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In November 2017, the Louvre Abu Dhabi opened its magnificent buildings and dome, which reflect contemplatively on the conventional white-cube gallery and local architectural traditions. To this reviewer the building is eclipsed by the collection. The Louvre Abu Dhabi has acquired objects from 3000 BCE to 2016 with the accession of Ai Weiwei’s Fountain of Light. In addition, the Agence France-Muséums provides them, as part of a thirty-year agreement, management advice, object loans, and the use of the brand “Louvre” for $1.27 billion. They will host four temporary exhibitions a year from the thirteen partner museums in France. The exhibitions will thus reflect the wide range of interests and collections of these French museums.
With resources on this scale a great deal is possible. Their mission statement and the publications listed above claim that it is a new kind of institution “rooted in universal human values” and “human creativity that transcend[s] individual cultures.” According to a wall text, the institution is “a celebration of diversity,” and “designed to encourage curiosity, respect, and acceptance” (Manuel Rabaté, director of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, in the preface).
The museum is a remarkable and ambitious achievement. Rooms are designed to fit specific works, with custom-made granite and marble plinths, glass vitrines, and lighting, which are all industry leading and represent the highest standards for object care and display. In a region that lacks institutions of comparable scale and objective, the museum is a welcome addition to the Gulf and the mission of promoting education, arts, and cross-cultural understanding and would be praiseworthy anywhere.
Admission is 63 AED ($17), with reduced rates for ages thirteen to twenty-two, United Arab Emirates (UAE) teachers, and military. It’s free for children under thirteen, Louvre Abu Dhabi Art Club members, journalists, and people with disabilities. The museum has a range of corporate and group services and regular guided tours for various age groups and aspects of the collection. Workshops for children and adults are offered and a Children’s Museum is included. As of this writing, there are no published plans for academic or special events. At present, the website is not extensive, but like the educational programs, these will probably grow as the institution matures.
Nevertheless, there are a number of problems with the museum. Despite the obvious possibilities to broaden the history of humanity away from a Euro-American focus, the collection remains mostly derived from Western tradition. The emphasis of the collection after 1500 is on American and European advances that foreground a palatable progress of trade and globalization but makes little reference to slavery, colonialism, and war, which were integral parts of those developments.
The emphasis on “universal human values,” which are never explained, works to flatten out cultural differences and leaves millennia of history and billions of people looking the same. The first room, the Great Vestibule, sets up the “universal story.” In thematically grouped vitrines, objects are displayed from across the globe and different eras: in one there are mother and child images, in another writing implements, and in a third there are masks. Many cultures share these images, and they have a superficial similarity. The labels provide little guidance on how and why objects might look alike despite diverse origins. Importantly, the labels do not say how, despite their similarities, these items were created, used, and understood differently by different cultures. A nineteenth-century phemba maternity figure, an ancient statue of Isis and Horus, and a medieval statue of the Virgin and Child have similarities, but they also have profound differences. Indeed the “universalist” approach insists on decontextualization, on withholding information about the various peoples of the past. It would be possible to visit this museum and leave believing that Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity are alike in everything but artistic styles. Far from being about diversity, the result seems to show that there is no cultural diversity.
Simultaneously, choices are made that suggest a very particular world view. For example, in a section titled “Universal Religions,” Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam are given the vast majority of the attention, while myriad other creeds and practices are sidelined. Similarly, only a single view of Islam is presented. Wall texts repeatedly state that figurative representations aren’t permitted in Islamic art to explain the absence of images of people. This is simply not true, even in the Arabic peninsula; the Persian, Ottoman, and North African traditions have a rich figurative history, on occasion even of the Prophet Muhammad. A limited version of world history and culture is being displayed, and those limits are not acknowledged. Instead, the Louvre Abu Dhabi version is presented as if it’s the whole and only uncontroversial truth. Given regional politics, it isn’t surprising to note, there are only three items (out of approximately nine hundred) from the Judaic tradition. Journalists have praised the inclusion of Jewish objects, however this is a low standard for a museum that claims to represent diversity and universal humanity. Not to include them would be unconscionable, to do so is a normal level of open mindedness that requires no comment.
Here’s one example of an interpretation that indicates some of the choices being made at the museum. In the temporary exhibition From One Louvre to Another (December 21, 2017–April 7, 2018) and in the permanent displays, the origin of the foundation of the Louvre—in a rebellion—is retold as one of regal benevolence. Certainly, royal and aristocratic collections existed before the French Revolution, but they weren’t public institutions dedicated to education until after it. In this exhibition, they would have you believe that the king always intended to create a Musée du Louvre and the revolutionaries merely continued that plan. Meanwhile the permanent displays make no mention of revolution at all. Similarly, there is little awareness in the exhibition of how the Paris Louvre developed mainly from a collection of European objects to a “universal museum” filled with the plunder of colonial adventures in Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere. Unfortunately, the catalogue, which could have presented a more nuanced version, has a similar history of Europe’s nineteenth-century “discovery” of the world and Louis XVI public-spirited philanthropy.
The museum explicitly states its commitment to diversity and tolerance, and while the UAE may be more tolerant than other Gulf nations, it remains an oligarchy with minimal civil liberties and a poor human rights record, which directly affected the workers on this project. Representing qualities of tolerance and diversity is, however, a broadly accepted norm today, and like interpreting the history of the Louvre as one of regal benevolence, it’s a comforting message for Western allies, investors, and the Emirati elite.
In this institution, there probably cannot be a gay history, a history of pornography, of democracy, protest, or rights movements, and there is little interest in violence. It’s a version of humanity that emphasizes trade and globalization. The museum is organized along these lines; one must progress through it from one room to the next in a rigid chronological order. There are no short cuts and no way of moving between times and places to draw connections or see contrasts on one’s own. The collection is presented as one totality, it isn’t divided into departments, and the curatorial decisions seem to be coming from the Agence France-Muséums. Indeed, according to a February 2018, press release, appointments are effectively made by the French agency so there doesn’t appear to be much in the way of on-site specialists or control in Abu Dhabi. However, the precise arrangements have not been made public.
Using the name Louvre and modeling themselves so closely on that institution, even to the point of spending almost half a billion dollars on a supposed Leonardo painting to echo the Mona Lisa, is unhelpful in that is seems to reaffirm a sense of Arabic and Islamic cultural inferiority relative to the assumed “high” culture of Western Europe. This museum, rather than demonstrating the equality of cultures, instead implicitly elevates the West and seems to clothe Abu Dhabi and the UAE in a borrowed tradition of achievement. I would argue that the region has much to be proud of and could reflect on world history in other ways.
As a lover of galleries and museums, it’s easy to enjoy this sumptuous institution with its beautiful buildings and incredible collection, but as a historian it seems like a missed opportunity to represent the history of the world without the colonial legacy of older institutions. Louvre Abu Dhabi could have presented a history that allowed for differences to be discussed and explored; it could have avoided rather than replicated Western biases.
Assistant Professor, Department of Fine Arts and Art History, American University of Beirut