to play out most publicly when Native American patrimony and culture are displayed in museums. When such cultural controversies become global, often ownership comes into question–who really owns the Elgin Marbles, for example? The perniciousness and persistence of colonialism has dragged many of these conflicts into the 21st century. But what happens when the tables are turned, when a Middle Eastern country–specifically Abu Dhabi–wants to represent Western culture, and even make use of Western museums’ brand names in the process? And how should museums in the West advise colleagues in the East who are new to the museum field?

These and other questions are facing major museums–including the Smithsonian, which is advising the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage on a Bedouin museum; the Guggenheim, which in 2012 will open a 300,000-square-foot museum there that has alternately been described as a medieval cathedral and pharaonic”; and the Louvre, which has licensed its name–to the tune of $520 million–and its expertise and art (for an additional $747 million) to an art museum slated to open in the city in 2012.

(To see the designs of the new museums, as well as read artistic statements from their “starchitects,” check out this round-up from ArchNewsNow.)

About Abu Dhabi
Abu Dhabi is the capital of the United Arab Emirates and its second largest city, with nearly 900,000 people residing in it. The Guardian provides some history and context for the United Arab Emirates cultural interests:

They were once little more than oil outposts in the desert, wealthy but remote, seven emirates bound together in a federation on the south-eastern tip of the Arabian peninsula. But the United Arab Emirates are fast reinventing themselves as a cultural and recreational hub, with tens of billions of dollars of investment transforming Abu Dhabi and Dubai in particular. Abu Dhabi, whose petrodollars give it one of the highest per capita incomes in the world, is styling itself as the cultural alternative to Dubai’s more ritzy holiday and retail destination.

The emirates capital plans an “upscale cultural district” on Saadiyat, with the $400m Guggenheim museum part of a $27bn government-funded development that will include museums, a concert hall and art galleries alongside two golf courses, hotels and an “iconic 7-star property”. The Dubai plans include indoor ski slopes, an underwater hotel, a $4bn theme park, and the elite island development known as The World.

The billion-plus dollars that Abu Dhabi is paying France is part of a long-standing economic relationship with the Western European nation. As The New York Times reports, there may be a bit of quid pro quo underlying the French government’s willingness to cut a deal with Abu Dhabi.

For France the agreement signals a new willingness to exploit its culture for political and economic ends. In this case, it also represents something of a payback: the United Arab Emirates has ordered 40 Airbus 380 aircraft and has bought about $10.4 billion worth of armaments from France during the last decade.

Louvre Abu Dhabi
Much of the controversy has swirled around the Louvre Abu Dhabi, which will feature art from throughout history and all the world’s regions, including Islamic art. At the time the French government was negotiating with Abu Dhabi, 4,650 museum experts signed a petition protesting the deal, claiming that the Louvre was behaving more like a profit-maximizing corporation than as a protector of and educator about the world’s, and particularly France’s, art.

Others have criticized the petitioners. Maymanah Farhat, a specialist in modern and contemporary Arab art and the editor of ArteNews, says colonial turnabout is fair play. In a long and thoughtful article, she writes,

Much of the opposition to the proposed Abu Dhabi Lourve lament that the French public will be deprived of its heritage. Three out of eight of the departments that structure the Louvre collection contain art from the Middle East and North Africa and are categorized as such: “Near Eastern Antiquities,” “Egyptian Antiquities” and “Islamic Art.” If this latest transaction with Abu Dhabi does in fact indicate a move to exploit France’s patrimony, then it must be acknowledged that the “French culture” being disputed over is not purely French nor is it devoid of a ruthless colonial history. In theory then, according to French opinion, it is perfectly acceptable to exploit non-French peoples and cultures for economic gain, whereas everything French is somehow sacrosanct and must be guarded from the tentacles of globalization.

In an editorial in The American, Jonathan Bronitsky writes that critics of the Louvre deal are being impractical:

While the French intelligentsia may not admit it, the fact remains: museums are costly enterprises. The Louvre, the most frequently visited museum in the world, requires hundreds of millions of dollars a year to operate. Unlike American cultural institutions, which depend largely on private philanthropy, European museums have traditionally relied on public funding—in part because Europeans are unable to donate pretax dollars, as we can in the U.S., and so have weaker incentives for voluntary giving. With the spiraling costs of security, insurance, restoration, and other expenses, museums like the Louvre will need to find additional funding sources if they are to maintain their preeminence and fulfill their mission of preserving and perpetuating culture.

In response to Bronitsky, art historian Didier Ryker wrote that he goes to museums to see their best works, and is disappointed if those works have been rented out willy nilly, without regard to art historical contexts–which he felt was the case with the Guggenheim Museum in New York. He concludes,

Lastly, it is untrue to say the Louvre museum needs money. The Louvre is now, given French laws that allow tax deductions to companies which buy works of art for the museum, a very rich museum, which can sometimes even compete against the Getty (for example when it bought a sculpture by the Austrian artist Messerschmidt, outbidding the California museum). Museums and historical museums are the main reasons for tourists coming to France and they bring a lot of money to the country. In exchange, it seems fair the State should ensure these museums’ financial health without forcing them to rent themselves.

Censorship and human rights concerns
Resistance isn’t coming just from the West, however; critics in the Muslim world are joining the fray. Reports USA Today,

The Louvre must breach significant cultural barriers in its foray into the Muslim world, in which the representation of the human figure — even when clothed — can be a religious taboo.

