At the end of June, King’s College London hosted the Museums in Arabia conference, a thought-provoking event that united scholars and practitioners interested in the development of the cultural sector in the Arabic Peninsula. The interesting mix of ideas emerging either from academic research or from work experience created the feeling of an intercultural conversation which managed to abolish national borders for the time being. From pearls and silk trade to popular shopping centers and international art exhibitions, it took us only three days to visit most of the Middle Eastern countries.
Although many of the case studies were permeated by political rationales, some of them extremely foreign to the concept of museum autonomy, the presenters themselves offered us the key to interpretation. The speakers took us on an epistemological journey in the Middle East and made meaningful remarks about the cultural particularities that transformed our understanding of museums. This conference was a wonderful opportunity to discover a rich environment for a new wave of cultural institutions, as much as an eye-opening experience for me. Hereafter I present some of my takeaway points in terms of challenges and future progress for the art professionals working in the Gulf area.
Day one started with an interesting inquiry in the relationship between the university and the museum. The first panel, Evolving Museumscapes: Creating New Museums and Libraries, focused on how knowledge in museums is shaped by a diverse range of elements such as architecture (Dr Roberto Fabbri) or produced due to the establishment of in-house libraries (i.e. the Museum of Islamic Art Library or the National Museum of Qatar Library). The second panel discussed how the emergence of female leadership has benefited the museum sector in the Middle East, a region that is often stereotyped as non-inclusive. However, this new generation of professionals, who promote a collaborative management style, create new opportunities for women to get more involved in their society.
The first keynote lecture, Collecting the Future: Why Museums Must Be Spaces of Decolonization and Active Reflection in the Arab World, was delivered by Dr Nada Shabout, Professor of Art History and the Director of the Contemporary Arab and Muslim Cultural Studies Initiative (CAMCSI) at the University of North Texas. She talked about the need to question the rationales of the new museums that are build in the Arab Gulf region, especially considering the recent cultural and heritage destruction and continuous frictions.
The following two panels addressed professional practice in a transcultural environment, with focus on cooperation between cultural institutions, but also on the relationship with the audiences and new methods to engage them through a multisensory approach to interpretation (Claire Dobbin) or through a narrative created using augmented reality (John Bull).
The second day was about branding and transformative curating, as well as private initiatives of both collections and museums. The first panel, Managing the Gulf Museum: Marketing, Branding and Identity, opened an interesting discussion about the alternative stories a museum can tell using marketing strategies such as merchandising in order to transmit a certain idea about national identity (Dr Suzi Mirgani). Later on, the panelists disclosed a series of private cultural initiatives from Bahrain (Nevyne Zeineldin), Oman (Rizwad Ahmad), the UAE (Dr Sami L. De Giosa) and Qatar (Dr Joachim Gierlichs). The main challenges for this type of initiatives are clearly the negotiation between the identities of the two parties: the collectors and the audiences, as well as their integration within the broader spectrum of international cultural institutions.
The keynote lecturer on the second day was Dr Venetia Porter, Senior Curator for Islamic and Contemporary Middle East Art at the British Museum. She talked about the British Museum’s International Training Programme for museum professionals, focusing on participants and their institutions within the Arab region from Palestine to Tunisia and Yemen. Furthermore, she addressed the way in which this prolific programme let to the creation of the new Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World in the British Museum, which was also our final destination after the lecture.
The third day was dedicated to alternative approaches and a view towards the future. The first panel, The Expansive Museum: Urban Walks, Heritage Paths and Museum Malls, disclose a whole other dimension of the cultural institutions in the Gulf. By far, the most interesting discovery was made by Dr Jennifer Pruitt, who investigated the Ibn Battuta Mall in Dubai, a shopping center designed for the local community, which takes the visitors on a journey following the footsteps of the famous explorer. This journey, however, is full of stereotypes and exaggerations, resulting in a real semiotic delight.
The following panels paid particular attention to the creation of national narratives. From a multi-modal analysis of the Iraqi National Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale (Anastasia Shanaah) to a discourse analysis of the First Exhibitions of Arab Art in the USSR in the 1950s (Dr Olga Neferova), the conference ended in a very political note which reinforced the idea that art and power are still very much interrelated when it comes to national representation.