Striving to build a museum culture in the Middle East

Social change has encouraged salons in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia where artists gather with their peers to look at socio-political issues .
Sunday 05/05/2019
A digital blueprint of the Beirut Museum of Art. (BeMA)
Promising project. A digital blueprint of the Beirut Museum of Art. (BeMA)

WASHINGTON - As enormous, modern museums open in the Middle East, their curators said the spaces can provide cultural centres to help people through the upheaval and change many countries face.

However, they must act quickly or many of the Middle East’s historical artefacts and artworks will be lost, curators and other panellists said April 29 at a Middle East Institute forum in Washington.

“Our mission is not just idyllic,” said Taline Boladian, a member of the Association for the Promotion and Exhibition of the Arts in Lebanon. “It’s kind of a necessity.”

The association is the founding entity of the Beirut Museum of Art (BeMA). Using Lebanon as an example, Boladian cited the importance of giving communities a place to learn about each other.

In Lebanon, about 1.5 million immigrants have flowed into a community of 4.5 million, which is causing anti-immigration sentiment.

“We have a humanitarian crisis,” Boladian said. “It’s the cultural institutions that inspire people to come together.”

Those institutions teach co-existence, empathy and tolerance and they can provide a safe space for people to talk about issues, explore ideas and learn about people whose backgrounds are different from their own.

However, countries could lose the tools necessary for such institutions, the experts said. The Middle East Institute plans to open a Middle East art gallery this year to promote cross-cultural understanding between the Middle East and the West.

“We’re at a critical point in our arts because the pieces that the [Lebanese] Ministry of Culture has loaned to us are a mess,” Boladian said.

The pieces have been in and out of storage and they have been in unconditioned buildings. Mice have damaged centuries-old paintings and mould has been noted on others.

“If we don’t restore it right now, if we don’t save it right now, it’s totally going to disintegrate,” Boladian said.

The timing may be right for those pieces to come together. Cultural centres have shifted since the “Arab spring” and, as money has moved in the Middle East, so have museums.

“There is a fairly substantial shift that’s occurring in traditional centres of culture,” said Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, adding that history museums in Egypt, Israel and Turkey have been joined by museums in Abu Dhabi and, soon, Lebanon.

The panellists said for the new museums to work — to justify the huge sums of money spent in their creation by drawing tourists and show they are true cultural centres by attracting locals — people must feel as if they are represented. They must be given an opportunity to learn to become museum-going cultures and feel that the museums provide a place to express opinions, whether through giving personal histories, using the spaces to create art or seeing how their children learn in the museums.

“Tourism was big for the economy,” said Peggy Loar, president of International Museum Planning Consultants. “The cost of the building was meant for tourism. At the same time, if it didn’t include what’s important to locals, then it’s a failure.”

“For BeMA, we’re thinking of the museum as a culture mediator, rather than a culture authority,” Boladian said. “We don’t have a museum-frequenting society.”

In Lebanon, students don’t go to museums on field trips as they do in the West, she said.

Without the programmes, safe space and dialogue with the community, the centres won’t have an audience, Boladian added. Those programmes include students learning to make art and art residency programmes. One of the main goals is to spread awareness of Lebanese art.

Through the BeMA collection, she said museum and galleries can use pieces to tie together different communities, not just Lebanese. They can host exhibitions or they can have people restore art, as was recently done when BeMA created an exchange with the University of Stuttgart to work on restoration and teach Lebanese students how to repair artworks.

Not all museums are expensive behemoths. Social change has encouraged salons in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia where artists gather with their peers to look at socio-political issues and human rights and the future and they can talk about them and present new ideas.

“What I have seen [in Saudi Arabia] is a real grass-roots attempt to start their own salons,” Lowry said, adding that people need a place to talk and meet and work out ideas together.

In Saudi Arabia, artists must apply for a licence for each exhibit and they must get approval for each piece to be displayed, he said.

“The artists are taking matters into their own hands and they operate below the radar,” he said. He said he is also seeing that trend in Algiers, Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah.

“How long can it endure?” Lowry asked. “I don’t know but golden moments never endure for as long as we think they did.”