Museums have been facing increased scrutiny in recent years – from the ethics around funding to the return of stolen artefacts. At present, the conversation has turned towards issues of racial inequality and representation following the Black Lives Matter movement, and mass redundancies in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
Louvre Abu Dhabi and New York University (NYU) Abu Dhabi have come together for an online symposium to address the present challenges and responsibilities museums must handle, as well as their place in the future.
Named Reframing Museums, it will be held from Monday to Wednesday, November 16 to 18, to coincide with the museum’s third anniversary.
The symposium will focus on three areas: collection, building / site, and people. The first looks at acquisition practices by museums, while the second considers the importance of a museum’s physical space in light of closures and travel restrictions amid the pandemic. The third centres on the civic role of the museum, who it represents and how it serves its communities and their histories.
Reframing Museums builds on an earlier symposium hosted by NYU Abu Dhabi in 2010, before Louvre Abu Dhabi even opened its doors, which explored the potential museum landscape for the UAE at the time. Mariet Westermann, the university’s vice chancellor, says she met with museum director Manuel Rabate in November last year to think about how these topics have changed in the past decade.
When the pandemic struck, the two decided to recalibrate their theme to tackle the most pressing issues surrounding cultural institutions presently. “It will be one of the first moments on the global scene, in the museum world, that we will have this kind of conversation. In the past months, we have been thinking about the impact of the crisis on the museum world and art history,” Rabate says.
The list of roundtable topics and case studies to be presented at the symposium have yet to be announced, but participants will include Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, chairman of the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi, which manages Louvre Abu Dhabi, and Jean-Luc Martinez, president of the Louvre Museum in Paris.
Directors from institutions in the UAE and abroad will also take part, namely Sheikha Hoor Al Qasimi from Sharjah Art Foundation; Manal Ataya from Sharjah Museums Authority; Max Hollein from the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Kaywin Feldman from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; Eugene Tan from Singapore Art Museum; and Peter Magee from Zayed Museum, among others.
A key figure in philosophy, culture and race theory, Kwame Anthony Appiah, will also be part of the programme. Appiah, who is British-Ghanaian, has written extensively about race and ethics, and currently teaches philosophy and law at New York University.
So far, no artists or curators have been included in the list of speakers. However, the organisers have stated that they will host talks between the invited museum directors and emerging curators from around the world, though these will be held privately.
“We wanted to have a huge global reach. It was very important to have a global discussion happening in the region,” says Rabate about the selection process. “We wanted to keep it balanced. It is also important to have all the voices represented, including gender, voices that would be a good representation of the debate today and that are relevant to Abu Dhabi.
“We have two institutions involved, so NYU Abu Dhabi is looking at academia and we are looking at the museum,” he added. In addition to Appiah, the university will be bringing scholars such as Professor David Wrisley, who founded the first digital humanities training institute in the Middle East in Beirut in 2015.
The topics in the symposium are not just pertinent to the global state, but also for Louvre Abu Dhabi and NYU Abu Dhabi, international institutions that have come from abroad to establish their distinct places in the Middle East.
Rabate says that while the museum will reflect on these issues within its own practices, Louvre Abu Dhabi will not be the centre of the debate.
“We chose these three pillars because they structure the questions that are the most relevant in the museum world, so of course, they apply to us, but it’s not a symposium about Louvre Abu Dhabi. We are there with NYU Abu Dhabi. We will be the hosting virtual place, but we are the host, not the subject, of the symposium,” he explains.
“The question still applies to us. In the three years of Louvre Abu Dhabi, the idea of collection is very dear to us. We try to create a narrative, present storytelling with our collection, and the way [people] interact with it. This is something in the DNA of Abu Dhabi,” he adds, referring to the cross-cultural approach of Louvre Abu Dhabi’s exhibitions. Rabate also notes that half of the museum’s employees consist of Emirati staff, while the rest are from various nationalities.
For the university, its art gallery and arts centre have been staging exhibitions and performance programmes in the capital since they opened in 2014, and Westermann says that these discussions have always been part of the way they work. “Our arts centre and our art gallery grappled with the same question of whose art is represented, how, for whom and with whom, really motivates us to think about in this symposium about collections and their stories,” she says. “The question of community is foremost for us.
"It's important to recognise that the university, as a type of institution, is an international entity because knowledge is universal. Abu Dhabi and the community of the UAE itself are very international and local, so we think it is our job to work with, draw on and serve all those realms of the population," she adds.