February 2, 2007

The new global museums

Posted at 12:54 pm in British Museum, Similar cases

A trend has developing in recent years for Museums to expand beyond their own borders – to be more free about the exhibition of their collections abroad & to recognise the benefits that this increased co-operation can have for them. Some institutions are opening up satellite branches around the world, others are entering into various forms of reciprocal agreements for exchanges & loans. Ideas similar to this have been proposed by by Greece for some time as a solution that could benefit both themselves & the British Museum. So far though, the British Museum have been unwilling to enter into any sort of negotiations on this issue.

New York Sun

February 1, 2007 Edition > Section: Arts and Letters > Printer-Friendly Version
Abu Dhabi Lures Western Museums
February 1, 2007

The future of the art museum may be found not in America or Europe, but in the United Arab Emirates.

Or so it might seem from the planned cultural district on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. Yesterday, the architect Frank Gehry and the director of the Guggenheim Foundation, Thomas Krens, were in Abu Dhabi to present Mr. Gehry’s design for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, one of five cultural institutions that are to be the star attractions in the proposed district. The others are a classical museum, to be designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel (and possibly to bear the name of the Louvre); a maritime museum designed by the Japanese architect Tadao Ando; a national museum; and a performing arts center designed by Zaha Hadid.

The Tourist Development Investment Co., a corporation created by the Abu Dhabi tourist authority, will finance the construction and operation of the Guggenheim and the as-yet-unnamed classical museum. What they will get in return — museums of the future, or franchises of globalized brands — remains to be seen.

Reached in Abu Dhabi, Mr. Krens declined to say what the partnership with TDIC will mean for the Guggenheim. “They will not take advantage of us, and we don’t take advantage of them,” Ms. Krens said. “It’s like a marriage. We’re providing a lot, and we will get a compensatory balance, but that’s not why we’re doing this. It’s just a smart thing for everybody.”

Mr. Gehry, also speaking by phone from Dubai, sees the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi as an opportunity to push the architecture of museums a step further than he did in Bilbao, Spain, with his iconic design for the Guggenheim there. “Whatever you think of Mr. Krens,” Mr. Gehry said, “he has pioneered the direction for museums.” In the face of a decade-long trend for building “neutral white boxes — and, unfortunately, the Museum of Modern Art fell into that trap,” he continued, “Tom has pioneered and stuck his neck out. His vision for this place is about the next steps. That could be incredible, and it could be incredible for these people to be the beneficiaries of that kind of thinking. There’s a lot of potential. Will we realize that? I don’t know.”

On one level, the development of the cultural district is the latest instance of centuries of exchange between nations with wealth and nations with cultural prestige. In the 19th century, after all, American industrial tycoons swept across Europe, buying up art for our fledgling museums.

“After the Civil War, a number of wealthy Americans began to travel, and they gathered up the objects of great beauty and great value and brought them to America,” the author of a biography of J.P. Morgan, Jean Strouse, said. In the 1880s, in almost every major city in the Northeast, they began building museums.” The exportation of the Guggenheim to Abu Dhabi “is just another example of that phenomenon that has been going on for centuries,” she added.

But the expansion of the Guggenheim and possibly the Louvre (which is still in discussions with the TDIC) to Abu Dhabi is a little bit more complicated than the 19th-century drain of European art to America. The United States is involved in a war in the region, a fact to which Mr. Krens has alluded in his statements about the planned museum. (“The American government is spending a million dollars every four days in Iraq,” he told Le Monde. “Give me a month of that money and I will build exceptional cultural centers in four Middle Eastern countries.”) Will the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi be a tool of cultural imperialism, or of diplomacy? Or will it be neither?

“It’s presumptuous to think that you can build a museum that would change the world, but we’re going to find out what power this has,” Mr. Gehry said. “It certainly feels right to have disparate people talking to each other at the level we are.”

Mr. Krens said that in Abu Dhabi, the Guggenheim would do “more of what it’s been doing, and will do it even better.” The Guggenheim’s obligation, he said, is “to understand global culture on a contemporary basis, to understand its long historical and traditional tale.” Asked about how the museum’s collections and exhibitions will be divided between Western and local art, Mr. Krens demurred while invoking the long history of other civilizations.

“The cultural traditions of China and India combined are probably about 9,000 years. In Western Europe, what are we talking about? Sophisticated culture for 1,000 years?” he said.

He told a story about becoming fascinated, while on an archaeological excavation in southern Turkey in the 1970s, with an Ottoman architect named Sinan, who was the chief architect for Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century.

“Sinan was Frank Lloyd Wright’s favorite architect,” Mr. Krens said. “Frank Lloyd Wright once said that Sinan had covered more space or more area than any other architect in history. I did a motorcycle tour, and I visited every Sinan building that I could visit, from the Balkans to Anatolia. He’s one of the greatest architects in history, and nobody in the west would register any recognition.”

One proponent of cultural diplomacy said he thought the planned Guggenheim museum could have a strongly beneficial effect. “I don’t think the United States should be shy about presenting the best of our culture in other countries,” the president of Marlboro College and former executive director of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, Ellen McCulloch-Lovell, said.

“Of course, what one always has to be concerned about it is that cultural diplomacy shouldn’t only be about exporting one culture to another,” she said. “It should be about understanding and collaboration. I would like to see the institutions doing something that shows how much they value the culture of the country they’re in. With a twoway-street approach, a project like this can do a lot of good.”

A historian at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Bruce Mazlish, said the Guggenheim’s expansion helped frame the question of what a global museum might be.

“In the last couple of hundred years, museums have fundamentally been there to help develop a national consciousness, a national identity,” Mr. Mazlish said. “It’s only now that we have to think, Gosh, if we’re moving out of that [into a global consciousness], then what purpose should a museum serve? And Abu Dhabi is an interesting case, because they are a global city.”

The editor of the World Policy Journal and author of “The Plundered Past: The Story of the Illegal International Traffic in Works of Art,” Karl Meyer, saw another potential virtue in creating global — rather than merely universal — museums. “The globalization of art opens a window to the possible rethinking of a whole range of cultural restitution issues,” Mr. Meyer said. “It would be a wonderful thing, for instance, if the British Museum had a branch in Athens, and the Elgin marbles could be shown there. The extent to which you can globalize these institutions increases the possibility of a solution to these issues.”

But there are, of course, skeptics about the wisdom of exporting American culture. “It’s people here who would like to think that if they send this stuff to the other side of the world, it’s going to have some impact,” the art critic Hilton Kramer said. “I think the other side of the world isn’t the slightest bit interested.”

And although, in Mr. Kramer’s opinion, the outside world hasn’t gained, we have still lost: “Before they started to expand, the Guggenheim was one of most influential and important modern art museums in the world,” he said. “Since their expansion, their importance has totally disappeared. They have no influence. They don’t attract any artistic interest. I assume they must be making money out of it, but their stature and influence as a museum have totally evaporated.”

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