Abu Dhabi’s next mega museum is back on track—now with a director

UAE’s withdrawal from a disastrous and costly war in Yemen means it can refocus on an ambitious cultural agenda including the opening of Zayed National Museum

A rendering of the Zayed National Museum, by Foster + Partners. The soaring glass structures were inspired by a falcon’s wing feathers ©  Foster + Partners

A rendering of the Zayed National Museum, by Foster + Partners. The soaring glass structures were inspired by a falcon’s wing feathers © Foster + Partners

Since the 2017 opening of Louvre Abu Dhabi, with its spectacular domed building by the French architect Jean Nouvel, the question has been, which, if any, of the other museums and cultural institutions announced by the government in 2007 would open next. All are part of the plan to turn Saadiyat Island into the greatest cultural district from Morocco to China.

It is now certain that it will be the Zayed National Museum (ZNM), with its five soaring glass structures designed between 2007 and 2010 by the British architecture studio of Foster + Partners, inspired by the wing feathers of a falcon. It has a director, the Australian archaeologist Peter Magee, appointed without any fanfare in July 2019. Since early this year, it has had a director of collections and curatorial management, Eleni Vassilika, the former director of the Museo Egizio in Turin, and a team of Emirati museum professionals. Building work is now above ground and Magee says that planning for the contents of its ground floor and five “pods” inside the towers is well advanced.

The responsible authority, the Department of Culture and Tourism (DCT), will not, however, be drawn on the eventual completion date because of sensitivity over the delays to the original 2007 plans: the Louvre opened seven years late; the ZNM itself was due to open in 2013, while the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi was scheduled for 2012 and then for 2022/23. Regarding the latter, Richard Armstrong, the director of the New York Guggenheim, is in no-comment mode, and a spokesperson for the DCT says that many of the works bought for it so far are on loan to regional and international institutions such as Louvre Abu Dhabi, the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis and the Menil Collection, Houston.

The reasons for these delays are mainly the world economy(2008 crash and now Covid-19), the price of oil, which plunged from $110 a barrel in 2012 to just over $50 in 2014, and the UAE’s participation from 2015 in the war in Yemen.

It was this young country’s first major war, its first major casualties, a shock to the nation that led, in 2016, to the construction in record time of an imposing memorial to the war dead of the UAE by the British artist Idris Khan. Not only has this war cost the UAE an estimated $16bn a year, but it has been an emotionally potent distraction from Abu Dhabi’s cultural aspirations. By 2018, however, it began to be seen as a quagmire and in 2019 the UAE withdrew its troops from Yemen.

On 12 March 2018, a sign that constructive policies were again to the fore came with the announcement by the de facto ruler of Abu Dhabi, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, of a $13.6bn stimulus package, 35% of which was to build up Abu Dhabi’s status as a leading cultural destination. In March 2019, Saif Ghobash, the undersecretary at the DCT, told The National newspaper that the ZNM and Guggenheim were still in progress and “all the other [Saadiyat Island] projects have been put into full gear”, aimed at the Russian, Chinese, Saudi, Indian and domestic markets.

An archaeological angle

Speaking to The Art Newspaper, Magee says that the ground floor of the museum will be all about the personal and political story of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (1918-2004), who united, and was the venerated first president of, the seven emirates that make up the UAE, which was born as a country in 1971.

The rest of the story begins with the history of the region. Sheikh Zayed was himself interested in its archaeology, as is the Crown Prince, so it is no surprise that an archaeologist has been chosen to be the museum’s first director. Magee has been working in the UAE for 30 years and he says, “The region’s interaction with the wider world was much greater than generally recognised. It expanded in concentric circles: first into the Arabian Gulf about 7,500 years ago; 5,000 years ago, across the sea to the Indian subcontinent; 3,000 years ago, with the domestication of camels, into the Arabian Peninsula, and to the Mediterranean about 2,000 years ago—we have found Roman glass here in the UAE”.

Digital technology will, of course, be employed to the full and there will be no cut-off date, he says, mentioning the UAE’s Hope satellite, in orbit around Mars since February. A whole section will be devoted to Islam, with an emphasis on religious tolerance, one of Sheikh Zayed’s strongest beliefs, with the evidence for it in the region such as remains of the Nestorian Christian monastery and the Jewish gravestone found in the UAE.

On acquiring works, Magee just says that they have a “multi-pronged approach, with loans also being negotiated from major museums”. These include the British Museum, with which the ZNM had a working collaboration between 2009 and 2017, replaced in 2018 by an agreement that the London museum would lend objects (for a fee) to Abu Dhabi while renaming a gallery in honour of Sheikh Zayed.

Another major display theme will be environmental sustainability, with the building itself incorporating a form of traditional local air-cooling methods, as its towers heat up and act as thermal chimneys, drawing cooling currents up through the museum.

On the subject of the rights of the workers building the museum, Magee says that he is not involved in the construction process, but that the DCT “is very focused on seeing that they are treated well”.

Besides its role as a national monument and tourist attraction, the ZNM is intended to educate young Emiratis in the values of Sheikh Zayed, the history of their country and the region, and also the museum profession. Magee particularly wants to work with the older Emiratis, so that their experiences are not lost, and build up the museum as an archive, library and research centre. “This museum is for the people, of the people,” he emphasises.