Can Abu Dhabi's cultural plan inspire a new generation of curators?
In 2007, when the United Arab Emirates and France signed an agreement that put the Louvre Abu Dhabi in motion, Najla Busit was 17 years old and about to begin a law degree. But when she learned her government was going to build a museum of such magnitude on her doorstep, she changed her major to art history and archaeology.
"I visited museums a lot growing up and I have always been passionate about them," she said. "When they announced the Louvre project, I knew I wanted to be part of it. It was never a certainty that I would work there but it was definitely one of my dreams."
Ten years later, Busit, now 27, is registrar at the institution, charged with caring for the artworks and collaborating with other departments to balance public access with preservation. She also oversees transportation, storage, insurance policies and risk management, as well as the preparation of artworks for exhibition.
It is a huge responsibility that she's spent years preparing for. In 2011, she started a Master's degree in museum studies and art history at the Paris-Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi (PSUAD), and spent three months interning in the Islamic arts department at the Louvre in Paris.
In 2015, she took up a permanent role with Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority and began working with the head of collection management, who acted as a mentor and a guide.
"The Louvre Abu Dhabi is a hub for the transfer of knowledge of expertise. I was working hand-in-hand with my mentor to be better prepared for the opening of the museum and, as such, I am able represent the museum in the best way. I feel like everything has been building up to this moment," Busit said.
Alia Zaal Lootah, a 28-year-old assistant curator of modern and contemporary art at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, completed the same Master's degree PSUAD. She spent her three-month internship at the Pompidou Center.
Although she comes from a fine art background, Lootah's academic studies have touched on themes related to the Louvre Abu Dhabi since 2007. She has written papers on the building of new museum collections, as well as a thesis on the globalization of museums. She has also actively looked for as many opportunities as possible to prepare her for her new curatorial role.
"I am still young and so whatever I've learned so far can never be enough. However, I have done as much as I can to be aware of what is happening from a strategic and research point of view so that when I am given responsibility in an institution like this, I feel confident that I will do my best to deliver something that is up to standard," she said.
'Visual culture has a lot of power'
She also speaks very passionately about how being close to artworks gives her a greater understanding of them. According to Sara Raza, the Guggenheim UBS MAP Curator, Middle East and North Africa for the museum's New York outpost, this is something that cannot be underestimated, particularly in the visual era within which we live.
"Visual culture has a lot of power and for the new generation everything is visual. Therefore, having an institution like the Louvre Abu Dhabi, which gives the chance to witness artworks and objects in person and not on a screen is really important."
Raza, who was born and raised in London but has Middle Eastern roots, has a long history of working with both Western and Eastern institutions. She was curator of public programming at London's Tate Modern, the head of education at the YARAT Contemporary Art Space in Baku, Azerbaijan, and the founding head of curatorial programs at Alaan Art Space in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. She was also part of the inaugural core team at Maraya Art Centre in Sharjah in the UAE.
She believes empowering a new generation of Emirati museum professionals is critical to the success of the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
"When I think about Louvre Abu Dhabi, I think it is great that people from Europe have helped with training and setting up the institution, but they are not fluent with what is happening locally. It is a complex issue and it is vital to understand both local and global audiences and contexts. Supporting home grown talent is key, as is being adaptable," she said.
For people living in the immediate region of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the institution presents a welcomed addition to the cultural infrastructure, as a resource for study, research and education. But having the opportunity and ambition to be able to work there and act as a conduit for knowledge is indispensable.
This story forms part of an extended series exploring the new Louvre Abu Dhabi.