Last August, the Jordan Museum opened its doors to the public, with the majority of its 10 square kilometers featuring a permanent exhibition presenting visitors with the astounding 1.5 million years of Jordan’s history. This groundbreaking exhibition is divided into five historical time periods: Pre-history, Historical, Islamic, Classical, and Modern. The 17th museum in Amman will also designate considerable gallery space for temporary exhibitions of all types. However, the Jordan Museum in itself is not a groundbreaking change; it is part of a trend that has been observed around the Arab world for the past two decades in which both governments and private individuals have been spending increasingly lavish sums on art. This trend, in my view, embodies the greatest potential for change in the region, much more effectively than revolution—and certainly less violently.
Arab art has been suppressed in the region for the last 45 years. Ever since fundamentalist movements have gained momentum, artists have faced immense scrutiny on their work from the general public. This has resulted in a decline in patronage of art, as the collecting or promotion of artworks no longer brought good reputation to the art patron—and sometimes even made people suspicious of them. In a span of 10 years, an Arab art world that flourished with patronage from the rich of Kuwait and Lebanon, as well as the freedom to create art on even the most sensitive issues, was now forced underground. In the thirty years from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s, there were forces trying to undo all the great achievements of Arab art.
Signs of recovery were visible in the 1980s, with the establishment of Darat Al Funoon (The House of Arts) in Amman, the second pan-Arab art gallery in the world (the first being in Paris), and the first in the Arab world. The gallery presented artworks from artists all over the region, acting as the hub of the restoration movement. What was also surprising about it is the overwhelmingly positive response from the public. University students flocked to Weibdeh every time they heard of a new exhibition. The success of the gallery prompted others to open showrooms and galleries around the city, although none were as influential as Darat Al Funoon. On the other hand, any other signs of improvement in the region were not visible until the late 90s, when the United Arab Emirates celebrated its silver Jubilee, and the house of Thani put Qatar’s development plans into action.
The UAE celebrated their silver Jubilee in 1996. As part of that celebration, the state’s short history was exhibited in galleries all around the country, particularly in the emirate of Sharjah (which is currently the Islamic culture capital of the world, and was previously the Arabic culture capital of the world). Afterwards, Dubai and Abu Dhabi began to spend on art. 10 years ago, Dubai hosted a major Damien Hirst show, and Abu Dhabi commissioned three monumental museums as part of the Saadiyat Culture district—the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, the Louvre Abu Dhabi, and, more importantly, The Zayed National Musuem. Qatar, on the other hand, has provided around $1 billion to Sheikha Mayassa Al-Thani to spend on purchasing works of art and underwriting artists’ exhibitions (such as the first major retrospective of the aforementioned Damien Hirst at the Tate Modern in London). They also commissioned a state-of the art Islamic museum and research center. These projects were the result of Gulf countries realizing the soft power they could gain by bringing art back to the region. Wherever there is art, there is flourishing culture, and culture brings with it influence. With the UAE being the seat of the largest Guggenheim museum in the world comes its front-row seat at the major global cultural organizations in the world, such as unesco. The Arabian Gulf needs soft power. It is conscious of the fact that most of its Oil reserves will be depleted within the next three decades.
So where does Jordan’s national museum fit into this picture of royalty spending their oil wealth on Cezannes and Rothkos and European museums of both the ancien regime and the avant-garde materializing in the Gulf, where Saudi Arabia has now overtaken Qatar as the largest buyer (in combined public and private expenditures) of art in the world? To begin with, it was designed by renowned architect Ja’afar Touqan, one of the most prominent architects in the region and the recipient of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture. Mr. Touqan’s firm is also known for its work on the Royal Automobile Museum in King Hussein Park, as well as Amman City Hall. Despite the Museum’s influential designer, one could argue that the Jordan Museum lacks the flashy name-recognition of a Guggenheim or Damien Hirst; it makes up for it, however, in its ambition to present the scope of Jordan’s rich historical tradition and celebrate the cultural heritige of its people. As a hub and launching point for the exploration of culture in Amman, the museum points to even better things to come.