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Over the weekend, the great Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote about the proliferation of grand museums designed by brand-name architects in two small, oil-rich countries in the Middle East. It’s all part of a conscious effort to remake themselves in the modern era:
To a critic traveling through the region, the speed at which museums are being built in Abu Dhabi—and the international brand names attached to some of them—conjured culture-flavored versions of the overwrought real-estate spectacles that famously shaped its fellow emirate, Dubai. By contrast, Doha’s vision seemed a more calculated attempt to find a balance between modernization and Islam.
But in both cases leaders also see their construction sprees as part of sweeping efforts to retool their societies for a post-Sept. 11, post-oil world. Their goal is not only to build a more positive image of the Middle East at a time when anti-Islamic sentiment continues to build across Europe and the United States, but also to create a kind of latter-day Silk Road, one on which their countries are powerful cultural and economic hinges between the West and rising powers like India and China.
This ambitious effort made me think of the United States’ own body charged with the construction and curation of national museums: The Smithsonian Institution. It was created almost accidentally, after a windfall donation to the young government earmarked for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” Rather than national pride, however, the purpose was primarily scientific. In establishing the Institution, Congress decreed in 1845 that the first museum should be eminently practical: “a suitable building, of plain and durable materials and structure, without unnecessary ornament, and of sufficient size, and with suitable rooms or halls, for the reception and arrangement, upon a liberal scale, of objects of natural history, including a geological and mineralogical cabinet; also a chemical laboratory, a library, a gallery of art, and the necessary lecture rooms…”
Over the last century and a half, the museums of the Smithsonian Institution have taken on a dual role, serving both to foster a sense of national identity as well as to advance scientific knowledge. Certainly, the newer museums are meant to serve as architectural achievements as well as repositories for important artifacts. But it’s probably fair to say that the Smithsonian never had quite the same international public relations mission that Emirates seem to have set out for their new museums. Abu Dhabi, for example, seems to be going for glitz over content in its new national museum.
The museum was intended to explore the United Arab Emirates’ relatively sparse historical record through the life of Sheik Zayed, a man known for his humility, who died in 2004. Yet after Norman Foster presented his initial design proposal, in 2007, he was told that the country’s leadership wanted something grander, even though there was still no clear idea of what, exactly, would go inside.
All government-run museums are geared, vaguely, towards national advancement. Some end up being more propagandistic than others.