Not much more than five kilometres separates the prospective Museum of the Future in Dubai from the Etihad Museum, the exhibition space and compound that represent the most significant moment in the country's past.
Etihad Museum, built adjacent to Union House, is an arresting, almost playful modern pavilion. Opened four years ago on National Day, the space designed by Moriyama and Teshima Architects is officially described as a building of undulating parabolic curves. With many of the exhibits stored underground, albeit in areas of the pavilion that are flooded with light, the visitor descends into the archives to find historical pictures, artefacts from the Founding Fathers and the country’s constitution.
The presence of this document is a physical reminder of what was at stake 49 years ago this month. Nation-building is a straightforward concept but a complex puzzle to solve. The constitution was adopted on the day of unification, a written document to accompany the celebrations to mark years of negotiation and diplomacy undertaken by the Founding Fathers, led by Sheikh Zayed and Sheikh Rashid. Its articles enshrine the rights of citizens and the duties of the state and local government.
Visitors to the museum will soon find themselves drawn outside into the courtyard towards the restored Union House, where the federation agreement was signed.
A small decorative lake set in the manicured gardens represents the shoreline that huddled closer to these buildings in the 1970s. A flagpole situated near Union House is the same one from which the country’s flag was first unfurled on the December day of celebration. The flag itself is reported to be the one that was first raised 49 years ago.
The serenity of the site in the late afternoon sun is almost overwhelming, especially when visited in this most challenging of years, while the view from the back of the Jumeirah compound affords the visitor a perspective of the pavilion, the historic negotiating room and the guesthouse where dignitaries and leaders would retire to in the days leading up to union. Modern Dubai rises high in the distance, a reminder of the heights the leaders hoped would be reached in the decades to come.
It doesn’t take long to journey by car from Union House to the Museum of the Future. The complexity of the task of nation-building represented by the Etihad Museum is matched by the complicated nature of this soon to open building, which has been described as the “most intricate” in the world. The space inside is expected to provide a twist on traditional museums and is envisaged as an ideas incubator rather than a site for signature artworks.
Even before it opens next year, the details that coalesce around the Museum of the Future give an idea of the scale of its ambition: a building worth Dh500 million, spread over 17,000 square metres, with thousands of solar powered lights to illuminate the Arabic calligraphy of the exterior shell each evening, once the sun sets. The calligraphy is an engineering feat in itself, formed from 1,024 pieces of machined cladding, the precision work painstakingly assembled over more than a year.
The inscriptions, brought to reality by artist Mattar bin Lahej, include this quote on its exterior, from Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai: "The future belongs to those who can imagine it, design it and execute it… the future does not wait… the future can be designed and built today."
Those words resonate loudly today as 2020 draws to a close.
Earlier this week, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid and Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, toured Al Marmoom Conservation Reserve and spoke about efforts to support prosperity and tackle this year's many health challenges.
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid said that the pair were “united by thinking of a better tomorrow and by a desire to make 2021 the greatest year in the UAE’s development.”
Before 2020 was shaped by efforts to contain and constrain coronavirus, the UAE had marked this year as one to carry the country "towards the next 50" on two tracks, the first to prepare for the golden jubilee celebrations in 2021, the second to build a development plan for the next five decades. While almost every plan has been disrupted this year, the country has shown it is able and willing to adapt and find smart solutions. The guiding principles of courage, commitment and perseverance that served the Founding Fathers so well in 1971 are evident today as the country navigates a course through the choppy waters of 2020.
The pandemic has brought many setbacks, but there are signs the tide may be turning. Vaccines are being delivered and science has built our understanding of the virus and our ability to adapt our responses to it. A "better tomorrow" is within touching distance.
A year ago, I wrote that I could not wait for Expo 2020 to begin in October this year. The wait for it to open has been longer than anyone could have expected last December. Like the soon to open museum, the world's fair will lay out a vision of tomorrow. For visitors to Dubai next year, a visit to all three attractions will provide a comprehensive view of the country's past and the direction in which it is heading.
Nick March is an assistant editor-in-chief at The National