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Ming-Ai (London) Institute overseas field study trip to Dunhuang Cave-Temples in the Gobi desert of Gansu Province, China

To celebrate International Museum Day 2019 the Ming-Ai (London) Institute organised an overseas field study trip to the famous Dunhuang Cave-Temples in the Gobi desert of Gansu Province, China.

Visiting the largest Buddha- nine stories high!

Visiting the largest Buddha- nine stories high!

Led by Dean Chungwen Li and Programme Leader Jane Wang the group had an intense three days; meetings with conservators from the Dunhuang Research Academy who oversee the site and visits to the Dunhuang, Yulin and Xi Qain Fo Caves to see the wonderful deity paintings, artefacts and documents that they had only seen previously online.

The group were hosted by researchers from the Dunhuang Research Academy’s digital department and had privileged access to learn about the challenging restoration and stabilization of the murals and the digitisation programme leading to the important online digital reconstruction of the site.

Central to this trip was the appreciation of the role of Buddhist culture in the creation of a unique cultural and trade crossroads on the Silk Road and the immense cultural value of the preservation of Buddhist art and ritual heritage to Dunhuang.

The cave-temple complex was also a test site for the development of the China Principles, a set of international standards for preserving cultural heritage—not only in terms of physical assets, but also with respect to local traditions, environment, and history. The students were also able to observe the heritage management of the UNESCO site and make comparisons of lodging and cuisine of a uniquely managed Chinese Cultural heritage site with western counterparts.

The group were warmly received by experts from the Dunhuang Research Academy and valuable contacts and information were exchanged as to the teaching of the Ming-Ai MA programme and that of the Dunhuang Research Academy.

At the Dunhuang Research Academy inspecting a mural tracing.

At the Dunhuang Research Academy inspecting a mural tracing.

Before reaching Dunhuang the students also visited Xi’an, the starting point of the Silk Road in Shanxi Province. This famous ancient capital has been designated as the capital of 13 ancient Chinese dynasties. All left a rich legacy of cultural relics including 314 key cultural relics sites ( 84 under state and provincial protection) and some 120,000 unearthed cultural relics! The students also visited the world-famous site of Qin Emperor’s Terra-Cotta Soldiers and Horses and other historical places.

This trip was truly a life-changing for the students both as a learning experience but also one rich in historical and religious significance.

The magnificent Seven-story Tower Temple.

The magnificent Seven-story Tower Temple.

For more information on the MA in Chinese Cultural Heritage Management at
the Ming-Ai Institute and Middlesex University visit: or
contact David Crombie on 07812 743699 / .
Start Date: 2nd Week of Oct, 2019 / Fees: £6,000 for UK/EU students with a
£3,000 Holland Kwok scholarship.

Tate and Lujiazui Group sign MoU as part of the development of Shanghai’s Pudong Museum of Art

This article was first published on WebWire

At an event at Tate Modern on 11 June 2019, Tate and Shanghai Lujiazui Group – a leading state-owned developer in China – signed a Memorandum of Understanding as part of the development of Shanghai’s Pudong Museum of Art (PMoA). Tate will provide PMoA with training and expertise in a number of fields as well as an inaugural exhibition drawn from Tate’s collection. This will be followed by two more exhibitions at PMoA which will bring further works from Tate’s national collection to audiences in China.

The event was attended by representatives from both Tate and Lujiazui, the latter represented by Mr Bao Shuyi, Vice General Manager, Lujiazui Group. Tate was represented by Kerstin Mogull, Managing Director of Tate and Judith Nesbitt, Tate’s Director of National and International Partnerships. Mr Zhu Di, General Director, Art Department of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of the People’s Republic of China and Deputy District Mayor of Shanghai Pudong New Area People’s Government, and Mr Yu Peng, Minister Counsellor, Cultural Office at the Chinese Embassy in the UK were present at the event. Helen Whitehouse, Deputy Director, Museums and Cultural Property at the UK Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport also attended.
Pudong Museum of Art has been designed by Atelier Jean Nouvel (AJN). The construction of the building started in September 2017, it is scheduled to be completed in early 2021 and it will open to the public in mid-2021.

