Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1204, (3-9 July 2014)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1204, (3-9 July 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Birth of a museum

Masterpieces from the collection of the new Louvre Abu Dhabi have been unveiled at the Louvre Museum in Paris, writes David Tresilian

Al-Ahram Weekly

The Louvre Abu Dhabi, the first museum of its kind in the Gulf and a key component of Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island cultural district, will mark a new departure for Abu Dhabi and the United Arab Emirates when it opens to the public at the end of next year, as it will for the Louvre Museum in Paris.

The fruit of a special agreement between Abu Dhabi and France and the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority and the Louvre Museum in Paris, the new museum, housed in an eye-catching building by French architect Jean Nouvel, will be a universal, or encyclopaedic, museum intended to contain material from most periods of history and parts of the world in the way familiar from the British Museum in London, the Louvre in Paris or the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Though a fully autonomous institution with its own permanent collection, programming, and identity serving the Abu Dhabi public and visitors to the Emirate from the region and abroad, it will have close links to the Louvre. Hundreds of works from the Louvre will be on loan to the Louvre Abu Dhabi during the first decades of its existence, experts from the Louvre will advise on its collections policy and programming, and the new institution will have the right to use the Louvre label for 30 years, identifying it in the public mind as a branch or satellite of the Louvre.

The project is thus an ambitious one for Abu Dhabi and an unprecedented one for the Louvre. While both the Louvre and the Pompidou Centre have in recent years set up satellite institutions in the shape of the Louvre Lens in the northern French city of that name and the Pompidou Metz on the Franco-German border, both of these are branches of their respective mother institutions in Paris. Neither institution has its own permanent collection, the Louvre Lens containing an impressive collection of works taken temporarily from the Louvre and the Pompidou Metz being a venue for temporary exhibitions fed from the French national collections of modern and contemporary art in Paris.

Neither of these institutions provides a model for the new type of museum that is to open in Abu Dhabi. Observers of the new institution have been wondering whether it is now possible for a new museum to build a permanent collection like those contained in great Western institutions like the Louvre and whether Abu Dhabi will be able to build a reputation for the new institution that, in terms of its temporary exhibitions, its programming, and its curatorial expertise and scholarship, will be anything like that enjoyed by the Louvre.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi is due to open in December 2015 on the Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi that will eventually also house other museums designed by internationally high-profile names like Norman Foster, Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid. In addition to Nouvel’s Abu Dhabi Louvre, there will be Foster’s Zayed National Museum, dedicated to the history and culture of the UAE and the contributions of founder and first president sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al- Nahayan, and Gehry’s Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, an art museum developed in association with the Solomon R Guggenheim Foundation in New York, while Hadid will be responsible for the Island’s Performing Arts Centre.

The new Louvre Abu Dhabi will thus be part of a spectacular new cultural district designed to raise the profile of Abu Dhabi internationally and to turn it into the region’s most important cultural and leisure destination.

Thus far, few details have been released about the new museums or their contents, but some lacunae at least have now been filled regarding the Louvre Abu Dhabi as a result of a new exhibition at the Louvre in Paris that runs until 28 July. The exhibition, entitled Birth of a Museum: the Louvre Abu Dhabi, is intended to provide more details of the new museum’s permanent collection and the role the institution is intended to play in the region and beyond. Yet, exiting the exhibition, some visitors may feel that they have not learned as much as they might have hoped about the new institution. An opportunity may also have been missed to say more about Nouvel’s building and how it will function in housing this new Gulf version of the Louvre.

The exhibition contains some 150 pieces from the new museum’s permanent collection, all of them acquired since 2009 when an acquisitions policy was drawn up following agreement on the identity of the Abu Dhabi Louvre. There are some magnificent pieces among them, as will have been expected of core pieces from the permanent collection of a major new museum, and some of them may also be genuinely important, doing more than simply illustrating the period or civilisation from which they come.

Nevertheless, on the evidence of this showing some visitors may have reservations. To what extent does this set of objects make up a genuine collection, for example, whatever the quality of the individual pieces? How can they be meaningfully arranged for the purposes of story-telling, essential for any exhibition, whether chronologically or illustrating curatorially identified themes?