One Arab reporter asked during a press conference Tuesday whether the museum would protect its visitors against “pornography.” A French journalist asked whether the museum had sufficient protection against “Islamic extremists” who might threaten the Louvre Abu Dhabi or its collection.

Museum officials did not address the issue of nudity in works. But art selection will be done by a committee including Abu Dhabi’s rulers, who understand the sensitivities in this city, one of the more liberal bastions in the conservative Gulf.

Many critics have expressed serious concerns about the museums’ lack of openness to ideas expressed through artwork from around the world. Artworld Salon, for example, reports that the Emirates will not allow entry to the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi to people holding Israeli passports–which is especially ironic considering the Guggenheims are Jewish-American–and will censor gay content as well as nudity in the works. Culturegrrl asks, “Is it kosher to establish a museum named for a Jewish founder in a country that doesn’t recognize Israel?”

Guggenheim Abu Dhabi architect Frank Gehry notes the cultural challenges:

Abu Dhabi does throw up some very particular issues for the Guggenheim and the display of art. I don’t think we’ll be allowed to display nudes, and there are all sorts of concerns about the way women are allowed to be shown. But, I think this an interesting moment in doing something to bridge the cultures of the US and the Middle East with real dialogue; I’m learning here, which is great, and I think we can shape an original building that is as much Abu Dhabi as me.

In addition, human rights groups have raised concerns about the potential abuse of the migrant construction workers building the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

Scholars and museum professionals have also noted that the globalization of these museums raises issues that blend art, culture, politics, and economics. For a thoughtful accounting of the issues, check out Susan Ostling’s paper on the Guggenheim franchises in Abu Dhabi, Las Vegas, Bilbao, and elsewhere. Of the museum in Abu Dhabi, Ostling writes of former Guggenheim Foundation director Thomas Krens,

In an interview in 1998, Krens gives us some insight to his reading of the concept of ‘world culture’. Such a reading appears to undermine any concern for the importance of the local and regional national cultural identities. It thoroughly diminishes any possibility for an independent identity developing through the collections or exhibitions of the satellite museums. It reveals his voracious drive for uniformity through globalization. Krens says:

You have to take a look at all this talk of world culture. World culture has dissolved local culture because local cultures by a dialectical process of influence cancel out…Lets project well into the next century. Will such a thing as local cultures exist? You have to come to the conclusion that they will not. And this is not about me liking or not liking local culture and tradition. It is that the forces of culture are out there. I don’t believe our objective is to stand in the way of an eroding tradition…Will there be a culture on a local level? Probably not. Will it be recognizable in terms of traditional characteristics? Probably not either. There will be a world culture out there; there is already a world culture out there (cited in Suau 1999).

Training new museum professionals
Another concern of some critics is whether the museum staff in Abu Dhabi will have sufficient training to take care of priceless works of art. An additional issue is whether the new museums will adopt the various formal and informal ethical guidelines that govern museums around the world. Which tenets that Westerners see as central to museum ethics–for example, freedom of artistic expression–will guide the new museums, and which ones will be tossed aside in favor of local cultural mores and religious traditions?

Many institutions will provide mentoring and management advice to the new museum professionals, including the Guggenheim, the Louvre, New York University, and the Smithsonian, as well as leaders from other museum studies programs in the United States.

My take
First, I have to admit that I am very ambivalent about these projects because they are situated in the Muslim Middle East. Before you call me Islamophobic or racist, let me explain. As progressive as Abu Dhabi is relative to other countries in the region, the antisemitism of the region, as well as the continued repression of those women who desire greater autonomy, gives me pause. Should institutions that promote cultural openness be doing business with countries where all people are not created equal? (Yes, I know that such a stricture means countries in Western Europe could refuse to do business with U.S. cultural institutions as well!)

At the same time, the exhibition of any art–and especially art from regions outside the Middle East–is promising in that it may contribute to a broader cultural openness in Abu Dhabi and other parts of the Middle East. Additionally, I would like to see greater cultural exchange with the Middle East, along the lines of the travelling exhibition of Afghan art and artifacts, that might better educate Americans and other Westerners about the history and culture of the now-Muslim nations.

I want to see museums in the UAE and the broader Middle East showcase local art and artifacts rather than buy the esteem of Western tourists by borrowing or purchasing art from Western museums. Museums in Afghanistan, for example, should be able to showcase pre-Islamic Afghan art, despite Taliban prohibitions against artwork. Women’s artwork, Bedouin arts, and the cultural productions of other groups that have been marginalized in the Muslim, Arabic, and Persian worlds should be showcased, but the truth is that these people’s contributions are not valued.

As a scholar in cultural studies, criticizing local cultural or religious values makes me uneasy–I don’t want to impose my Western viewpoint on non-Western peoples, unless there are people being denied human or civil rights–but my opinion changes within the context of museums because they are learning institutions.

What are your thoughts on these issues?

Leslie Madsen-Brooks develops learning experiences for K-12, university, and museum clients. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toybox.


  1. Leslie,

    Interesting article. I’m actually doing a phd research project looking at Abu Dhabi and some of these developments. I’m trying to get hold of Susan Osling’s paper on franchises but your link doesn’t appear to work. Do you know where it was published or where I can obtain a copy. Many Thanks.


  2. Sarina, you’re right–that link has stopped working. I’m not sure if this is the exact same paper, but an Ostling article on the subject is available here (PDF).

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