The old cliché says that ‘life is a journey’ and, like most clichés, it’s true. And it’s true for great leaders as well as the rest of us. Sometimes a journey is so enlightening that it leads to incredible new opportunities. That’s the story of the exhibition we created earlier this year called Sheikh Zayed and Europe: A Journey at the Founder’s Memorial in Abu Dhabi. An installation that revealed the surprising link between the foundation of the European Union and the creation of the UAE…

At Action Impact, we’re always looking to tell a compelling story. And the best stories are about how one man discovers something new, and then uses that knowledge to change the world. Sheikh Abdullah summed up the brief precisely when he pointed out that Sheikh Zayed was inspired by what he saw in Europe and realised that bringing peoples and nations together to work in unity was the key to progress and development. That’s what he discovered on his trip to Europe in 1951.

It was the year that the Treaty of Rome was signed which led directly to the creation of the European Common Market in 1957, which then grew to become the European Union. Our job was not to tell a detailed historical or political story, but to recreate a deep sense of the times in which Sheikh Zayed lived and enable visitors to believe that they were accompanying the Founder on his celebrated journey.

That meant balancing information with human experience to create a very personal journey through an exhibition of all the senses. So, we used carefully selected photographs of the Europe of the early 50s and Sheikh Zayed’s trip as well as his consequent journey toward the idea of creating the UAE in 1971. That meant giving visitors the ability to feel part of the journey and even the chance to delight their senses with perfumes specifically created by French perfumiers, Henry Jacques.

And because every journey is made up of what on the surface seem like mundane things, like documents and tickets, we decided to include Sheikh Zayed’s handwritten vaccination card from 1951 to add a truly personal touch. Visitors felt as if they were there, on the journey with the great man himself as he began to formulate what would become a major alliance in the region, and a player on the world stage. The roots of that history are carefully set out in the exhibition. It’s both educational and emotionally charged. Visitors leave with a deeper understanding of why history unfolded as it did under the guidance of a visionary leader.

Getting it all together was an intricate but ultimately satisfying project. We worked with over 16 Emirati and international organisers as well as more than 20 contributors and five key sponsors. We also ensured that VIP guests, including Dr. Antonella Mei-Pochtler, Special Advisor to the Austrian Federal Chancellor, Dr. Amal Al Qubaisi, President of the Federal National Council, and Zaki Nusseibeh, Minister of State, could attend the opening ceremony along with government officials, the Ambassadors of 25 EU Member States present in the UAE, and 150 other VIP guests.

The message was an inspiring one: over 200,000 EU nationals live and work in the UAE, and the EU is its leading trading partner, which brings both development and prosperity to the region. And it all dates back to that one journey in 1951 and the development of Sheikh Zayed’s idea, inspired by what he saw and heard not just on that trip, but also as Europe developed ever-closer ties between its nations. Our exhibition brought that inspiring story to life and we’re proud of just how successful it’s been.

by Helen Grimshaw