The Louvre Abu Dhabi has steered away from dividing its collection up into areas, an approach conventionally practiced at the British Museum and the Louvre, both of which are divided into departments overseen by specialist teams of curators. Perhaps because the Louvre Abu Dhabi is unlikely ever to have collections of the size or quality of those housed in the London and Paris institutions, it has adopted a thematic approach instead, arranging pieces chronologically while at the same time pointing to categories such as representations of the human figure, artistic expressions related to religion, and the ways in which certain forms appear and reappear in different periods and cultures, suggesting common answers to common problems or cultural hybridity and migration.

The Paris exhibition begins with antiquity, bringing together pieces such as a limestone sculpture of a sphinx made in Greece in the 6th century BCE, a gold lion-shaped bracelet from 8th century BCE Iran, some Roman sculptures, a sculpted head of the Buddha from 6th century CE China and a 2nd century CE figure of a Buddhist bodhisattva from the Gandhara region of what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan.

All the pieces, taken individually, are marvellous, perhaps especially the Gandhara sculpture from what is now Pakistan. However, despite the comments made in the exhibition catalogue about what can be gained by juxtaposing them, the fact remains that anyone wishing to understand these objects and the cultures from which they come would probably be better off visiting the Louvre, which has one of the world’s most important collections of Roman antiquities, or, across Paris, the Musée Guimet, which has the most important collection in Europe of Gandharan art.

The limitations of the exhibition become even more apparent later in the sections entitled “western perspectives” and “the modern world.” Pointing out that European expansion from, broadly, the 15th century onwards was accompanied by both the development of new artistic techniques and interest in the cultures of non-European societies, the former category brings together miscellaneous 16th and 17th-century European paintings. The latter category contains single pictures by the late 19th century French painters Gustave Caillebotte, Edouard Manet and Paul Gauguin along with industrially produced 19th century European glassware and an arts and crafts type silver samovar.

According to the publicity material for the new museum, it will have 6,000 m2 of permanent exhibition space and 2,000 m2 for temporary exhibitions. Even bearing in mind that under the terms of the Abu Dhabi-French agreement, it will receive 300 loans from French museums for its permanent exhibition over the first three years, including from the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, the Pompidou Centre, the Musée Guimet and the Musée and Chateau de Versailles, it is still possible to wonder how the present exhibition will be filled out and contextualised. Presumably it will follow the chronological-thematic approach set out in the Birth of a Museum exhibition, fleshing this out with loans from French institutions.

It seems a pity that the exhibition does not have more to say about Jean Nouvel’s building. A model of this opens the exhibition, and there are promotional videos showing the construction work and renderings of some of the interior spaces. Designed as an “oriental city” of interconnected buildings between four and 12 metres high sheltered beneath a flattened translucent dome, the building looks magnificent and on a scale appropriate to the ambitions of the new institution. However, no details are given of the division of the spaces, the volumes of the exhibition rooms, the finishing, or the internal circulation.

As a result, the Birth of a Museum exhibition gives an incomplete account of the new Louvre Abu Dhabi. One gets some sense of the new museum’s permanent exhibition, but has to guess at how this will be fleshed out by loans. The design of the exhibition spaces has been kept under wraps until details of the architectural design are available. The new institution’s intended programming and temporary exhibitions policy are not dealt with at all in the Louvre exhibition.

As the publicity material produced for the exhibition points out, the Louvre Abu Dhabi is the first universal museum in the Arab world and the first attempt to create a universal museum on the European model in the region and in the 21st century. That being so, and in the absence of further details, perhaps the scale of the project may license the visitor’s imagination. One wonders, for example, whether too much is being made of the permanent exhibition. Since many of the pieces in the new institution are in any case likely to be loans, why not reverse the sizes of the permanent and temporary exhibitions?

Perhaps the new institution over-emphasises the need to acquire its own physical collection. It has a marvelous example of Gandharan art in the shape of the bodhisattva on display in the current Louvre exhibition. Could this be made the centrepiece of a networked exhibition, bringing together high-quality images, possible with the use of modern technology, of materials kept elsewhere?

Both the Afghan National Museum in Kabul and the Peshawar Museum in Pakistan have outstanding collections of Gandharan art that have not always been easily accessible to visitors. Rather than spending enormous sums trying to build its own collection, the Louvre Abu Dhabi could perhaps also serve its future visitors, while at the same time becoming a genuinely international hub, by serving as a platform for innovative networked exhibitions.

Naissance d’un musée, Louvre Abu Dhabi, Musée du Louvre, Paris, until 28 July.

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