PRINT January 2018


the Louvre Abu Dhabi

Ateliers Jean Nouvel, Louvre Abu Dhabi, 2017. Photo: Mohamed Somji.

WHAT MORE CAN BE SAID about the Louvre Abu Dhabi? Since the original agreement was signed between France and the United Arab Emirates in 2007, buckets of ink have been spilled about the museum on Saadiyat Island, sixteen hundred feet off the coast of Abu Dhabi. And not just in the popular press: There are conferences and book-length studies that have been devoted to the Louvre Abu Dhabi and to the larger phenomenon of starchitect museums in the Arabian Gulf—despite the fact that this phenomenon has yet to fully materialize. (Of the seven museums that are planned, in Abu Dhabi, Doha, and Riyadh, only two have actually been built.) Attendant criticism revolves chiefly around labor issues, the UAE’s authoritarian policies and human-rights record, and, particularly in the Gulf, the importing of Western exhibition-display standards and museum methodologies, which underline the narrative according to which culture begins in the East but finds its future in the West. In this way, the museum also disturbs the typical power distribution of post-colonialism: The Emiratis appear both intellectually colonized and as wielding financial influence over the French.

Let’s get down to brass tacks then. What is actually in the museum, and what should we make of its claim to be “universal”? With its slogan, “See humanity in a new light,” the Louvre Abu Dhabi explores the humanist ideal of synchronicities across cultures, grounded in the notion that man’s behavior displays certain constants, such as the desire to make and sanctify artifacts, to embellish and transform useful objects into decorative ones, and to represent and emblematize power. Chronology trumps geography: The museum posits twelve moments in the history of world civilization, illustrated by works arranged in chronologically ordered galleries, which the visitor walks through as if across time. At each stage, the commonality of cultural expression is emphasized. There are statues of the Buddha alongside those of the Madonna and child and pages from the Qur’an; Peruvian death masks and Egyptian sarcophagi; samurai armor and bejeweled Ottoman daggers. Europe’s position is just one of many, which bears out its defenders’ claims that the Louvre Abu Dhabi reorients museum practice away from the West: It’s nice to reflect on the ceramics of Iran and China without having to think of what the potters in Stoke-on-Trent would have had to say about it.

Ateliers Jean Nouvel, Louvre Abu Dhabi, 2017. Great Vestibule. Photo: Marc Domage.

The site’s universal focus also informs its aspirations to match the status of such behemoths as the Louvre in Paris, the British Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Yet in terms of the work it contains, there is a crucial difference: The Louvre Abu Dhabi only began collecting this past decade. The bulk of these older museums’ holdings came, by contrast, from aristocratic collections, via wealthy patronage, and as the spoils of colonialism—evidencing not the most salubrious legacy, but one that yielded vast amounts of material. The Louvre Abu Dhabi’s collection was acquired through galleries, private sales, and, to a lesser extent, auctions. It has been constrained by what was available, although the quality of many of the works is very high, and the relatively compact collection has been complemented by loans from the Agence France–Muséums, the consortium of twelve French institutions that the 2007 Louvre Abu Dhabi agreement between France and the UAE established as a lending body. These loans, such as Jacques-Louis David’s iconic Napoléon Bonaparte, First Consul, Crossing the Alps at Great St. Bernard Pass on May 20, 1800, 1803, and Manet’s The Fife Player,1866, tend to underscore the Frenchness of the museum, and indeed this is a very French notion of “universality,” drawn from André Malraux’s faith in the capacity of museums to unite cultures; museums as an expression of laïcité, or the principle of secularism in public affairs; and a strong belief in the power of form and beauty.

The nonuniversality of any so-called “universal” position is one of the key tenets of postcolonialism, and this insight structures much of the criticism of the museum on an intellectual level. From their speeches, their published essays, and discussions I’ve had with them, I’ve come to the conclusion that the museum staff, who are mainly French at the higher levels, know their move back toward a grand narrative is unfashionable, but see it as justified in the service of an idealistic mission. And it is worth noting that the museum’s humanist vision has different resonances in a region plagued by extremism: It is a strong voice for religious plurality. On the Emirati side, the embrace of a Western-style museum and ideology also belies the country’s own contradictory stance on how it should flex its muscle on the global stage, and how it should plan for its economic future after the oil runs out. The UAE seeks both to fast-track its expertise by borrowing from the West—not just from the Louvre but also from the Sorbonne and New York University, both of which have opened campuses in Abu Dhabi—and to create an identity as a regional beacon of tolerance that is coded as specifically Emirati. In 2016, for example, the UAE appointed an official minister of tolerance and announced its development of the world’s first “Charter of Tolerance, Coexistence, and Peace,” which will set out domestic and international legal norms to support moderation and harmony and denounce racism, extremism, and terrorism. The promotion of tolerance is often packaged and personalized as the ethos of the country’s late founder, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, linking these values not to Western humanism but to Bedouin tradition. If the Louvre Abu Dhabi is French, it is also Emirati: The dapper face of Sheikh Zayed welcomes visitors in the lobby of the museum, as it does in nearly all buildings, and his fingerprint is the basis for Giuseppe Penone’s wall of porcelain tiles, Propagation, 2017, under the museum’s dome.

Ateliers Jean Nouvel, Louvre Abu Dhabi, 2017. Photo: Roland Halbe.

