The future of museums (and the future of Saadiyat?)

The pandemic has inevitably focussed the mind at many public institutions. Established in the expectation of a world where travel, mass access and interpersonal contact the norm, they are having to adapt their systems, practices and infrastructure to cope with new realities. And even if this pandemic subsides, there’ll be another along soon – by when their audiences and markets may well have changed their own behaviours and expectations.

The upside is that we can see what’s happening, and we can react to it. That appeasers to be the motivation for Reframing Museums, a first-of-its-kind virtual symposium “to address new challenges and responsibilities facing museums today”. The three-day event also promises to “showcase innovative opportunities”, and in keeping with the new democracy of Covid-19 it will be open to the public at no charge.

The organisers are two of Saadiyat’s principal institutions, Louvre Abu Dhabi and NYU Abu Dhabi. They have assembled artists, scholars, academics and museum experts to “discuss, interrogate, and reimagine the art museum of the future”.

There’s no detail yet on content, but we’re told it will be organised under three institutional pillars that typically define museums: Collections, Building/Site, and People. These will be explored through roundtables and case study presentations.

Some of the input will be crowdsourced via an open call prior to the symposium – no details on this yet either, but Manuel Rabaté, Director of Louvre Abu Dhabi listed “necessary conversations” are including sustainability, accessibility, education and diversity  … We invite everyone to be part of this important discussion”.

And Mariët Westermann, Vice Chancellor of NYUAD, listed some of the key questions: “Who and what are museums for? How can the museum compete with the virtual resources of the digital age? What is the museum’s relevance for people who had little or no say in their creation? How can collections of compromised or uncertain provenance ever play a legitimate role in a museum? Can museums compete with entertainment? Can museums revision what is included in their local or global remit, and find new purpose by healing the exclusions of the past?”

There’s a lot of meat there. The symposium should make for some excellent conversations, whether or not it comes up with any solutions.

Those already signed up to take part include several top names from the local ecosystem, people whose opinions are worth hearing – Hoor Al Qasimi from Sharjah Art Foundation, head of Sharjah Museums Manal Ataya, Zayed National Museum director Peter Magee, Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak from DCT–Abu Dhabi. There will be a collection of international luminaries like Eugene Tan (Singapore Art Museum), Jean-Luc Martinez (Musée du Louvre), Kaywin Feldman (National Gallery of Art, Washington), Max Hollein (New York Met), Mikhail Piotrovsky (Hermitage, St Petersburg) and Yang Zhigang (Shanghai Museum). The faculty of NYUAD will also be providing some contributors, like cultural theorist Kwame Anthony Appiah and David Wrisley, Associate Professor of Digital Humanities.

Manuel Rabaté and Mariët Westermann will also open and close each day of the symposium.

Reframing Museums will mark the third anniversary of Louvre Abu Dhabi and the tenth anniversary of NYU Abu Dhabi. It feels like a good time to be having a conversation about the purpose and the future of museums, and to do so on Saadiyat – which one day Real Soon Now will have the Zayed National Museum and (hopefully) the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi too.

The schedule is 11am to 8.30pm on 16 and 17 November, 2.30 to 6pm on 18 November. Register here.

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