The signing formalises the commitment to cooperate in cultural exchange and museum development. Tate will provide expertise in areas such as visitor services, operations, art handling and exhibition management, audience development, and learning. The two parties aim to maintain a long-term strategic partnership.

Mr Zhu Di said:

I am delighted to be here with all of you in London to witness the signing ceremony for the Memorandum of Understanding between Lujiazui Group and Tate. On behalf of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of the People’s Republic of China and Shanghai Pudong New Area People’s Government, we are delighted to have Tate as a consultant to the Pudong Museum of Art and to be signing the MoU. Civilizations are enriched through learning from each other. When it opens, the PMoA will be a stage for dialogue through art, between China and other countries. It intends to become a major contributor to cultural exchanges and cooperation between China and other countries. We very much look forward to co-operating with Tate and, we hope, other leading museums from around the world as we build a new outward-facing art museum in the open, innovative and inclusive global city of Shanghai. We want to contribute to the promotion of cultural exchange worldwide, and the communication between the East and the West.

Kerstin Mogull commented:

We recognise and admire the ambition behind this new public art institution and are excited to be working with the Pudong Museum of Art to advise them on their historic journey towards the opening in 2021 and beyond. This is an internationally significant project to establish a major new art museum in one of the world’s most exciting, dynamic and populous cities. Tate’s best ever attended exhibition was held in Shanghai last year so we are keen to deepen our engagement with audiences there. We are delighted to have the opportunity to lend our expertise and experience to assist Lujiazui in that goal over the course of the next three years.


Pest treatment using Nitrogen gas: June 2019 update

The work by ICOM and many other cultural heritage organisations in the European Union to allow the renewed use of nitrogen as a pest treatment of cultural objects is gathering momentum and yielding the first results.

Under current legislation, Regulation No. 528/2012 (Biocidal Products Regulation – BPR), the use of Nitrogen gas to create anoxic environments for pest treatment purposes is not permitted. This has been posing problems for cultural heritage organisations across the EU who are concerned that the removal of this pest treatment option may endanger cultural objects which cannot be treated safely by freezing or heat treatments. Please see our previous briefings in March and May.

In an attempt to find a solution for the cultural heritage sector, ICOM has taken a leading role in disseminating information and coordinating responses from the heritage sector to the European Union and respective national governments. As part of this work, the ICOM UK committee is synchronising communication between the museums and historic houses in the UK and the UK’s Competent Authority on biocides, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

During the last week of May, ICOM became aware of an important deadline on 3rd June: on this day, EU member states had to notify the European Commission of their intention to apply for a derogation of Nitrogen from the BPR. In an attempt to increase HSE awareness of the requirements of the UK cultural heritage sector, and to highlight the urgency of the situation, ICOM UK issued a call for action which was followed promptly. Within hours HSE received a number of letters from the UK heritage sector asking HSE to apply for derogation.

Following a further conversation between ICOM UK and HSE, HSE have notified the European Commission that the UK is considering a derogation for generated Nitrogen, based on industry contacting them. This is a very positive response and means that the UK joins at least nine other countries considering a derogation for generated Nitrogen for cultural heritage purposes under the BPR. It is not the end of the process, as a formal application will need to be submitted at a later stage, but ICOM UK remains committed to helping find a suitable solution for heritage organisations.

Brexit and the Customs Union: The Practical Impact on Museums

Written by Clare Brown, Curator of Natural Science, Leeds Museums and Galleries. Re-posted here with kind permission of a blog originally published by the Natural Sciences Collections Association (NatSCA)

Who knows where you are and when you are reading this and so this blog comes with a few provisos:

  • Really importantly this is NOT LEGAL ADVICE OR NOTICE. NatSCA has been asked to share information from Defra on this situation but if you need clarification please speak to Defra or a solicitor.
  • The information in this blog pertains to the movement of material between the UK and the EU, it does not apply to non-EU countries, or internal UK movement/material use.
  • The information in this blog is only relevant in the event of a so-called “no-deal Brexit”.
  • This blog was written in May 2019 and so any reference to “current” or “present” refers to this time.

With the UK in the EU, Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) listed species in Annexes B to D can be freely traded and moved within the EU. The main change, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, will be that you will need CITES permits to move CITES good between the UK and the EU for species listed in Annexes B to D.

