Louvre Abu Dhabi: So Much More Than A Museum!
“A line in World History.” This is how the opening of the French museum last September has been perceived in the Emirates, according to Ms Françoise Nyssen, the French Minister of Culture. The new Louvre was unveiled on November 8th in attendance of French President Emmanuel Macron and the crown prince Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed al-Nahyan, before it opened its doors to the public for the first time on November 11th. The museum, which “emerged from the sands” is the final outcome of an intergovernmental deal signed in March 2007, which foresaw an initial inauguration in 2012 and was later postponed several times because of problems with the funding of the project. Its symbolisms seem to be numerous (political, architectural, historical). Yet some commentators are not afraid of describing as “gargantuan” Abu Dhabi’s ambition to become a hub of international culture. What situational analysis can be made of this news?
Recognition or commodification of French culture?
Louvre Abu Dhabi’s history started with a controversy. The deal signed with former French President Jacques Chirac was partly responsible for this: the use of the name “Louvre” would be granted for a period of 30 years only, temporary exhibitions would go on for 15 years and the lending of art pieces would be scheduled for 10 years. This whole plan should bring an estimated amount of 1 billion to the 17 French museums and cultural institutions partners of this project, the construction of the museum being fully funded by the Emirates. Despite their duty of confidentiality, 5,600 curators, academics and museum directors signed a petition against the commercial and media use of French heritage as well as a cultural policy merely serving French foreign policy of the day.
However, that very year, the Louvre exhibited its art pieces in Atlanta for 11 months, depriving its Paris visitors from a significant number of its masterpieces, for a relatively long period of time, in return for the payment of €13 million. Of course, Abu Dhabi represented a new step, as we were talking about exchanging artworks not for months but for several years! And on top of this, with the appropriation of what seems to become the Louvre “brand”. This unprecedented initiative has raised many concerns among specialists, may they be about matters of transportation, art conservation in a desert climate and even security bearing in mind the unrest in the region. Likewise, accepting for loans of artwork to become more widespread - as seen in the current New-York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) exhibition in Paris -, the granting of the Parisian cultural institution’s name has triggered the fear that the French cultural heritage would suffer from impoverishment.
The island of Saddiyat & the reflection of the Emirates’ cultural ambition
You may recall that Abu Dhabi used to be a small city in the 1960s, with less than 20,000 inhabitants. It now counts over 1.7 million people. The Emirates are thus fully part of those territories in which, thanks to resources as valuable as oil, urban concentrations came about, along with an exponential growth, both economically and demographically speaking. As a real laboratory of postmodernity, with a skyline of extravagant buildings and the most futuristic projects, Abu Dhabi, like its rival Dubai, is the incarnation of global cities introducing themselves extemporaneously into worldwide geopolitics.
Nevertheless, the drop in oil prices, which began in 2014, altered the situation. Confronted to the imperative of diversifying income, the Emirates turned to tourism, with the aim of welcoming circa 75 million visitors by 2030, while also making Abu Dhabi a leading cultural destination.
The opening of Louvre Abu Dhabi reflects a more general strategy of seeking international visibility. This museum is anchored to an island designed to make Abu Dhabi an international cultural hub. Coincidentally, the opening of the Louvre takes place during one of the largest fairs of contemporary art in the region (Abu Dhabi Art from November 8 to 11). Saddiya, which was designed as a tourist-cultural complex, will soon enough be hosting a Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Museum, a Sheikh Zayed National Museum, an arts center, a Maritime Museum, a Concert Hall and even a New York University campus (which opened in 2010).
While the Emirates are determined to develop their soft power to gain visibility on the international stage, as evidenced by the hosting in 2020 of the universal exhibition in Dubai, France brings to the current project its advice on a scientific, cultural as well as on an architectural level. The building sheltering the museum was designed by Jean Nouvel, who also designed the Musée du quai Branly and the Paris Philharmonie. In itself, the museum is a stand alone piece: the building is sumptuous, playing between desert, sky and sea, and was inspired by Arabic culture. Designed as a medina, it is capped by an impressive dome that lets the light filter through its interstices. It is the result of a huge construction project, which brought together nearly 5,300 workers from 29 countries, whose working conditions have regularly been the subject of criticism from NGOs, denouncing abuses, allegedly "known" by the French authorities.
While Abu Dhabi’s strategy, and more generally the one of the Emirates, is claimed, it remains true that France plays a key role in a region of the world where its influence tends to diminish. In the report A new strategy for France in a new arab world, Institut Montaigne notes the loss of France’s influence in this region. An economic and military partner of secondary importance ("hard power"), France is absent from the main crisis resolution frameworks that are taking place in the region. Nevertheless, culturally ("soft power"), France, despite being challenged by other Western countries (England, Germany) but also regional powers like Turkey, retains its influence. Louvre Abu Dhabi reminds us of France’s international outreach.
Throughout the 23 permanent galleries, 600 artworks of which 300 lent by French museums, are being unveiled to the public. Works are also loaned by neighboring countries, such as Saudi Arabia, Oman or Jordan. Museography offers us a journey throughout the centuries and artistic movements - from Neolithic art to contemporary art, from two thousand years BC to the 20th century -, making Louvre Abu Dhabi the first universal museum in the Arab world. The Louvre of the Sands, as it is called, definitely wants to reflect its Parisian counterpart: strongly rooted in the national culture, the museum primarily intends to shine internationally. This is a powerful symbol, one of a dialogue between Arab and European cultures through a transversal vision of art. Its message - tolerance, peace and openness to the world - is just as important, as the strong commitment of both countries, in a region that seeks stability.
The deal also provides for the training and coaching of the museum’s staff, which enabled the presence of the Sorbonne University in Abu Dhabi, established in 2006 as part of the development of “Francophonie” and the critical thinking path between Europe and the Islamic world program, as well as the school “École du Louvre”. Both schools offer a professional Masters entitled “Art History and Museum Related Professions”, in collaboration with the museum’s staff. This Masters should allow to respond to vocational training needs for the different projects planned by the museums.
Even if has been recognized as true “French talent”, Louvre Abu Dhabi is not pioneering in the showcase of French art pieces abroad. The Centre Pompidou had already been established in Spain in 2005, in Malaga, and aims to temporarily settle in Shanghai in 2018 and in Brussels in 2020. Nevertheless, this project has so far proved to be more ambitious than others. In the era of delocalization and art globalization, discussions are being held regarding cultural know-hows: being recognized abroad, vectoring universal message, being supported by teaching institutions, spreading French language and culture in a region in which France invests tremendously. French culture is being exposed to two key challenges. How do you compete at the international level when it comes to enhancing your soft power? How will France renew its cultural model without letting go of its traditions and cultural roots?
© Photography Mohamed Somji