“Birth of the Museum” opening at Musée du Louvre, Paris, 2014. From left to right: Jean-Luc Martinez, president-director of the Musée du Louvre; Sheikh Sultan Bin Tahnoon al-Nahyan, president of Tourism & Culture Authority Abu Dhabi and of Tourism Development and Investment Company; François Hollande, president of France; Jean Nouvel, architect; Aurélie Filippetti, former French Minister of Culture. Copyright and courtesy Musée du Louvre. 

17th-century Parisian wood paneling. Width: (large panel) 392.5 cm; (medium panels) 140 cm; (small panels) 94.7 cm. Copyright and courtesy Louvre Abu Dhabi. 

Shifting Sands

United Arab Emirates France
Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

The French have a curious epithet for the Louvre Abu Dhabi: le Louvre des sables. Translated as “the Louvre in the sands,” this oddly exoticized sobriquet for the fledgling museum, due to open in December 2015, has thoroughly peppered the French media since 2007, when the intergovernmental deal was sealed between France and Abu Dhabi. Even president François Hollande used it, in April to fire up his inaugural address at the “Birth of a Museum” show, the second iteration of the exhibition showcasing the Emirati museum’s growing permanent collection, held in Paris’s Musée du Louvre through July. Le Louvre des sables: from a French point of view, the name projects the familiar into the faraway; deposits the institutionally solid amid uncertain nature; suggests something not so much built as mysteriously risen to the surface. It hints at replication: another Louvre (like other Guggenheims and Tates) has cropped up in some hazy elsewhere—a space that is unfixed, unknown, perhaps even unknowable. Le Louvre des sables: vaguely imperialist, it evokes a far-flung outpost on the fringes of hospitable lands, newly conquered by culture. 

“The Louvre is inimitable,” reassured Hollande in his speech, “and is not transportable.” If this is true, then what is the Louvre Abu Dhabi? A member of some big Louvre “family,” all shared values and upheld guidelines? Clearly, the Emirati offspring depends on the Louvre mère for her lifeline of expertise, her nourishing savoir-faire; in Abu Dhabi, homegrown museum practitioners are few. But how, if at all, can the museum express its Emirati-ness? The Louvre Abu Dhabi has clearly stated its ambition to be “universal,” a story of touch points between the world’s great civilizations, of simultaneous creative expressions culled from different corners of the globe. In this case, does channeling anything Emirati even matter? 

The French have long been in the business of exporting culture. Yet the Paris iteration of  the “Birth of a Museum” exhibition, coming one year after its Abu Dhabi predecessor, did less to illustrate how a “Louvre-branded” museum is born than it did to raise questions about the level of agency this newborn requires to take an independent cultural stand in the distant sands. 

Despite being criticized for its “best of” approach to collection building, the Paris “Birth of a Museum” showcased a historical procession of images and objects that emphasized both the integrity of the now-160-piece collection and the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s commitment to universalism. Curators directly involved with the Louvre’s Abu Dhabi outpost emphasize that this is by no means a chest-beating French take on universalism—Enlightenment-era values packaged in 21st-century starchitecture. “Our Emirati partners came to us with the idea of a universal museum,” admits Vincent Pomarède, general curator of “Birth of a Museum,” who was instrumental in clinching the intergovernmental accord back in 2007. The Louvre Abu Dhabi sees universalism as cross-cultural exchange. Its collection skims the surface of human history, spanning cultures and geographies, folding mankind’s creations into a broad compendium. “Universalism is above all about diversity,” contends Pomarède. 

The Musée du Louvre is not, strictly speaking, a universal museum. Like its UK counterpart, the British Museum, founded some 40 years prior to the birth of the Louvre in 1793, the French institution sprang from the Enlightenment purview of fully understanding the world. It is more encyclopedic than universal, and its scholarly, almost exhaustive, depth was achieved very often through the pillaging of other civilizations’ treasures: Napoleon had no qualms about absconding with cultural loot during his military campaigns in Italy, Egypt and beyond, just as 19th-century French archaeological digs steadily fed the museum in antique vestiges. 

Still, the notion of a universal museum, whether in depth or breadth, seems hard to untangle from Western hegemony. Despite Abu Dhabi’s earnest desire, as the first universal museum in the Middle East, to create cross-cultural dialogues, it must still acquire works from these very cultures. How can a museum undertake such cultural stockpiling at a time when most countries are reclaiming and repatriating their national heritage—art and artifacts seized under the conquering banner of universalism in the first place—to insert them back into national narratives? With an alleged yearly acquisitions budget of 40 million euros, is the Louvre Abu Dhabi greedily buying up the world’s treasures, strangely aping centuries-old imperialist sprees?

