Kuwait National Museum: Architectural Historiography and the Changing Ethos of Modernism

By Chantal El Hayek
Submitted to Session P5004 (Making the Modern: the Politics of Heritage, 2017 Annual Meeting
Art/Art Hist
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
In June 2014, a national pavilion designed by a group of creative artists took Kuwait City to the Venice Biennale. Under the Biennale’s overarching theme, “Absorbing Modernity”—an ostensive call for participating nations to consider how they have been shaped by modernization efforts of the previous century—the Kuwaiti team entitled their installation “Acquiring Modernity.” The pavilion featured a facsimile of the Kuwait National Museum, designed in 1964 by the French architect Michel Ecochard at the time when Kuwait was gaining independence from the British protectorate. The blueprints of a national story were sketched out by UNESCO experts, attending to propositions by Kuwaiti elites. However, due to conflicting perspectives on national and international aspects, the project was halted. Construction began in 1977. It was completed in 1983. The building thereafter hosted one of the most important Islamic art collections in the world, lent by the royal Al-Sabah family owners. During the Iraqi invasion in 1990, the war-torn museum closed it doors to the public. It was not rehabilitated so it would act as a reminder of the invasion.
But the story does not begin with the museum’s inauguration date, nor does it end with the Iraqi invasion. KNM has been an ever-growing experiment that transcended the limits of the art installation. This paper examines the architectural historiography of the building—the site where ideas of the modern and the national have been formed, tested, and reformed. We assume that architecture is what gets physically built on the ground, and historiography is what is written on paper about the history of the built object, but the two are in conflict with one another. How do we operate within these two frames of reference? How do we date the building: in reference to the architect, the state, or the operational pattern of the actual building?
With time and the changing meaning of history in Kuwait, assumptions about the role of the museum in the formation of modern cultural values have evolved. This paper evaluates how modernity in Kuwait was represented and mediated by various public and private actors. Recovering the lost elements of the building’s deep architectural historiography allows us to see the present and the past in a new way and to realize that temporality is not any secondary or neutral factor, but an epistemic condition that silently, yet forcefully, affects the production and experience of the building.