Please click here for an up to date list of Annex B to D species.

You’ll need to check the requirements for the EU country you are importing from or exporting to on the CITES website and the Defra CITES pages. In most loan circumstances: Annex A-C imports/exports will need a permit. Annex D will need a Customs notification.

Registered Scientific Institutions

Registered Scientific Institutions will continue to be able to use “labels” for EU import/export and so Defra have said that institutions “may think it prudent [to register] in the event of a no-deal Brexit.”

Being a Registered Scientific Institution allows you to trade in specimens of species included in Appendices I, II and III for “non-commercial loan, donation or exchange between scientists or scientific institutions registered by a Management Authority of their State, of herbarium specimens, other preserved, dried or embedded museums specimens, and live plant material”.

  • Permits can only be issued for non-commercial loans, donations and exchanges between scientists and scientific institutions.
  • Both exporter and importer must be registered institutions.
  • It currently costs £221 to register and takes up to 3 months to be approved.
  • Contact the UK government’s Animal and Plant Health Agency for more information.

Ports Handling CITES material

After a no-deal Brexit, not all ports will be designated to handle CITES material. Please make sure you check with the port you are intending your specimens to pass through before organising the move.

UK ports that will be designated to handle CITES material:

Airports include:

  • Belfast International
  • Birmingham International
  • Bristol
  • Cardiff
  • East Midlands
  • Edinburgh
  • Gatwick
  • Glasgow International
  • Glasgow Prestwick
  • Heathrow
  • Luton
  • Manchester
  • Southampton Eastleigh
  • Stansted

Ports include:

  • Felixstowe
  • Harwich
  • Liverpool Container Terminal (lift-on/lift-off)
  • London Gateway
  • Plymouth
  • Poole
  • Portsmouth
  • Southampton
  • Tilbury

Postal points of entry include:

  • Coventry International Parcel Post Hub
  • Heathrow International Distribution Centre

For further guidance please look at the Defra-issued guidance online:

Again, this is not legal advice, please consult Defra or a solicitor if you need clarification of the law.

British Museum considers loan of ‘invisible’ objects back to Ethiopia

This article first appeared in The Art Newspaper

The British Museum is to consider returning a group of “invisible” objects to Ethiopia. These are tabots (Christian plaques), which symbolically represent the Ark of the Covenant—the wooden chest that is said to have held the Ten Commandments. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church believes that tabots should never be viewed by anyone other than its priests.

There are 11 tabots in the British Museum. Although the storage arrangements are confidential, they are believed to be kept in a sealed storeroom in the basement of the Bloomsbury complex. Even Lissant Bolton, the museum’s keeper of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, has never set foot in the room, let alone seen the tabots. The Art Newspaper understands they are individually wrapped in cloth and placed on a shelf covered with purple velvet.

Nine of the museum’s 11 tabots are made from wood, the other two from stone, and they probably all feature a carved cross. The tabots were made to sanctify the individual churches where they were originally kept and usually include the name of the saint after which their church is named. These particular tabots were seized by British troops at the battle of Maqdala in 1868, when Emperor Tewodros committed suicide. Seven were donated to the museum soon afterwards by the secretary of state for India, and another came from the museum’s representative on the punitive expedition, Richard Holmes. One was purchased in 1968, another donated in 1990 and the final one has an unknown provenance.

In March this year an Ethiopian delegation, headed by the culture minister Hirut Kassaw, visited the British Museum and met with its director, Hartwig Fischer. During an amicable discussion, the Ethiopians informally requested the return of the 11 tabots, along with other material seized at Maqdala. A museum spokeswoman confirmed to The Art Newspaper: “Our officials recently met an Ethiopian delegation. The director is now going to report to the trustees, and the suggestion of a long-term loan of the tabots may be discussed.”

The museum is legally unable to deaccession in normal circumstances, but it could offer a long-term loan, which in practice might continue as a fairly permanent arrangement. Although the Ethiopian government may well facilitate the request, the tabots would presumably not go to the National Museum in Addis Ababa but to the Ethiopian Orthodox church, which would decide where they should be held.

