Growing outrage against the Guggenheim's new museum in the United Arab Emirates kicked into high gear this week: Protesters stormed the Guggenheim's New York location for a second time, and a fake website launched claiming to solicit new, "ethical" ideas for the museum's design.
The website, which is at globalguggenheim.org, announces that the Frank Gehry-designed concept for the museum has been scrapped in favor of a competition in partnership with the United Arab Emirates tourism bureau, which asks designers to reimagine the role of the museum as a place for "sustainability, equity, and accountability." A few renderings have been submitted.
The protest is also playing out at the museum itself. On Saturday night, dozens of people gathered at the museum to shower the atrium with red and white pieces of paper designed to look like dollars, printed with messages like "What Does An Ethical Global Museum Look Like?" and "Shit Is Fucked Up & Bullshit."
The fake homepage at globalguggenheim.org
The group behind both initiatives is the Global Ultra Luxury Faction (GULF), part of an organization named Gulf Labor, which first submitted a petition against the Guggenheim Foundation in 2011. Gulf Labor has been actively protesting the construction of several projects on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi until migrant worker rights are protected. For this latest burst of activity, Gulf Labor has also been collaborating with Occupy Wall Street, with the "OWS Illuminator" projecting messages on the Guggenheim's facade in an earlier protest.
Saadiyat Island is a flashy, government-funded cultural district in Abu Dhabi that's expected to be completed in 2020. In addition to the Guggenheim, the Louvre is also building a satellite museum on the island, and New York University is opening a campus there, as well. There are many other structures being built, from a performing arts center to a museum that celebrates the UAE's relationship to the sea, all with big-name architects attached. The Guggenheim's (real) site, heralds the island as an "irresistible magnet" for tourism with "major institutions designed by some of the world's most renowned architects—Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, Norman Foster, Tadao Ando, and Zaha Hadid."
The real rendering for the Guggenheim's Gehry-designed museum on Saadiyat Island
The human rights violations on the island's construction projects have been well-documented over the last few years. A 2009 Human Rights Watch report noted that laborers were being forced to pay for their contracts, live in substandard housing, and had their passports taken away so they could not leave the worksite. Last year, 40 laborers were hospitalized after a bloody confrontation between employers and striking workers.
These luxury megadevelopments throughout the Middle East are attracting thousands of workers from nearby countries who come seeking jobs but end up becoming victims of the kafala system, in which migrant workers are bound to their employers. (It has been compared to slavery.) Construction safety and poor working conditions have been a huge issue throughout the area, with over 500 migrant workers killed in nearby Qatar working on structures for the World Cup.
As an op-ed by NYU professor Andrew Ross pointed out in this weekend's New York Times, the Guggenheim and Gehry have a chance to separate themselves from the other projects on Saadiyat Island. But, so far, the only response from the Guggenheim is a short statement that the competition website is a hoax.