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Museums in the Middle East are thriving. So what’s the big picture?

The tourism industry is picking up fast, and museum visits are making a comeback

Museums in the Middle East are thriving. So what’s the big picture?
[Source photo: Anvita Gupta/Fast Company Middle East]

Significant components of the world’s heritage are gradually disappearing from view. Public museums are closing, with spending on museums also being reduced—it is an all too familiar story in most parts of the world.

In the Middle East, however, the picture is different. Here museums built are diverse and distinctive: locally rooted but telling a story of global significance.

Museums are vital to the economy, but even more, they bind communities together, providing ways of understanding the world in which we live.

Take, for instance, the Museum of the Future (MOTF) in Dubai. With an emphasis on sustainability, technological development, and innovation, MOTF is one of the architectural wonders contributing to the UAE’s leadership in action for the future.

Then there’s Louvre Abu Dhabi in Abu Dhabi. Since its opening in 2017, the museum has welcomed over three million visitors from across the globe and contributed to making the emirate a world-class art and culture destination. 

While the tourism industry in many parts of the world is still reeling from the pandemic effects, the region has picked up fast, and museum visits have made remarkable comebacks. 

People are keen to experience MOTF’s unique exhibits, says Majed Al Mansoori, Deputy Executive Director of the Museum of the Future, adding that the museum economy in the Arab world is gathering pace. “The Museum of the Future, with its break from the traditional museum model, is spearheading its progress.” 

Since the UAE reopened to tourists, steady growth in visitors to attractions, especially museums, has been observed. Popular venues include the MOTF, LAD, Qasr Al Watan, Museum of Illusions, and Qasr Al Hosn, to name a few. The Mohammed Bin Rashid Library is one new opening that attracts visitors.

SURGING NUMBER OF MUSEUM VISITORS

Data from Tiqets.com makes it evident that the museum economy is picking up. The online ticket booking platform saw approximately 20% growth in museum ticket sales in Q2 2022 compared to the previous quarter.

“We had expected big numbers during the high season in Q4 ’21 & Q1 ’22, and the results were far better than our forecast. What’s even better is that the strong demand for museums continues,” says Ankur Thakuria, Tiqets’ Regional Director, APAC & ME. “We see customers adding museums and related experiences into their itineraries more often than before. This generates tens of thousands of bookings for the category each month.”

Dubai welcomed 7.12 million international visitors in the first half of 2022, nearly three times as many as last year.

“Owing to UAE’s effective Covid-19 mitigation strategy and successful vaccination rollout, Dubai has emerged as one of the most popular travel destinations,” says Al Mansoori.

“The museum has benefitted from these numbers and is now one of Dubai’s top attractions, drawing people from the UAE, neighboring states, and worldwide,” he adds. 

UP-AND-COMING MUSEUMS

In some museums, it’s about the items that are the star pieces, or the building is the main feature. 

Talking about a new movie museum coming up in Abu Dhabi in two years, Sheikha Alyazia bint Nahyan Al Nahyan, the Ambassador for Culture for the Arab League’s Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (Alecso), says, “This museum is conceptualized around Bollywood, Hollywood, and Egyptian/Arab cinema. Currently, the collection has over 150 items for the exhibits.”

Conceptualized three years ago, the movie museum will include interactive features and productions besides the items. 

“The UAE is a country with a taste for art and an appreciation for movies. The museum will reflect this image of diversity. Art and culture depend on variety, which the museum will provide, and the museum economy will, in turn, be lifted to new heights,” Al Nahyan adds.

Meanwhile, ten museums focusing on Saudi Arabia’s history and culture will soon open their doors across the Kingdom, including one called Black Gold, the first ever permanent creative museum on oil, showcasing more than 200 contemporary pieces of art.

Recently, former English football star David Beckham, in Qatar Tourism’s new stopover holiday campaign to support its tourism goals to attract more than six million visitors a year by 2030, mentioned his liking for museums during his trip around the country. “The people of Qatar are passionate about their culture, and the mix of modern and traditional creates something special.” 

With days away from the World Cup Qatar 2022, Qatar Tourism has revealed new tourist attractions and mentioned the reopening of the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA). The Arab country’s dynamic art and cultural scene boast some best museum entities in the region, such as the National Museum of Qatar, Fire Station Gallery, Msheireb Museums, and Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, to name a few. 

But museums in Qatar don’t only highlight Islamic art, Arab heritage, and historical sites; it has one of the world’s largest sports museums, the 3-2-1 Qatar Olympic and Sports Museum. It is the first Arab institution to join the Olympic Museums Network. 

Aimed at families, the new galleries at MIA include experiences and activities. The Islamic Art museum was reopened in October following a facilities enhancement project. “The reimagination of its permanent collection of over 1,000 objects will create a new visitor-focused layout and storyline, allowing the museum to showcase its world-renowned exhibits as never before,” said Qatar Tourism. 

The tourism sector continues to witness growth in the region. With UAE’s rich culture and history, museums have become must-cover choices for most tourists, says Fabio Marigliano, General Manager at The Chedi Al Bait Hotel. “Once checked in, most guests want to visit Heart of Sharjah, a heritage project preserving the old town, which happens to house the Sharjah Heritage Museum.” 

HEALING POWER OF MUSEUMS 

A new study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology explains how consuming art in museums can help people reduce stress and combat loneliness.

While researchers are still seeking concrete explanations for why art positively affects our mental health, Kshitij Jaggi, co-founder of Urban Health, expands on a couple of hypotheses. He says visiting museums gives people stability and clarity, lending them a feeling of comfort. 

“We had unsolved puzzles and possibilities spanning our minds before Covid-19, too. However, during these two years, these thoughts were accelerated and encapsulated into a short period,” adds Jaggi. “Anytime we witness a clear thought or a solved construct, our minds experience relief and a drop in anxiety.” 

At the MoTF, visitors have found a connection between healing and space exploration. “From blasting off to OSS Hope and exploring the Amazon rainforest at the Heal Institute to immersing themselves in Al Waha’s sensory and wellness environment, visitors can discover unique pieces of the museum,” says Al Mansoori.

The biodiverse library at the Heal Institute at MoTF has created a buzz with its diverse range of species. OSS Hope, a depiction of humanity’s home in space, has enticed visitors in light of the UAE’s recent space exploits, says Al Mansoori. “We have received positive feedback about all our exhibits, but we invite people to come and find out which will inspire them most.”

Meanwhile, Dubai has officially marked its role as the host of the 27th International Council of Museums (ICOM) General Conference 2025 after receiving the flag from Prague, the host city of the 2022 edition of the conference. The theme of the upcoming edition in Dubai is The Future of Museums in Rapidly Changing Communities.

This is a significant milestone for the UAE, home to around 55 government museums and 115 private museums, including the Etihad Museum, Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilisation, and the upcoming Guggenheim Museum.

So what’s the next museum we need in the region? Perhaps a museum of money. 

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