If a loan proceeds, it would need to be an unusual arrangement from a monitoring point of view. Normally objects going out on loan are examined by British Museum conservators to record any existing damage, and then periodically examined or re-examined on their return. The museum would also normally need to be happy with the environmental and security conditions at the recipient’s venue. In this case the museum would have to take it on trust that the Ethiopian Orthodox church would take good care of these sacred objects.

But despite this hurdle, a long-term loan approved by the trustees would go some way to restoring their record after the unfortunate events of 1868. David Wilson, a former British Museum director, wrote in a 2002 book that “one of the less glorious episodes in the history of the museum, in today’s terms, was the trustees’ involvement in the punitive expedition to Abyssinia [Ethiopia]”.

Although the trustees may be worried about precedent, each restitution request is different—and this one is almost unique in that the objects should never be viewed (even in photographs—if they exist) by anyone at the museum: not visitors or researchers, or even curators. The tabots are, in effect, an invisible part of the British Museum’s collection.

Last month, the UK culture secretary Jeremy Wright told the Timesnewspaper that he was ruling out new legislation to allow the British Museum and other national museums to restitute objects permanently. Instead, he supports the idea of loans: “You can gain a lot of goodwill, and we will seek to [do so] by that sort of cultural cooperation.”


How Iraq is hunting for ancient relics looted from its museums

This article was first published in the Middle East Eye and was written by Tom Westcott

Islamic State fighters damaged and looted some of Iraq’s most important historic sites when they seized swathes of the country in 2014.

But authorities leading the country’s battle to return stolen antiquities say that the damage wreaked is just a fraction of the thefts still going on at unguarded locations

IS targeted pre-Islamic heritage, releasing video of militants armed with sledgehammers smashing priceless statues in Mosul Museum.

Luma Yass, director general of Iraq’s National Museum in Baghdad, dismisses it as largely a publicity stunt, intended to distract from the group’s larger plans: profiting from selling artefacts on the black market.

“IS propaganda made people think they had destroyed the antiquities,” she says, “but actually it was just very short video footage showing them destroying a few pieces, some of which were fakes.

“After this public destruction, IS could freely loot, using the proceeds to fund their terrorist activities.”

Notably, Yass said no fragments of the heads of Lamassu, the Assyrian-era giant winged bulls highly-prized in the antiquities trade, were found in the ruins of Mosul Museum or at the nearby site of the Assyrian city of Nimrud, parts of which date back more than 3,000 years.

“Islamic State couldn’t move whole Lamassu because they were too heavy. But the heads could be removed and sold on the black market.”

Devastation at Nimrud and Mosul

Nimrud is 20 miles from Mosul, the caliphate’s “capital” and one of Iraq’s best-preserved Assyrian sites. But Islamic State left it a bulldozed wasteland, save for two cracked relief sculptures, including one depicting a “Winged Genius” – a mythical Assyrian protective being.

“Almost nothing’s left here, but Islamic State only destroyed the big pieces,” said Abdullah, a security guard at Nimrud, shortly after the site was liberated in 2017.

“The best stuff was smuggled to Europe and sold. Local residents told us that, after Islamic State came, they were forbidden from entering the site but they watched Islamic State fighters stealing truck-loads of antiquities from here.”

Residents living near Jonah’s Tomb in Mosul also told MEE in 2017 that they had witnessed IS carting away treasures from the site before filling it with explosives and blowing it up.

Artefacts stolen by Islamic State continue to circulate on the black market. A people-smuggler based in Greece bought a large hoard of ancient gold coins for €2 million from Islamic State contacts last year, according to confidential sources.

In January, an Iraqi who has been working directly with Islamic State for several years to rescue enslaved Yazidi women and children, showed MEE video footage and Whatsapp messages of heaps of gold coins and ancient texts. The group, he said, had offered to sell him the booty for large sums of money.

Recovering Iraq’s lost treasures

The Islamic State thefts are considerable – but further south at Baghdad Museum, staff say they represent but a fraction of the prodigious looting which has plagued Iraq since the US-led 2003 invasion.

The losses include 15,000 artefacts, plundered from the National Museum during a four-day period in April 2003.

In his office, Muthanna Abed Dawed, former director of Iraq’s Antiquities Recovery Department, leafs through thick paper files. They detail 200 of Iraq’s lost treasures that are circulating in global antiquities markets.

