GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

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Museums in Context: Built Environment, National Identity, and Emirati History
Paper Proposal Text :
This paper locates state-designed museums and heritage districts in the United Arab Emirates within broader contexts of the spatial transformation of the built environment and Emirati narratives of time and space. The paper will examine four museums specifically designated as “national” (Al Ain, Ras al-Khaimah, Ajman, and Dubai) as well as other public and private heritage practices, i.e. the maintenance of private collections of heritage objects, and the preservation of districts such as Bastakiya. Sources include ethnographic fieldwork, published oral histories, and scholarly works by Emirati and other authors on the history of the UAE and the Gulf. By studying museums in relation to broader shifts in time and space, this paper aims to illuminate key ways in which Emirati identity has been constructed and imagined, both by state institutions and private citizens.

The location and contents of national museums in the UAE reinforces the general perception of a spatial and temporal break between the present and the past. UAE museums, “national” and otherwise, tend to be located in the oldest sections of their respective cities; national museums are usually found in a restored fort that was once a residence of the ruling family. These dense inner city quarters, designed for walking, have for the most part been abandoned by Emiratis, who rent out older buildings to lower-income expatriate workers while themselves living in newer suburbs designed for automobiles and bearing little resemblance to the urban forms found in inner cities. The museums are thus spatially removed from the present-day centers of Emirati daily life. The separation from contemporary daily life is reinforced by the contents of the museums, which create the impression of a temporal break with the past. In Ras al-Khaimah National Museum, for example, the bulk of the exhibits are devoted to archaeological discoveries in the emirate. Other common exhibits in national museums show artifacts from pearling, areesh houses, kitchen implements, and date palm farming, emphasizing the hardship and simplicity of pre-oil lifestyles in the Trucial States. None of the museums in the UAE, national or otherwise, document the transition to modern lifestyles. The impression is one of a radical break, a binary between the lost past and contemporary Emirati lifestyles. This may help explain why Emirati citizens rarely visit the museums, the occasional school group excepted.

Yet this break is perhaps not so radical as first appears, and this paper argues that the appearance of a spatial-temporal break is in fact a major premise of Emirati national identity. Many Emiratis locate heritage and history in the home and family, not in state-sponsored museums. Here the paper will include an ethnographic account of a visit to an Emirati home in Dibba, in which my hosts proudly displayed many “traditional” items, some of which were still in use. The paper will discuss their narrative of these objects, how they compared them to what is found in museums, and their description of their family history and the evolving history of Dibba. This suggests that the prime audience for Emirati national museums is (perhaps unintentionally) made of non-Emiratis. For foreigners, museums can serve a particular legitimating purpose in demonstrating that the UAE’s history extends back further than what is immediately visible to the casual visitor – architecture and infrastructure built in the last few decades. This use of museums as displays of legitimacy is replicated in the plans for museums on Saadiyat Island.

Finally, the development of UAE museums must itself be historicized and placed in the context of the emergence of Emirati national identity. Many UAE museums and heritage sites were established in the 1970s and 1980s, as the UAE’s modern infrastructure was being built and a national space emerged. Without this spatial transformation, it is doubtful that a discourse of national identity could have emerged (Goswami 2004). State-sponsored housing developments segregated Emirati nationals from expatriates; though it weakened the social and kinship structures that dominated older neighborhoods, it created possibilities of mobility and encounters between Emiratis. The newer suburbs in which the majority of Emiratis live are critical components of that national space, even though some Emiratis criticize them as inauthentic and deeply alienating (Kanna 2011, Yehyawi 2007). Museums, which constructed certain narratives of the past just as their direct relevance to the present was undermined, were a key part of these larger transformations.
Subsequent decades, especially the 1990s and 2000s, saw the emergence of Emirati history-writing. The paper will include a preliminary investigation of different types of Emirati history writing, with the aim of contrasting these narratives with those found in museums. These include autobiographies, collections of oral histories, and histories of particular places, themes, and periods. In this way, museum narratives may be contextualized in the broader scope of Emirati historical narratives, enabling a critical analysis of their inclusions and exclusions.