When the French revolutionaries summoned it into existence in 1791, the Louvre in Paris marked a clear break from the past. The Louvre smashed apart the old tradition of cabinets of curiosities and of princely collections, which served primarily to dazzle visitors, glorify the monarchs who owned them, and solidify their claims to rule. The Louvre, by contrast, laid out paintings and sculptures in a procession of art-historical schools, each of which expressed a national or cultural “genius”, and addressed visitors not as aristocratic connoisseurs but as citizens. The museum sought to serve a public that, however shadowed by the spectre of the nation, was imagined in the broadest terms.
Without this clear relationship between art and society, the museums on Saadiyat Island turn back the clock. They may adopt sophisticated museographic practices and cherry-pick from the latest trends in cultural theory, but their main aim is to dazzle and awe, to plump the reputation of Abu Dhabi and its rulers. Western museums have been only too happy to abet this project and lap up the largesse of the Gulf. For the Etihad-pampered visitors to Saadiyat Island, the effect of touring its galleries will be much like that of seeing the royal collections of the 17th and 18th centuries. All the wonders they encounter within will be refracted through the inescapable power of the king.Kanishk Tharoor
Fascinating insight into a massive cultural project laden with controversies, from the role of art in society to the exploitation of foreign workers for the Gulf’s construction work. Despite travelling extensively to Paris in the past years, I have yet to visit the original Louvre – I always seemed to find something better to do than waiting for hours in line for entry. But if I will get there eventually, I would feel obligated to visit its Middle East counterpart as well, which should open by the end of the year.
Announcing its deal with Abu Dhabi in 2007, the Louvre justified the move by pointing to the city’s historical and modern cosmopolitanism. A statement on the Louvre website claims that the museum’s “universal approach suits Abu Dhabi well, reflecting the city’s position at the crossroads of east and west, and its vital ancient role in the days of the Silk Route”. This is a rather bald exaggeration. While the wider Gulf region has always sat on the trade routes of the Indian Ocean, Abu Dhabi itself did not exist in any form until 1791, when the nomadic Bani Yas tribe pitched their tents around a spring. As many writers have noted, Abu Dhabi is itself only as old as the Louvre Museum. In 1791, just as the Bani Yas Bedouin were setting down, the revolutionary National Assembly in Paris decreed that the royal palace should become a public gallery, which opened two years later, at the height of the Reign of Terror.