One of the most valuable, he said, was a 8cm-tall sculpture of a Babylonian-era “Guennol Lioness” – or “Lioness Devil” as it is known in Iraq. It is one of a matching male and female pair that date from around 3,000 BC.

“This lioness has disappeared from the market for now after being sold in 2007 at Sotherby’s, but we haven’t closed the case,” Dawed said.

“We don’t know exactly who bought it but we received information that it was purchased for $59.2 million by a British lord.” The buyer was listed as a private English collector. Until 2010, the lioness remained the most expensive antiquity ever sold.

Dawed said the mythology attached to this artefact – that whoever holds both the matching lioness and lion sculptures together could secure total world dominance – had ratcheted up its value. “Babylonian kings were very powerful and there is a mystery surrounding the origin of these powers so, because of its mythology, this lioness is extremely valuable,” he said.

Dawed was recently moved to a different department under the country’s new government, standard practice in Iraq, which often sees the loss of valuable expertise. But under his three-year tenure, the department oversaw the recovery of more than 5,000 artefacts.

These included eight pieces handed back with the help of the British Museum.

The US authorities retrieved a further 3,800 antiquities from a single haul during the Hobby Lobby scandal.

The American arts and crafts company, which is owned by evangelical Christians, illegally imported $1.6m worth of artefacts of dubious provenance from 2009, destined for the privately owned Museum of the Bible. In 2017, US courts fined the company $3m and instructed the return of the pieces.

A handful of recovered artefacts are on display in Iraq’s National Museum. An additional 100 pieces also feature in the Basra Museum, which opened in March in one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces.

“This is actually just a small proportion of the artefacts taken out of the country.” Dawed says. “We are fighting to return Iraq’s stolen heritage. We have 200 active cases underway right now and every day the number increases because we monitor all international auctions.”

Last year, an Assyrian Nimrud relief, from the reign of King Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BC), fetched $31 million at Christies. Iraq made an unsuccessful bid to stop the sale, claiming the relief was excavated and illegally taken out of the country during the 1970s.

Christies says it had been held in a private US collection since the 19th century.

Looting of archaeological sites

Even while the Iraqi authorities try to recover items, illegal excavations and thefts continue at remote archaeological sites, largely unchecked.

“Illegal digging is now our biggest problem,” said Yass. “We have 18,000 archaeological sites across Iraq and illegal digging is happening everywhere but we can’t control it.

“There are no special police to stop these activities and we have just one officer at each site so of course it’s very hard for him to protect the whole site.”

Well-known and accessible sites are, for the most part, adequately protected. After its liberation from Islamic State, Nimrud was fenced off by Unesco, supported by funds from the government of Japan, and secured by local forces.

Yass says that there are French government-funded plans to reconstruct the remains, starting later this year.

But some remote desert sites, only reachable by off-road vehicles or helicopter, stand unguarded.

Iraqis conducting illegal excavations work directly with foreign smugglers and collectors, Dawed said. Looted antiquities are usually smuggled out of Iraq across land borders or on small fishing boats.

Many artefacts are destined for the UAE, he says, which has become a regional hub for illegal antiquities trading.

There have also been cases of refugees smuggling artefacts into Europe, Dawed said.

Iraq’s Antiquities Recovery Department is currently working with Bulgarian police who have confiscated 122 pieces from refugees. “We’re not certain yet whether they’re all Iraqi pieces or if some are from Syria, but we’re working on this.”

The loot from illegal excavations can be especially hard to recover: unlike stolen museum pieces, it often goes uncatalogued.  One of the department’s biggest challenges is to prove that treasures circulating in international markets are actually from Iraq.

He said recent Unesco resolutions aimed at protecting Iraq’s heritage had been helpful, but claimed many countries continued to flout such regulations.

“Auction houses ask us to prove artefacts are Iraqi, even though everyone often knows they are Iraqi and often the exact place they’re from, but items from illegal digging are undocumented,” said Dawed.

“We have constant fights with collectors and auction houses. Collectors show receipts and, although sometimes they’re fake, the auction houses pretend they’re real.

“Bureaucracy holds us back and processes are slow, so sales usually go ahead despite our protestations and efforts.”

