Monday, January 3, 2011

A second museum for Zayed

The institution built to encapsulate the vision of the late Shaikh Zayed reminds us of his immense contributions

A little over a month ago, Elizabeth II, the queen of England, and His Highness Shaikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, inaugurated the Shaikh Zayed Museum in Abu Dhabi.

The museum is meant to capture that spirit by which the late ruler and our founding father united the seven emirates into a modern federation and how he lived his life before and after that feat.

The ceremony was beautiful. It was both warm and statesmanlike. Most importantly it was understated, which I thought was absolutely fitting for the legacy of the late Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan. Think about it, Shaikh Zayed was the epitome of all that would become virtuous of the Emirates. He remained the same wise and frugal man he was before the discovery of oil. He was a man of focus with two life goals in mind: the attainment of a just peace and sustainable prosperity for his citizens and neighbours.

Throughout the inauguration’s proceedings, I couldn’t help think it a bit odd to refer to the museum as the first museum for Shaikh Zayed. After all, the whole of the Emirates was his museum. If a private fine arts museum is meant to showcase the collection of its patron, then the museum of a royal statesman would showcase his collection; and what a collection it is.

From urban housing projects to desalination, schools to hospitals and peace treaties to trade agreements, Shaikh Zayed’s collection of work is all around us.

In his reign, literacy rates reached 93 per cent and infant mortality rates dropped from 62 per 1,000 to just 7. The economic output has increased eightfold and he effectively urbanised Bedouins, a goal he’d set himself that many doubted.

Future generations

I will visit the museum often, but I believe my visits will be more important when I take my children there. My children won’t grow up watching Shaikh Zayed speak live on TV.

To them, he will be the founding father we all drop whatever we’re doing and stare at the screen when his archive words of wisdom are played on TV. They will respect him but will not understand what he did, how far he went and his staunch refusal to accept anything less than a citizenship of a modern nation for his people.

This museum is for us, but more so for the future generations that will visit it to remember not to take the UAE for granted. Those future generations whom I wish for them to understand what the seven Arab Emirates were before they were United. To say that building a museum about Shaikh Zayed, which the future generations will be able to relate to, is challenging is an understatement.

Beyond this museum, the generation of my children will have nothing to understand the founder of the Emirates except our tales and photographs. The museum will have to be comparatively relevant, anecdotally rich and visually immersive. This should go beyond enlarged photo archives and video screening rooms. Those are good but they will probably resonate with tomorrow’s youth as much as the Second World War’s footage would with European teenagers.

Time capsule

The museum, which I imagine will be designed in chronological phases, should literally transform the visitor into that specific time. For example, looking at the period when Shaikh Zayed was the ruler of Al Ain in the late 1940s, a tour of a typical house or village in the oasis together with visualizations of:

Inflation-adjusted average income and expenses of a typical Al Ain resident at the time and now.
List of calorie-counted daily diet then and now. A replica of the actual lunch would go very far with the mental transformation.
List of the illnesses that were prevalent at the time compared to present.
List of the (limited) resources at Shaikh Zayed’s disposal at the time versus the challenges he faced then, e.g., famine and tribal defection.
Something like the above would go very far to demonstrate to the visitors of the museum in, say, 2025 how much was achieved and how much life has generally improved in just 50 years.

The history of the UAE has been documented and safeguarded quite well; a special mention goes to Shaikh Mansour Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Presidential Affairs, for his crucial patronage of the National Centre for Documentation and Research.

In other words, we have the content, which is usually the hard part. What we need to do now is to ensure that the display and communication of that content is approached in a fresh and contemporary manner.

The love we have for Shaikh Zayed is unlimited and unbound, this museum will allow all those who will come after us to develop the same kind of relationship we had with our father.

Until then, everywhere I look and everything I see is another pavilion in Shaikh Zayed’s first museum: the Emirates.

The article originally appeared in the
Gulf News.


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