An Interview with Marjorie Schwarzer

On Thursday, November 13, the Blanton welcomes museum historian Marjorie Schwarzer to present her research on contemporary museum practices in the United Arab Emirates. In advance of her lecture, Adam Bennett, Manager of Public Programs, sat down with Schwarzer to discuss her work.

How did you get involved in researching these museum projects in Abu Dhabi?

Marjorie SchwarzerIn 2009, the Smithsonian invited me to participate in a consultancy in Abu Dhabi. The new museum building projects had just been announced and an effort was underway to explore how to train their future museum workforce. I confess I couldn’t even find Abu Dhabi on a map back then!

As luck would have it, my museum colleague Salwa Mikdadi soon ascended to the directorship of the Arts and Culture division of the Emirates Foundation. She hired me the next year to develop and deliver the first museum studies seminar ever in the country: a week-long series of workshops and lectures supplemented with online curriculum.

Since offering that initial course I’ve been going regularly. The museum professional culture has transformed considerably in a short time frame, in no small part because of Salwa’s leadership in developing curriculum and hiring people to mentor Emiratis. The Sorbonne and New York University, among others, have started offering certification and I’ve also been working with Emirati students to help prepare them for the rigors of opening their new museum complexes. It has been a tremendous learning experience and a real honor to work with emerging Emirati professionals.

How is the general public reacting this these new museums? Will they be accessible to people currently living in the region, or are they designed more specifically as tourist destinations?

Well, the museums aren’t open yet so we won’t know how the public will react. But there is a lot of conversation about just who the audience will be. We know that in nearby Qatar and also in the emirate of Sharjah, museum audiences are a combination of families and tourists. There is a lot of work going on in Abu Dhabi to make sure locals feel welcomed and excited to visit the museums. Programming that is appealing to children and families is especially important because Emiratis are very family-oriented.

How is the museum culture in the United Arab Emirates different from what we are used to here in the U.S.?

That’s a complex question. I’d like to say that people all over the world want the same thing from museums: to be places of education, memory, aesthetic and social experience and enjoyment. But that would be simplistic. There are profound cultural differences in the way that public museums are valued and perceived in different parts of the world.

That said, the students and young professionals with whom I work over there are very interested in American trends: from the spectacle of art fairs to interactive programming to the Maker movement. They are really plugged into technology, social media and globalism and very aware of the significance of these new building projects internationally.

Marjorie Schwarzer’s lecture is free and open to the public and will take place on Thursday, November 13 at 3pm. For more information, please visit our website.

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