The British Museum has struck a multi-million-pound deal to help launch a museum in the Middle East designed by Lord Foster.
In its biggest overseas venture, the institution will be unveiled tomorrow as the official partner of the national museum of Abu Dhabi, the oil-rich Gulf state. The new building will sit alongside offshoots of the Louvre and the Guggenheim museums.
As part of a 10-year contract, the British Museum will lend some of its treasures to the venue and help it set up and curate exhibitions. The museum’s galleries will be based on a number of themes, one promoting “the story of oil”.
Critics are likely to argue that the British Museum is being too commercially driven for a publicly funded body.
However, its undisclosed annual fee could help fund a £135m extension in London as government spending for the arts faces cuts.
Named after the sheikh who first joined the seven kingdoms of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in 1971, the Zayed National Museum will be the “cornerstone project” of a multi-billion-pound cultural development on Saadiyat Island, off the Abu Dhabi coast.
The museum is due to open in 2013 and, in line with its British partner, will not charge an entrance free.
It will be joined on the island — whose name means “happiness” in Arabic — by the Louvre Abu Dhabi, an outpost of the Parisian gallery, and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, an offshoot of the New York-based museum, which already has a branch in Bilbao. The three museums expect to attract 1.5m visitors a year.
Unlike Dubai, its brash neighbour which has been severely hit by the property slump, Abu Dhabi has a more diverse economy and still hopes to make good on its ambition to become a premier tourist destination.
“We never wanted this project to be our outpost,” said Justin Morris, the British Museum’s head of development.
“We didn’t want a British Museum Abu Dhabi. Our preferred route is to work with partners and that’s what we’ll be doing here.”
The British Museum approached the Gulf state’s tourism development company 18 months ago after learning that it planned to build a national museum.
The building will be designed by Foster, the architect behind the British Museum’s Great Court in London, the Gherkin tower in the City, and the restored dome of the Reichstag in Berlin.
Foster, whose Abu Dhabi plans will be revealed later this year, will not be the only architect flying the cultural flag for Britain on Saadiyat Island. Zaha Hadid, who designed the aquatics centre for the London 2012 Olympics, has been commissioned to build a performing arts centre.
Although Abu Dhabi’s offshoots of the Louvre and Guggenheim will both include much western art, the Zayed museum will mainly feature exhibits relevant to the region, including items reflecting the life and achievements of its namesake, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al Nahyan.
Its galleries will be themed on the environment, heritage, unity, education and humanitarianism. “What the museum wants to get across is that the area has for centuries been at the crossroads of so much in terms of trading, ideas and beliefs,” said Morris. “Yet it’s really an untold story.”
Artefacts may be borrowed from the British Museum’s Middle East department, which has the largest collection of cuneiform tablets in the world outside Baghdad, consisting of 130,000 texts and fragments.
Temporary exhibitions, such as last year’s British Museum blockbuster on the Roman emperor Hadrian, could also be transferred to Abu Dhabi.