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The Power of the Louvre Abu Dhabi

Can the museum tell a new story about art—and reshape the Gulf's image?

Marc Domage / Louvre Abu Dhabi

From the outside, the Louvre Abu Dhabi announces grand ambitions. Jean Nouvel’s design for the museum is intricately otherworldly. Its domed roof, crisscrossed with a geometric pattern, hovers above the 55 rooms that house the art. Built at the water’s edge, the museum seems to float on the sea like a saucer that has just landed. Inside, the collections tell a global history of art, assembling paintings, sculptures, and artifacts from all over the world, and arranging them around themes like early man or the rise of world religions. All over Abu Dhabi, along its highways and in its airport, bold advertisements for the museum proclaim that visitors will “see humanity in a new light.” 

The museum, which opened in November, fits with a wider cultural movement in the Gulf. Over the past decade, the region has begun a sort of cultural arms race, one that counters its image as a wealthy desert with little culture or history. I.M. Pei’s Museum of Islamic Art opened in 2008 in Doha, and when it is completed in a year or so, Jean Nouvel’s desert-rose design for the National Museum of Qatar may even surpass his vision for the Louvre. The Sheikh Zayed Mosque’s bulbous domes and gilded interiors have made it a destination for tourists since its opening in 2007, as have Dubai’s Burj Khalifa (currently the world’s tallest building), the Emirates Palace Hotel (where coffee is served with gold shavings), the “seven-star” Burj Al-Arab Hotel, and the region’s beacons of capitalism: the Dubai, Ibn Battuta, and Villagio malls. 

These projects are often questioned on two counts. The first count is artistic: Can they tell an authentic, original story about history and culture? New cultural institutions in the Gulf are often criticized as imitations or mere outposts of Western museums. And indeed many of the these new projects are being developed in partnership with Western organizations. In Abu Dhabi alone, there are now campuses of NYU and the Sorbonne, a hospital run by the Cleveland Clinic, innumerable KFCs and Pizza Huts, the French grocery chain Carrefour, and now the Louvre. “Everything is imported here,” is a complaint I heard any number of times during my stay in Abu Dhabi last month, even from people who have lived there for decades. So long as Western institutions continue to dot its landscape, the country’s own history will likely continue to be discounted or ignored. 

The new Louvre Abu Dhabi building, photographed from the sea.
Roland Halbe / Louvre Abu Dhabi

The second type of criticism is political. Does the sheen of these new institutions serve as a cover for the region’s deep economic and political inequalities? Funding for the Louvre Abu Dhabi has been linked to the sale of arms, and critics have observed a disparity between the global elites this museum covets as an audience and the migrant laborers who constructed it. Does it portray humanity in a new light, or does it obscure reality for many in the modern Gulf? 

The Louvre Abu Dhabi’s success will depend at least in part on whether its narrative about art is convincing. Its leadership has made a concerted effort to control this story very carefully: The art galleries do not have an open floor plan. Instead, visitors must follow the official path of the exhibition in order, from chapter one (“The First Villages”) to chapter two (“The First Great Powers”) up until chapter twelve (“A Global Stage”), where they can then exit. Humanity, the exhibition seems to argue, is essentially cosmopolitan; the cultures of the world have always mixed, progressing smoothly toward the great melting pot of globalization. When, during a visit to the museum last month, I tried to stray from the show’s prescribed path, a guard stepped in and gestured towards my next official location. 

The Louvre Abu Dhabi is also working with a fairly limited range of artifacts. In its inaugural show, the museum displays 600 objects. Three hundred are owned by the museum, and three hundred are loans from French museums, including the Louvre in Paris. (In 2007, the U.A.E. agreed to pay France $1 billion for loans of art and the Louvre name for 30 years. Jacques Chirac hailed the deal as a way to bridge cultures, though the French art cognoscenti were barely able to hold their noses.) To put its 600-artwork collection in context, 35,000 paintings are currently on display at the Louvre in Paris. The quality of the art is, of course, world-class—and there is, mercifully, no Mona Lisa-esque painting that visitors will jostle in front of, just to take a picture.

