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Unlocking the potential of the Louvre Abu Dhabi

Glistening above the calm waters of the Gulf stands an enormous dome of overlapping geometric lattices weighing more than 7,500 tons: The Louvre Abu Dhabi. An artwork in itself, Jean Nouvel’s spectacular structure opened to great fanfare last week as the world’s largest art museum came to the Arab world. Its great scale is humbling, in what is arguably one of the most positive feats of the region’s economic success.
More than 600 priceless artifacts are on show in four wings: Ancient World, Medieval Time, First Globalization and Modern Time. In a concerted effort to celebrate the shared history of humanity, a bronze incarnation of the ancient Egyptian deity Isis is accompanied by a 14th-century virgin and child alongside Buddhist structures. With such pieces, the Louvre Abu Dhabi makes a bold statement about the similarities of the human story.
Abu Dhabi’s billion-dollar art collection is by all means impressive, but should it act as a unifying cultural force and bastion of soft power, its positive long-term impact will be unquantifiable.
A folio from the highly coveted Blue Qur’an draws the attention of visitors, who are invited to see the parallels with a blue scroll from the Torah in the same display case. The fascinating juxtaposition is designed to drill home the message of tolerance to visitors, who will undoubtedly leave in a state of self-reflection.
Contemporary Middle Eastern art is growing in popularity both in the region and worldwide. At the recent Islamic Art Week in London, more than 50 percent of some sales were of contemporary works. Several of these are on exhibit in Abu Dhabi, in an eclectic modern collection that includes renowned works by Picasso and Ai Weiwe. This naturally leads to questions regarding what the museum may hope to exhibit going forward. 
Of the 920 objets d’art on display, 300 are on loan, which alongside the considerable space on offer suggests that the museum will continue to collect pieces to display. It would be prudent for the Louvre Abu Dhabi to continue to augment the artifacts displayed under the 12 chapters, each telling a story of a particular phase in human history. To gradually become a store of contemporary items would compromise the museum’s more important educational role of bringing historic items to the region.
The Arab world has long suffered the effects of narrowed thought regarding artistic space, and the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s confidence to widen previously held conceptions is commendable. Early Islamic civilization was spurred on by a cultural confidence that allowed it to thrive.
The House of Translation in Toledo, Spain, and the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, were intellectual sanctuaries that allowed for the cross-fertilization of the very ideas upon which the advances of modernity are built. In seeking to both collect and celebrate pieces central to the history of humanity, the Louvre Abu Dhabi is reclaiming a culture of tolerance and intellectual rigor that the post-colonial Arab world has lacked.

In seeking to both collect and celebrate pieces central to the history of humanity, the Louvre Abu Dhabi is reclaiming a culture of tolerance and intellectual rigor that the post-colonial Arab world has lacked.

Zaid M. Belbagi

The choice of architecture reflects this purpose; the 8,000 interlocked arabesque stars of the spectacular dome illustrate a confidence in Islamic design and its heritage. Chapter 5 of the collection traces the cultural significance of the old Silk Road, and the role of 7th- and 8th-century Islamic civilization as an economic and artistic crossroads between Asia, Europe and Africa.
The display of beautiful artifacts from Afghanistan, and stunning pieces of inscribed masonry from Saudi Arabia, provide a platform for hitherto unknown artistic legacy from the Islamic world.
The show-stopping statue of King Ramses II, and Louis David’s magnificent portrait of Napoleon crossing the Alps, hold pride of place in the museum, displaying the necessity of housing memorable pieces to attract visitors, as well as the attention of the international artistic community.
It is imperative that the Louvre Abu Dhabi continues to attract leading exhibitors from around the world, so as to identify itself as the foremost regional platform for celebrated works of art alongside rare artifacts. The museum already has plans to host four temporary exhibitions each year, and they will be a great opportunity to make sure its collection stays relevant and appealing.
The stern look of Van Gogh’s 1889 self-portrait that hangs at eye-level is a reminder to discerning visitors of the need to make sure the museum is able to protect the treasures under its roof. For such a prize to be so accessible to the rough and tumble of passing crowds and inquisitive schoolchildren is of some concern, but will no doubt be remedied with increased footfall.
At a time of great tension in France earlier this year, King Mohammed VI of Morocco opened his private archive of manuscripts for the first time at an exhibition hosted at the L’Institut du Monde Arabe. The exhibit illustrated the tolerance and protection that successive Moroccan sultans accorded different faith groups, and went some way to deliver a message of peace to a Parisian society that had been rocked by terror. 
In a similar vein, as a permanent institution the Louvre Abu Dhabi must continue to build on its founding vision to celebrate cross-civilizational understanding through history and art. Given regional circumstances, a cultural project of such a scale will always be politicized, so the Louvre Abu Dhabi must fiercely guard its new mantle as a bastion of peace.
• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid