Arts and Culture

Why museums should have a ‘cool’ quotient

A woman walks past Diego Rivera's mural "Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda" at Museum Mural Diego Rivera in Mexico City May 13, 2010. REUTERS/Eliana Aponte (MEXICO - Tags: SOCIETY) - GM1E65E0CF801

Museums need to break barriers to ensure they don't only attract the cultural elite. Image: REUTERS/Eliana Aponte

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Museums play an important role in enhancing one’s understanding of history, but typically they attract only the cultural elite. The Louvre Abu Dhabi wants to transcend that barrier. Its vision is to become a global platform that brings together people from different countries, cultures, religions, across various age groups and from all walks of life. “Our vision is that any visitor should be able to find a bit of their home in it,” says Saif Saeed Ghobash, undersecretary at the department of culture and tourism in Abu Dhabi.

In a recent conversation with Knowledge@Wharton in his office in Abu Dhabi, Ghobash spoke about the changing role of museums in the 21st century and why they must have a ‘cool’ quotient if they want to attract young people.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: The Louvre Abu Dhabi opened in November 2017. What has the response been so far? Has it met your expectations?

Saif Saeed Ghobash:The first year was excellent in terms of feedback and performance. We managed to attract more than a million visitors. Of these, two-thirds were international visitors. That is a testament to the museum’s global message. The museum has lived up to its promise. It promised diversity; it promised reach; it promised to speak to everyone from all walks of life. It has managed to deliver on that every day.

Knowledge@Wharton: This museum is unusual in the sense that it represents collaboration between the governments of the UAE and France. How does it differ from museums in other parts of the world? Is the Louvre in Abu Dhabi different from the Louvre in Paris?

Ghobash: This museum has a very unique narrative, unlike any other, anywhere in the world — Universality. You can see that as you walk through the galleries. We are able to compare and contrast and draw similarities between various cultures, traditions, religions, and all walks of life. That is what makes it unique.

The Louvre Paris is a formidable [museum] and the best partner we could have. But we are an independent museum, not a branch of the Louvre, Paris. The inter-governmental agreement that was drawn up between the UAE and France stipulated that 13 participating museums that have formed the Agency of French Museums would support us in building this museum and running it for a defined period of time. Without their support and their expertise, we wouldn’t have been able to achieve this admirable feat. The onus is now on us to carry this torch forward. We continue to work with them to improve this museum’s ability to reach people from all walks of life.

Knowledge@Wharton: Could you talk about the curatorial approach that you took in inviting audiences to see humanity in a new light? How did you come up with this innovative strategy, and how it was developed?

“Our vision is that any visitor to this museum should be able to find a bit of their home in it.”

Ghobash: This strategy was not founded just 10 years ago when the agreement was signed. It is in our DNA. The late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan, the founder of the nation, played a very important role in protecting and preserving this country’s cultural heritage. He insisted on showcasing and displaying it by ordering the construction of Al Ain Museum, the country’s first museum. Places such as the Sir Bani Yas church and monastery located on Sir Bani Yas island were preserved and opened to the public to encourage cultural dialog. We are building on that heritage of enabling people to thrive through exchanging cultural understanding.

Our vision is that any visitor to this museum should be able to find a bit of their home in it — whether you come from Asia, Africa, or from South America and whether you are a Buddhist, a Muslim, or from any other religion. You will find a part of your culture or your background or your history in this museum. This is a global stage where we are going to showcase you.

Knowledge@Wharton: All museums face a paradox. They are dedicated to preserving the past, but at the same time they must also prepare audiences for the future. How have you dealt with this paradox at the Louvre?

Ghobash: You will find that every great leader is grounded in his understanding of history. History repeats itself. Museums play a very important role in augmenting one’s understanding of history through presenting incidents, tales, facts, etc. in a manner that is enticing, exciting, and easy to comprehend. We also work hand in hand with the ministry of education in mandating the visit of every student to the Louvre Abu Dhabi at least once every two years.

Knowledge@Wharton: What do you expect to accomplish by mandating that?

Ghobash: It is just like any school trip. Our government feels that the Louvre Abu Dhabi and what it represents is very important and every child should be exposed to its evolving exhibitions to understand various cultures and elements of history as they develop themselves in their years as students from kindergarten all the way through grade 12.

Knowledge@Wharton: Museums across different regions face the common problem of attracting only a narrow cultural elite and not a broad audience. How have you dealt with that challenge at the Louvre Abu Dhabi?

Ghobash: I believe museums today speak to everyone; you will find that by analyzing the visitation figures. It all comes down to two things: How you communicate the museum’s importance and the beauty of it; and how you keep the brand agile without trespassing on its cultural identity and strength. You then synchronize what you do in the marketing and communication with your product offering.

Your product is not only your permanent and temporary exhibitions. It is also your programming, your workshops, your events, and so on. You need to understand your audience better and cater to their needs. The beauty of being in Abu Dhabi is that you are within a few hours flight of quite a significant percentage of the world’s population. Everyone can just fly through here.

Knowledge@Wharton: Another challenge that many museums face is connecting with young people. Can you give any examples of the ways in which you have used interactivity or technology as a way of engaging with younger audiences?

“Museums play an important role in augmenting one’s understanding of history through presenting incidents, tales, facts, etc. in a manner that is enticing, exciting, and easy to comprehend.”

Ghobash: First and foremost is our program with the ministry of education. We have a lot of school kids coming through. We attract them by developing state of the art toolkits. These toolkits are given to teachers. All teachers are invited to the museum before they start the academic year, we brief them on the content and we prep them. The journey begins in the classroom when the schoolchildren are prepared for the visit. And they are debriefed after the visit. That creates love, respect and appreciation.

Beyond that, we have children’s workshops, we have the first of its kind children’s museum, various performances and so on. Also, whatever exhibition we do, there is always an element that caters to children. For example, when we had an exhibition on Japan, we infused the experience with Manga lab workshops with Japanese animation. We flew in world-class animators and artists from across the world to interact with kids. You have to be “cool” as a museum, or you will miss out on attracting children. We are also able to interact with people of determination. We have placed various multi-sensory works across our galleries that people can touch and feel. We want to speak to everyone. Bit by bit we are demonstrating that we are successful in doing so.

Knowledge@Wharton: How do you use social media to connect with audiences beyond those who can physically come to the museum?

Ghobash: We use social media to advertise whatever is happening in the museum — exhibitions, programs, talks, performances, and so on.

This drives visitation. We also use social media to demonstrate our leadership and understanding of things. For instance, whenever we discover new things or we work on research on certain items, we put teasers on social media and drive traffic towards our website.

A highly successful marketing campaign — which won a lot of awards — was the Highway Gallery which we launched last year. It was the first of its kind. We took over dozens of billboards and we worked with the local radio stations. So as you were driving on the highway, you could tune into a defined radio station, and there would be a narrative telling you about every art piece that you drove past. The idea was to increase people’s awareness and knowledge about the art and also arouse their curiosity and attract them to the museum.

Knowledge@Wharton: What would you like the world to learn about the culture of the Arab world through the Louvre Abu Dhabi?

“You have to be ‘cool’ as a museum, or you will miss out on attracting children.”

Have you read?

Ghobash: We have a history that is hundreds of thousands of years old. This region was a melting pot for people from all walks of life. It was a cross section for trade routes. That is what we want people to know and what the museum attempts to showcase. We have several collections on loan from other museums in France, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the broader Arab region. We provide these countries the opportunity to showcase their history and culture in our museum, which is a global stage.

Knowledge@Wharton: How do you view the role of tourism in helping Abu Dhabi, and also all of the UAE, diversify away from oil as a source of economic growth?

Ghobash: Tourism plays a very important role in the diversification of GDP. It not only helps move businesses and the economy through direct expenditures but the economic multiplier effect is also significant. Today, because of the tourism sector, there is increased investment in hospitality, retail, real estate, the services industry, and so on.

At the indirect level, the longer term story which I believe we are obligated to play in the tourism sector or the cultural sector, is that when you come here and you see how tolerant and diverse and culturally accepting the Emiratis are, and this country is, you will leave with a seed planted in your head thinking, I want to do business in this country, or I want to live and work in this country. That is the longer-term game.

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