The museum’s thematic approach to art history has a few kinks to work out. Sometimes it’s too easy to see universals in human history: Three pots from three different civilizations, sitting next to each other, are supposed to demonstrate our “shared humanity.” The same goes for displays of early currencies, jugs, and sculpture. “Heads,” a French tourist said to her daughter as they walked by a few ancient Roman busts. “Lots of heads.” Indeed. These early chapters seem primarily concerned with pointing out that different civilizations—Greek, Chinese, Egyptian—used similar coins or buried their dead in similar fashion. Too often, the museum guide or wall text fails to provide any details about the local context for these objects—any acknowledgement of the specificity of the cultures that produced them—and instead falls back on the notion that no matter where we come from, we’re all the same. 

When the exhibits present thoughtful detail, however, they succeed. For instance, in the room titled “Challenging Modernity,” paintings by Josef Albers, Mark Rothko, and Sayed Haider Raza are displayed side by side. The paintings—gray, orange, and black-brown blocks of color—share a formal grammar and seem to converse. Their harmony is striking, even to the viewer who has been to a Rothko room before but is unfamiliar with Raza, the Indian painter trained in France. The sequence of these paintings also does the critical work of art history, allowing viewers to trace a chain of artistic influence from Germany to the United States to India over the twentieth century—just by looking left to right.    

It’s moments like this that show the museum’s promise. And the project’s long term success has two more factors in its favor. One is location. Gulf airlines have fashioned the U.A.E. into one of the world’s busiest travel hubs. In 2016, Dubai attracted the third highest number of international overnight visitors in the world, behind only London and Paris (and ahead of New York). It’s not hard to imagine the museum drawing the kind of traveler who might stop in the Gulf for a day before hopping on a connecting flight on Emirates or Etihad. A second is that in 2037, the museum will lose the “Louvre” from its name, and will have a chance to choose its own distinct identity.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi is a testament to the U.A.E.’s growing cultural power as a center of globalized capital. It tells a story about our shared humanity, the culture we can all share in a world linked by globalization. It has won tempered praise, too, for its efforts to lift “the universal museum from its bedrock of western privilege.” But it doesn’t tell us about the realities of globalization for many of the people who work in the U.A.E., including those who have worked on the construction of big, statement projects like the museum. 

As Human Rights Watch and The Guardian have reported, some workers on construction sites in the U.A.E. enter the country, having already paid recruiting fees that can reach the thousands of dollars, only to find themselves sleeping in close quarters and living in squalid conditions. There is often no recourse to complain, either, as some employers seize the passports of their laborers. “We built the United Arab Emirates,” an Indian laborer, who was deported from the U.A.E. after participating in a strike, told The New Yorker last year. The Emirati government rarely addresses criticisms of its migrant labor policy directly. After the Louvre’s preview day on November 8, however, The National, the U.A.E.’s government-owned newspaper, announced that the museum had won over its toughest critics in the Western media, reprinting selected praise from reviews in The New York Times and The Guardian.

Fiction writers have paid more attention to the country’s inequalities. Temporary People, a recent novel by Deepak Unnikrishnan, dares to expose the inequalities in relationships between Emiratis and the South Asian diaspora that vastly outnumbers them. (Unnikrishnan teaches creative writing at NYU Abu Dhabi, but I could not find his novel in the university bookstore.) The Indian novelist Benyamin’s 2008 book Goat Days is a lightly fictionalized account of a Keralan migrant worker’s enslavement in Saudi Arabia. Kerala has sent almost a million laborers to the Gulf. Though these are not realities you will see at the Louvre Abu Dhabi—at least not in its exhibits—they are undeniably part of the experience of visiting. 

A day before I was set to leave, I had an urge to see the museum once more. As I walked in, I saw four South Asian laborers on a boat in one of the museum’s pools. They were scrubbing the space between two of the building’s white walls. The boat was small, though powered by twin, 200-horsepower Yamaha engines attached to the stern. As a small wave of people began to enter the museum, a man stopped to take a photo.