Declaration for Safeguarding Cultural Heritage is adopted by European Affairs and Culture Ministers

This article was first published on the NEMO website

On 3 May 2019, European Union Member State ministers responsible for European affairs and ministers for culture met in Paris for an informal meeting focusing on joint ways to better preserve European cultural heritage. The meeting resulted in a declaration calling for the mobilization of a network of experts, youth involvement and existing funding models.

The meeting was organized by the  French  Ministry  of Culture   and   the   French Ministry   for   Europe   and   Foreign   Affairs,   together with   the   Romanian Presidency  of  the  Council  of  the  European  Union  and  in  the  presence  of  the  European Commission. It followed the Notre-Dame Cathedral fire in Paris, France, and a letter by President Macron to his European counterparts concerning the safeguarding of cultural heritage.

The declaration states that, in order to preserve and better protect shared European heritage, a European network on heritage expertise available in the EU should be formed. The network would provide advice about identification, protection and/or restoration of endangered European heritage when needed by the Member States of the European Union. It is also stated that young people to a greater extent should be involved in heritage conservation and restoration efforts. Existing financial resources for issues related to the safeguarding of endangered heritage should also be mobilized.

Read the declaration here.

Important information about the 2019 ICOM UK AGM + Kyoto 2019 meetup

We are delighted that many of you are able to attend the 2019 ICOM UK AGM on Thursday 27 June at the Barbican Centre in London.

We are still taking proposals from members who would like to give short presentations about current or future international projects, collaborations, research etc.  Please send your proposal for a five-minute presentation to before 17 June.

For those of you planning to attend the ICOM Kyoto 2019 Conference in September, we will have an informal meetup after the AGM at 19:10 in the Barbican Centre.  If you are not able to attend the AGM (or it is fully booked) and you are planning to attend ICOM Kyoto 2019 then write to us at and we can send you the details of the Kyoto 2019 meetup.

The AGM papers will be available to read and download from the ICOM UK website later next week.  We will send an email to all members with the information.

We have limited capacity at the AGM due to the venue and catering capacity, so we are now operating a waitlist for the AGM.  If you have booked a place and can no longer attend, we kindly ask you to cancel your ticket on Eventbrite so that we can allocate your place to someone on the waitlist

Please note the visit to the Lee Krasner exhibition is during regular gallery hours. There will not be a guided tour or out of hours access for ICOM UK members.  If you have registered for the AGM only for the opportunity to visit the Lee Krasner exhibition, please write to us at so that we can allocate your AGM place to someone on the waitlist and make separate arrangements for your exhibition visit.

If you have any questions about the AGM, or anything else, please contact us at

Copyright in Europe and beyond

This article was first published in the IFACCAACORNS newsletter.

In April, the Council of the European Union approved the Directive on Copyright in the Single Digital Market, which will soon require EU Member States to start legislating at a national level. Views on the Directive continue to be mixed – particularly around issues of freedom of expression and access – and several countries abstained or voted against the legislation. IFACCA will continue to follow the conversation closely and monitor the effects of introduced legislation on arts and cultural policies, as well as artists and cultural practitioners, in the region.

Debate on copyright reform has also been at the fore in Asia and Africa. In Japan, the Agency of Cultural of Affairs is considering proposed changes to the country’s copyright laws that are proving similarly controversial, further highlighting the challenge of both protecting intellectual property and defending free expression. In China this week, political advisors gathered to discuss revising the country’s copyright law, calling for a ‘people-oriented philosophy of development’ to address the relationship between creation, protection and use of copyright. While in South Africa the country’s Copyright Amendment Act is due to pass into law, raising concerns for some of negative consequences for the creative industries.

At a global scale, World Intellectual Property Day took place at the end of April. This year it explored the role of innovation, creativity and intellectual property (IP) rights in the development and worldwide enjoyment of sports, highlighting the priorities we share across sectors. In the same week, the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) published an interview with the Director of the WIPO Traditional Knowledge Division, which provides insight into intellectual property issues and challenges particular to Indigenous Peoples, traditional knowledge and cultural expressions; the limitations of existing systems and legislation; and efforts underway to address them.

