Did the British Museum really cancel its deal with the Zayed National Museum?

The Art Newspaper seemed to have a minor scoop last week, with the news that the British Museum and Abu Dhabi’s Zayed National Museum had terminated their contractual arrangement two years before the deal was scheduled to end.

In fact things aren’t so black and white. Here’s what we know: the deal was signed in 2009 and does indeed have a ten-year term. The Zayed National Museum won’t be ready to open before 2020 at the earliest, a full year after the contract expires. And the contract included a “development phase” which “concluded” in spring this year.

We asked the British Museum to clarify, and a spokesperson gave us this carefully worded Official Statement:

Not quite ready yet: the Zayed National Museum site just before summer 2017

“The British Museum has worked in close partnership with TCA Abu Dhabi since 2009 to deliver consultancy services for Zayed National Museum in the UAE. We have now concluded the development phase of the project, which was completed in spring 2017. Following this phase, the ongoing development of the collection will be undertaken by a dedicated in-house team at TCA Abu Dhabi.”

There was more about the “close partnership with [Zayed National Museum’s parent body] TCA Abu Dhabi” and how both continue to “value” the connection (which isn’t quite the same as continuing the connection, of course).

For its part, TCA Abu Dhabi told The National that “all parts of the advisory agreement have successfully concluded”, which does leave open the question of other aspects of the agreement and whether they too have concluded.

It looks as though there were two elements of the contract – an eight-year “development” phase, during which the Zayed Museum was expected to become operational; and a delivery phase running through the balance of the ten-year contract which would see the BM loan artefacts and exhibitions to Abu Dhabi.

Sasanian silver bowl depicting Persian king Bahram Gur hunting lions (5th-7th century AD)
Several jewellery designs drawn by Hans Holbein the Younger (c 1532-43) including this pendant set with a ruby, sapphires and pearls
Assyrian panels including the Banquet Scene, a gypsum fragment of relief depicting King Ashurbanipal and his queen in their garden enjoying the music of harpists (645-635 BCE)

That would allow the Zayed to open with a solid portfolio to show while it was still building its own permanent collection. It has been reported that the BM had earmarked 500 objects for loan to Abu Dhabi, including Assyrian reliefs, cuneiform tablets, Byzantine pieces, Greek and Roman jewels, and Ming porcelain. Some of the items mentioned are shown on the right.

Clearly without a museum in which to display the stuff, the loan option becomes irrelevant.

Reportedly it was the British Museum that had approached TDIC in 2009 – it had been widely assumed that it was TDIC doing the proposing. Justin Morris, the BM’s head of development at the time, was quoted as saying “we didn’t want a British Museum Abu Dhabi. Our preferred route is to work with partners and that’s what we’ll be doing here … We wanted to offer our services, they wanted an internationally credible museum.”

The British Museum’s bookkeepers won’t be especially happy about the current state of affairs. We understand the BM has been paid for advice and expertise provided to date in areas like security, training and actually starting the permanent collection, and around 20 BM people have been working on the Abu Dhabi project. But the deal for the loans and curated exhibitions would have involved fees estimated at several hundred thousand pounds per year, very handy at a time when the value of the British Museum’s annual state grant — £39.7 million last year — has been falling in real terms.

Mohamed Khalifa al-Mubarak, chairman of the TDIC Abu Dhabi, told the Sunday Times that “we’ve learnt a lot from the building of the Louvre” and declared “we will start soon the construction of the Zayed National Museum with Norman Foster.” Foster’s studio is responsible for the design, but that comment implies Foster will also be involved with the build.

Either way, the BM seems to be out of the loop now – the BM’s spokesperson said that “the ongoing development of the collection will be undertaken by a dedicated in-house team” (presumably at TDIC, or at TCA Abu Dhabi).

Foster’s designs for the Zayed were unveiled back in 2010. The studio said it had aimed to combine a highly efficient, contemporary form with elements of traditional Arabic design and hospitality “to create a museum that is sustainable, welcoming and culturally of its place”.

The museum is set within a landscaped garden, the galleries themselves being housed within a mound intended to suggest the topography of the Emirates.

Above this rise five lightweight steel structures that will make the Zayed Museum unmistakable. These are sculpted aerodynamically to act as solar thermal towers; the thermal stack effect means the heat at the top of the towers works to draw the air up vertically through the galleries, and air vents at the top of the wing-shaped towers take advantage of negative pressure on the lee of the wing profile to draw the hot air out.

Balancing the lightweight steel structures with a more monumental interior experience, pod-shaped galleries are suspended over a dramatic top-lit central lobby that has shops, cafes and informal venues for performance.

Foster’s website confirms that completion is expected in 2020. The original opening date was 2013.

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