x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 24 November 2017

A great museum will attract some sniping by critics

Sniping about the Louvre Abu Dhabi by a French art historian display a short memory about the birth of great museums.

When the Louvre Abu Dhabi opens next year, the UAE capital will join a long list of cities hosting public museums of international importance. And when the Louvre is joined later this decade by the Zayed National Museum and the Guggenheim, Abu Dhabi will have followed in the illustrious footsteps of London and Paris – both cities established a clutch of historic museums in the 19th century.

All this makes the recent sniping by some members of the French cultural milieu seem a little curious. French art historian Didier Rykner, a long-term opponent of the Louvre’s Abu Dhabi venture, was reported this week as saying that French cultural heritage was being pillaged for the sake of the Saadiyat Island project.

Apart from anything else, this demonstrates a particularly short memory. The Louvre’s collection contains roughly 380,000 objects, only a fraction of which can be displayed at any one time. Ten years ago, the lack of display space was part of the reason the institution opened a satellite museum in Lens, in northern France near the border with Belgium. Henri Loyrette, the then president and director of the Louvre Museum, described the new branch as “a superb idea” that fulfilled the Paris museum’s duty to give to the regions.

Furthermore, the Louvre’s inventory includes extensive collections of works from antiquity, including 50,000 items from Egypt dating from the 4th century AD back to 4,000BC. These were not found lying around the First Arrondissement. Most were obtained during France’s 19th century occupation of Egypt. This in itself is part of a long tradition, where many of the most important objects in a museum’s collection have simply been plundered from other civilisations, often to the considerable chagrin of the original culture. For all the griping about the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the objects in its permanent collection have been obtained legitimately. And, just as the cultural cycle pushed Paris and London to the fore in centuries past, so it is the Middle East’s turn now.

Some of the criticism of Abu Dhabi, particularly regarding the welfare of the labourers building the Louvre, prompted the authorities to make improvements – not just on Saadiyat but across the emirate. Other complaints, such as about the lack of a cultural landscape in the emirate, will be improved by the museum’s existence.

Maybe we ought to take this sniping as a good thing. The worst sin of any cultural facility is to be ignored.