Looking forward, next month issues of intellectual property and copyright will also be explored during UNESCO’s seventh session of the Conference of Parties to the 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions. During the Conference, 145 countries and the European Union will examine an Open Roadmap to strengthen Parties’ capacities to promote the diversity of cultural expressions in the digital age and examine innovative policy practices. The IFACCA will be represented at the Conference, and they look forward to reporting back with relevant updates.

Interview with Maisa Al Qassimi, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, UAE

ICOM UK member Luigi Galimberti interviews Maisa Al Qassimi about the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, UAE.

Maisa Al Qassimi is Senior Project Manager at Guggenheim Abu Dhabi

Maisa Al Qassimi, Senior Project Manager, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi

Maisa Al Qassimi is Senior Project Manager at Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. She has been a member of the board of directors for the Dubai International Arts Centre and the advisory board of the UAE Pavilion at the 53rd Venice Biennale. She is a member of the team responsible for defining the curatorial vision for the future Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, building its collection, art commissions, organising exhibitions, conducting scholarly research, realising public programmes and publications.

Luigi Galimberti is Board Member of Res Artis, the world’s largest membership-based network of artist residencies. He was previously Collection Care Research Manager at Tate, London.



Luigi: What is the role of art and artistic production in Abu Dhabi today?

Maisa: Art and artistic production are flourishing in Abu Dhabi and throughout the United Arab Emirates. Not only does the capital have more artists based in the emirate than ever before, but the number of institutions is growing, Louvre Abu Dhabi is a recent institution that is a great example of this, having commissioned site-specific works by artists such as Jenny Holzer and Giuseppe Penone. Another space is Warehouse 421, which commissions works for every exhibition. There is also the Department of Culture and Tourism’s annual exhibition of commissioned works by local artists, Emirati Expressions, which serves as a mainstay of art production and an important platform for emerging artists.

I would say that one of the major roles of artistic production is the enhancement of quality of life through access to public art. Abu Dhabi has expanded its collection of creative and meaningful public art commissions, such as with Idris Khan’s award-winning Wahat Al Karama memorial for the UAE’s fallen soldiers. The Department of Culture and Tourism has recently inaugurated a sculpture park commemorating the Special Olympics World Games, which took place in Abu Dhabi in March 2019, with six new artworks by renowned international artists such as Etel Adnan, Pascale Marthine-Tayou or Wael Shawky. Public art can be found not just in Abu Dhabi city but all around the emirate. A fantastic initiative is Abu Dhabi Art Fair’s annual Beyond programme, part of which involves commissioning established artists to create site-specific works in historic sites in the western region of Al Ain.


Luigi: Whose stories will the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi be preserving?

Maisa: Our location in the UAE, a central axis between Europe, Asia, and North Africa, has inspired Guggenheim Abu Dhabi’s mission to contribute to a more inclusive and expansive view of art history, which emphasises the convergence of local, regional, and international sources of creative inspiration rather than geography or nationality.

The museum’s collection will encompass art produced around the world and in all media from the 1960s to the present day. Through our collection, exhibitions and educational programmes, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi will bring attention to under-researched and lesser-known histories. In parallel, we will re-evaluate those chapters that have defined the art historical canon to date.


Luigi: What are the themes around which the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi’s collection and programme will revolve?​

Installation view: Anish Kapoor, My Red Homeland, 2003, in The Creative Act: Performance, Process, Presence. Courtesy: Department of Culture and Tourism Abu Dhabi

Installation view: Anish Kapoor, My Red Homeland, 2003, in The Creative Act: Performance, Process, Presence. Courtesy: Department of Culture and Tourism Abu Dhabi

Maisa: The overarching theme of Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is the celebration of points of interconnection in contemporary art. These points of interconnection enable us to explore histories and ideas from around the globe and commonalities among cultures. The collection falls under defined narrative motifs, i.e. Popular Culture and the Mediated Image; Abstractions; System, Process, Concept; History, Memory, Narrative; and Figuration.