Claims of pillaging are being leveled against the Louvre Abu Dhabi (or, more precisely, against the Louvre curators advising its acquisitions). The finger-pointing comes not from disgruntled nations deprived of their patrimony, but rather, in a curious reversal of empire, from the French themselves. As early as 2007, right-wing politician Jean-Marie Le Pen warned against the certain “impoverishment of French artistic heritage” he believed that the project augured. More recently, critics have targeted the plan for revolving loans benefiting the Louvre Abu Dhabi for its first ten years, sourced from the 12 museums comprising Agence France-Muséums. Springing from vaults (and walls) of institutions such as the Musée Guimet, Centre Pompidou and Musée d’Orsay, the loan list for the first year, detailing some 300 works, is being kept secret by the Emirati delegation.** The loans, complain the critics, rob the French of the right to view their so-called rightful artistic heritage. (Leonardo Da Vinci’s portrait La Belle Ferronière (1490–96) is rumored to be among the works.) Similarly, “Birth of a Museum” featured one of the newer—and more hotly debated—acquisitions by the Louvre Abu Dhabi: a 17th-century interior (floor-to-ceiling wood panels and full ceiling) from a Parisian townhouse. Didier Rykner, on his website La Tribune de l’Art, was one of many to voice ire that such a treasure should leave French soil at the hands of French curators for a “foreign” museum. 

Abu Dhabi asserts its universalist birthright primarily due to the emirate’s status as an ancient east-meets-west hotspot—a land that was (and continues to be) a cultural and commercial crossroads at which a plurality of histories coexist. Wound up in the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s universalist yarn, however, is an undeniable strand of national image-building. In Paris, “Birth of a Museum” was prefaced by what assistant curator Khalid Abdulkhaliq Abdulla dubbed an “Introduction Room.” Here, visitors were greeted by a floor-to-ceiling enlargement of a vintage photo showing an early 20th-century UAE market scene, itself a backdrop for a quote attributed to Sheikh Zayed: “A nation without a past is a nation without a present or a future.” A selection of pre-Islamic vessels and vases, the fruit of archaeological digs in the UAE, are on loan from the al-Ain National Museum. Ostensibly conceived to give context for the French museumgoer, the room dismantles the clichéd territories used to discuss the emirate’s cultural ambitions by crafting a message of ambition as a by-product of respect for one’s cultural heritage. That this heritage is depicted here as multicultural (the artifacts were left by nomads) and pre-Islamic seems to defuse any potential pigeonholing of the emirate according to misinformed frames of reference, such as religion or nationalism. 

In February 2012, Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon al-Nahyan, chairman of the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority, wrote an alarming letter to then-president of the Musée du Louvre, Henri Loyrette. The three-page missive essentially outlines what the Sheikh called a “wrong development” at the time, five years into the project. One of the main points was the deplorable lack of “knowledge transfer” expected from France. At the time, only a skeleton crew of two representatives was on-site to train the Emirati personnel. If today this has largely been addressed (a 17-person Agence France-Muséums team has been present for the past year), questions have now arisen about the inverse: how much space has been left to the Emiratis to express their own agency? 

The language used by the French in discussing knowledge transfer belies a sensation of walking on eggshells. “The Louvre,” Hollande reassured in his speech, “will never overstep its role, will never impose.” Pomarède echoes: “We don’t tell them what to do, but explain what we would do in a similar situation.” Has the fallout of colonial legacy reshaped the very dynamics of knowledge transfer? Such language would imply that enforcing a sole, “correct” paradigm potentially risks extinguishing agency. Even if the Emiratis did claim significant agency, the question lingers whether skills gained through this transfer can bring them swiftly to the endgame of leading the museum self-sufficiently. 

“This is the golden age of Abu Dhabi,” remarked architect Jean Nouvel at a press conference following the “Birth of a Museum” opening. “The monuments must bear witness to this.” The Louvre Abu Dhabi is critical to the national and international image of the emirate; it is a crucial jewel in Abu Dhabi’s swelling cultural crown. Given these stakes, it seems vital for this museum to innovate as much from the inside as from the outside. Yes, the Louvre Abu Dhabi needs guidance; but it should be wary of replicating a timeworn, Eurocentric model. Although dogged by misconceptions, the institution is already crafting its own narrative. It would be counterproductive for the Louvre Abu Dhabi not to use its significant freedom to create something entirely new—to elevate it beyond a mere Louvre des sables.

**Since the publishing of this article, details of the loan list for the first year have been made public. The topic is covered on our website in the news item, “Louvre Abu Dhabi Announces First Year Loans of Works from French Museums.”