To outside observers, the UAE’s claims of progressivism and consequent investment in culture can seem hollow, an attempt to mask its nondemocratic consolidation of power. The Emirates’ heritage museums, for example, routinely twin the narrative of national destiny with that of the ruling families’ ascent to authority, and the decision to build the Louvre Abu Dhabi also amounts to a geopolitical pact between two nations. On the other hand, to those within the UAE, the scorn at the country’s instrumentalization of culture smacks of hypocrisy and disregards similar practices by Western states. Much reporting also does not allow for a more nuanced picture. The UAE comprises many competing silos of power: some progressive, some conservative; some laudable, others conspicuously not. And Abu Dhabi’s materialization of its values has changed over time: One of the alleged reasons for the delays in building the Louvre Abu Dhabi was that the Arab Spring spooked the leadership into shifting their priorities from cultural projects to security matters. The Arab Spring’s effect is also readable on a curatorial level: The scholar Alexandre Kazerouni contends that it forced the Louvre Abu Dhabi to water down its explicit espousal of Enlightenment values, which lead politically toward democracy, into more neutral expressions of anthropologically asserted shared human behavior.

What is actually in the Louvre Abu Dhabi, and what should we make of its claim to be “universal”?

Equally, the label “universal museum” is not just a press-release catchphrase for a curatorial vision but a specific term adopted at a 2002 conference in which nearly twenty museums, including the Louvre, the British Museum, the State Museums of Berlin, the Metropolitan, and the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, defended the relevance of their museum model against restitution claims. Supporting the right to retain or recover looted cultural objects (many of them from the Middle East) might seem the obvious path for an aspirational regional power, but with the adoption of this label Abu Dhabi seemed to concede to the West—or, perhaps, to suggest its Louvre as a new repository for displaced work in the region. The French and Abu Dhabi governments, via the latter’s Department of Culture and Tourism, which oversees the Louvre Abu Dhabi, announced in December 2016 a $100 million fund to help combat the looting of cultural heritage, including that of war-torn regions in the Maghreb, the Levant, and Central Asia. Whether or not Abu Dhabi emerges as a safe haven for such work, this initiative looks like an attempt by the UAE to position itself as a standard-bearer for Arab and Islamic cultural responsibility.

View of “Civilizations and Empires,” 2017–, Louvre Abu Dhabi. Photo: Marc Domage.

It’s also important to remember that the Louvre Abu Dhabi is a headliner in a broad field of culture in the Emirates. Visual art in the UAE tends to be associated with international idioms—the Alserkal Avenue complex of galleries in Dubai and the Abu Dhabi Art and Art Dubai fairs repeatedly tout their global relevance—while design, which is also heavily supported, is linked to tradition and Emirati identity. The latter often takes the form of a technologically updated version of a premodern Bedouin practice, such as the Dubai Design Week commission Yaroof, 2015, by Aljoud Lootah, which repurposed techniques used to make traditional fishing nets to create an installation on Dubai Beach; Latifa Saeed’s use of khoos palm frond weaving to create mechanical children’s toys; or Saeed and Talin Hazbar’s investigations into regional terracotta-throwing techniques. The architecture of the Louvre Abu Dhabi likewise points toward Arabic motifs. The interlocking stars of the dome nod to the use of geometry in Islamic art, and the museum’s architect, Jean Nouvel, has said the roof’s activation of light and shadow was inspired by the way light falls in the corridors of traditional souks.

Finally, much coverage has ignored the most important aspect of the question of identity in the UAE. This is not the country’s stance abroad but its citizenship policies within, which create a two-tier state between the Emiratis, who are assured privileges and economic benefits, and those remaining, whose stay in the country is typically tied to their work visas. Here, the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s treatment of its labor force—overwhelmingly the focus of international attention in the run-up to the opening—is relevant, as is its orientation going forward. The museum has so far been hugely popular with a mix of wealthy and middle-class ethnic groups, but it is unclear how broadly it will understand its public mandate or what desire it will have to engage the full panoply of ethnicities within Abu Dhabi. Affluent visitors might be the primary demographic reached by all major museums, but the exclusions feel especially acute in a nation of such enormous economic disparities, especially at a time when discursive and educational turns have made museums a potentially activated site for public resistance.

View of “The World in Perspective,” 2017–, Louvre Abu Dhabi. From left: Gustave Caillebotte, Game of Bezique, 1880; Edgar Degas, Dancer, Fourth Position on the Left Leg, Third Study, 1921–31; Edgar Degas, Dancer, Arabesque over the Right Leg, Right Arm near the Ground, 1921–31; Édouard Manet, Le bohémien, 1861–62. Photo: Marc Domage.

Curiously enough, in the museum itself, the joy lists toward the local. The early rooms, which evidence a more even distribution of geographies, display an infinite variety of motifs, shellacs, scripts, animals, fanciful figures, monstrosities, and ingeniously useful objects, their differences are as meaningful as their similarities. (Around the 1800s, the Louvre Abu Dhabi pivots to being a museum of Western idioms of art and loses much of its verve.) This metaphor of variation, mirrored in the geometry of the building’s iconic, city-branding dome, has its merits: The twentieth century’s arrangement of power, money, people, religion, and values is on the move, and the Louvre Abu Dhabi, with its oversize claims of being a museum of the world, has found itself at the epicenter of the storm.

Melissa Gronlund is a writer based in Abu Dhabi and the author of Contemporary Art and Digital Culture (Routledge, 2016).