The 'universal museum' encourages us to see the world differently and conveys the greatness of Arab culture
Louvre Abu Dhabi teaches us to celebrate our diversity and common humanity, not our differences
Walking around the new Louvre Abu Dhabi, a bizarre thought crept into my head: this magnificent building has something in common with the Rolling Stones. I will get to that in a moment, but I am writing this from Abu Dhabi after a truly inspirational visit to the art museum. It is one of the great modern buildings of the world. Three things are remarkable — the architecture, the content and the philosophy behind its creation.
The building includes 23 galleries holding 600 works of art. But statistics cannot describe how breathtaking it is. In one area, the visitor stands under the shade of enormous stone palm fronds. In another, beautiful Arabic calligraphy stands out from massive stone panels. The blue sea lagoons contrast with the sharp whiteness of the walls. One visitor told me he bought a membership not just to look at the contents but, he said, because the Louvre is a perfect place to sit and be at peace in serene surroundings.
The content includes exhibits from the Louvre’s Paris collection, but the real genius is how it is presented. From ancient stone axes to glorified heroes and different ways of dealing with death, the concept is a celebration of our common humanity. The key message is that all artists, whether they are from China, India, the Middle East, Africa, Europe and elsewhere, come from different cultures and hold different beliefs, but they have the same concerns, hopes and fears. What could be more appropriate for a city and a region which sees itself as the crossroads of the world?
Of course, our modern world is also one of confrontation, conflict and division. We fight over land, ideas and resources. And yet, here is a living symbol of tolerance and respect for others. But it is also something more, which is why it reminded me oddly of the Rolling Stones. Their particular genius as a British rock band was to borrow the rhythms and style of African American music, which of course was inspired by African music with a twist of white American folk, country and rock and roll.
Great art, whether from popular culture or the high art of Louvre Abu Dhabi, is often at its best when it pulls together different traditions and ideas. The American poet TS Eliot once wrote that "immature poets imitate; mature poets steal". He meant that the best art is a collaboration, a borrowing, a mix of cultures, traditions and ideas, including the inspiration one artist draws from another.
Louvre Abu Dhabi — in fact, Abu Dhabi itself — is a collaboration. It teaches us to celebrate our diversity and common humanity, our shared hopes, dreams and fears. The people we do not like, our competitors, even our enemies — when they wake up in the morning, do they not want what we want? Do we not all hope to raise our children in safety, to see the young do better than we have done, to create, to have fun, to enjoy life and in the end, to pay respects to the dead? During the coldest times of the Cold War another British rock band, The Police, sang that we could be saved from a nuclear holocaust "if the Russians love their children too". Of course Russians do love their children. The real success of the Louvre Abu Dhabi project is to encourage us to reflect that even in a world of conflict and discord, we have more in common than that which divides us.
One other thing we also have in common is to complain about the cost of great cultural projects — and then to forget about the cost when we come to celebrate the reality of what has been created. It happened when I was in Germany over the summer. People in Hamburg complained about the cost of their recently opened Elbphilharmonie concert hall, until they visited it and saw how wonderful it is. My fellow Scots complained endlessly about the cost of two massive steel statues of horse heads known as The Kelpies, built near the town of Falkirk — until the tourists arrived in their droves and brought a new prosperity to the area. And some questioned the cost of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, although the critics will be silenced the moment they step inside.
As I left the museum, another thought came to mind, one I would love to hear others' opinions on @gavinesler. How can the greatness of Arab culture itself be conveyed to a wider world? And by Arab culture, I mean everything from food and music to calligraphy and modern design, from clothes designers to novelists in the modern Arab tradition, including Ahdaf Soueif, Alaa Al Aswany and Amin Maalouf, among others. The Louvre Abu Dhabi project demonstrates that the central purpose of art is to encourage us to see the world differently. The Arab world has many problems but it also has a great story to tell — a story of past, present and future. Art and culture are simply ways to help tell that story better and change the way audiences around the world see this creative and outward-looking region.