How The Middle East Is Slowly Reclaiming Its Cultural Glories

18 May 2019
Why art and culture are pathways to a progressive society

The passage of time. And art. Few things in life can give us  a better perspective on our place in the grand scheme of things. And nowhere are they more intertwined than on a visit to a museum.

We probably don’t spend anywhere near enough time there, of course. The average person’s time spent admiring a Da Vinci pales into insignificance compared to watching Netflix or scrolling through Facebook.

It’s a real shame. I mean, what’s not to like about museums? They’re inspiring, educational and occasionally, if you’re unlucky to get locked up inside one overnight, the exhibits come alive and try to kill you.

But we should consider ourselves lucky. At least that’s how I felt after having finally visited the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

Even those yet to visit there will, by now, recognise Jean Nouvel’s ‘floating dome’ exterior: tall and proud with an overarching metallic ceiling designed to let light trickle through like in a palm grove.  But while Instagram-timeline fodder as it so clearly is, it’s the works hidden within that are genuinely head turning.

There are discoveries from what is now Ras Al Khaimah dating back as far as 2000 BC. Works from 6500 BC Jordan – Monumental Statue with Two Heads is believed to be one of the oldest works in the history of humanity. There are artefacts from Ancient Egypt, Rome and Greece. There’s art by Rembrandt and Basquiat. There’s art even before you get there,  on the Highway Gallery where you can see works from the Louvre on the E-11 billboards between Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and learn more about them via your car radio.

While Louvre Abu Dhabi is certainly ambitious in scope, it complements the cultural landscape well. Abu Dhabi will soon be home to Zayed National Museum, which recently saw a new work unveiled by Sheikh Al Azhar in the presence of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi.

Dubai, meanwhile, is home to the historic museum at Al Fahidi Fort, Etihad Museum and, imminently, the architecturally stunning Museum of the Future. Sharjah even has a Museum Authority, and is home to several cultural institutions, including the Museum of Islamic Civilisation.

But it’s not London, Paris or New York, the culture supremacists bleat – and neither should it attempt to be – but perhaps it needed such a high profile operation, such a globally respected name, in order to try and shift perceptions about art and culture in the region.

Beirut, Damascus, Cairo and Baghdad have long been the Middle East’s traditional cultural centres. Unfortunately, to varying degrees, the socio-political situations in those capitals have meant art and culture were no longer priorities.

Yet apathy, even at the most desperate of times, is not just unfortunate but hugely detrimental to societal advancement. A thriving art and culture scene is essential for a progressive society.

When lists of the world’s most liveable cities are compiled, one of the main criteria is access to museums. Year after year, the top-ranked cities are invariably from Scandinavia, Australia and Canada – countries that place a heavy emphasis on culture, and are home to established museums and art galleries.

Middle Eastern cities, sadly, are nowhere to be seen on the lists.

The region has had a chequered past with art and culture. Historically, some of the greatest works of art emerged from the Middle East.

Interest in Ancient Egyptian objects dates back to Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of the country in 1898 and was reignited when Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. It’s fair to say that historical items from Egypt have been pillaged by established museums around the world ever since.

The British Museum in particular, gained the most. In 1972, it held a record-breaking exhibition during which people waited in lines for hours to see the young king’s belongings.

And three of the four Obelisks that go by the names of Cleopatra’s Needle are in Paris, London and New York. Egypt retains only one, in Luxor.
Which is what makes Louvre Abu Dhabi, like other established or new museums in the Middle East, a cultural necessity, not simply a luxury. Its borrowing of the Louvre name might have irritated some of the global art elite, but it has at least reversed the flow of some of the world’s greatest arts exhibits. Ithra, in Saudi, also shows the region’s cultural institutions gaining momentum.

The UAE may have built a global reputation as a tourist destination, but now it is leading the region in promoting art and culture. It is not just museums either; Jameel Arts Centre and the imminent Mohammed Bin Rashid Library are precisely the types of institutions to show that the city as about more than glamorous hotels and shopping malls.

There’s a long way to go before museums in the Middle East are the norm and not the exception, but the tide is surely turning – a cultural change is finally under way.

It’s about time. And art. 

ILLUSTRATION: AISTĖ STANCIKAITĖ