The collection includes numerous works by artists from completely different cultures and backgrounds that spark dialogue and interplay by examining similar concepts. For instance, we have several works that make use of the expressive potential of calligraphy. Some artists focus on given letters, as seen in Parviz Tanavoli’s Big Heech (1973), while some others evoke its methods while employing distinctive techniques, such as Gu Wenda’s use of human hair in United Nations–Silk Road (2000). Various artists explore the meditative potential of writing in their art, for example in Shirazeh Houshiary’s painting Luminous Darkness (1998), and still others evoke the human figure as in Rachid Koraïchi’s installation Le Chemin des Roses (Path of Roses) (1995–2005).


Luigi: How will the museum involve new generations of artists in its activities?

Maisa: Guggenheim Abu Dhabi is very committed to the new generation of local and regional artists. We are educating a new generation to be literate in the language of art, achieving this through our substantial outreach work with schools and young people. Our public programming includes many youth-oriented events, which are led by or involve academics or the artists featured in the collection. We have had artists such as Sarah Morris and Susan Hefuna leading workshops for university students in order to achieve our goal in a continuous dialogue with young people.


Luigi: Can you tell us of a recent show, activity or commission that you have curated?

Maisa: Our first commission is Sarah Morris’s film Abu Dhabi, which was completed in 2016. Sarah Morris is an incredibly talented filmmaker, whose oeuvre focuses on historically significant places around the world at transformative points in time. Abu Dhabi examines the forces and challenges shaping our emirate at a time of rapid change and progress, and as such I think the film was a very fitting first commission for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi permanent collection.

The film was shot during the National Day celebrations, a day marking the formation of our united federation of seven emirates. Abu Dhabi traces the many undercurrents and interconnecting elements of our emirate and features many of our most important architectural and natural landmarks, such as the Falcon Hospital, the Sheikh Zayed Bridge designed by Zaha Hadid, the Um Al Naar Refinery, the Liwa desert, the Norman Foster-designed Masdar Institute. This was supplemented by the use of archival footage sourced from the early days of urban development in the 1970s.

Ultimately, the film is an exploration of Abu Dhabi’s explosive growth in the last 40 years, and our endeavour to balance tradition with modernity as we shift away from our recent history as an oil-reliant state and into a more sustainable and diverse economy.


Luigi: What does it mean for you as a professional to work in a museum that does not yet exist?

Maisa: We are fortunate to be a part of building a new institution from the ground up, allowing us to participate in the rethinking of art history. Truly, working on the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi collection has been the most exciting opportunity. It is not often that you get the chance to be part of the curatorial direction of a major institution to build a collection from scratch. With regards to the curatorial direction we are taking, with its emphasis on points of interconnection between different cultures, our location is significant. The Abu Dhabi emirate is a historical and contemporary gateway, bringing together people and cultures from around the world.

Installation view: Seeing Through Light: Selections from the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Collection. Courtesy: Department of Culture and Tourism Abu Dhabi

Installation view: Seeing Through Light: Selections from the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi
Collection. Courtesy: Department of Culture and Tourism Abu Dhabi

We have already staged two exhibitions of works from the collection, allowing the public to get an idea of what they can expect to see when the museum will open. Seeing Through Light: Selections from the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Collection took place from November 2014 to March 2015, showcasing works from our collection through which we explored light as a primary aesthetic principle. The exhibition featured works in a variety of media by 19 artists from the 1960s to the present, who practice in multiple countries and regions around the world.

Performance by Susan Hefuna with students from New York University Abu Dhabi’s Attitude Dance Society in The Creative Act: Performance, Process, Presence. Courtesy: Department of Culture and Tourism Abu Dhabi

Performance by Susan Hefuna with students from New York University Abu Dhabi’s Attitude Dance Society in The Creative Act: Performance, Process, Presence. Courtesy: Department of Culture and Tourism Abu Dhabi


The second exhibition The Creative Act: Performance, Process, Presence offered a transcultural perspective on a specific theme in art since the 1960s. Consistent with the curatorial vision for the future museum, The Creative Act highlighted interconnections among contemporary artists, revealing common sources of inspiration and lines of influence as well as distinctive contributions. It featured more than 25 works by 20 artists in a variety of media—installation, painting, photography, sculpture, video, and works on paper. It focused on the related themes of performance, process, and presence. Both shows took place at Manarat Al Saadiyat, an exhibition space located in Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi’s cultural hub. They were a great success bringing together an audience of over 130,000 and showed us the appetite and excitement for the coming museum.