I Wanted to visit Louvre Abu Dhabi the day before but the Alhosn app on my phone didn’t work. Don’t underestimate the Alhosn app. It confirms you are Covid free and to get around Abu Dhabi these days you need to show it everywhere. Locals tell me you can outsmart the app – just don’t refresh it after it turns green. But for those less willing to risk the wrath of a cosmopolitan dictator, a fortnightly PCR test is required. It would be a pain if the testing process wasn’t that simple. On my first day in town in late June, a guy in a lab coat put something on my nose, and my results arrived by text a few hours later. Walter Benjamin wrote that Paris was the capital of the 19th century. Perhaps Abu Dhabi is the capital of the twenty-first century.
Passing Jacques Chirac Street the next morning to enter the museum. It was 115°F outside. In the museum lobby, a staff member snapped a photo for my membership card, and I repeated the familiar ritual of pandemic-era air travel, removing my thin mask, half grimacing, half smiling, such a A tiny camera can verify my identity.
My loyalty card has to wait. In an institution costing more than $1 billion — for the artwork, the naming rights to the Louvre and its extravagant dome — the laminator wasn’t working. Its glitches, which got the attention of multiple employees, struck me as comical, more like something that happened at the DMV. A few days later, I got my card. “We’re waiting for you,” one employee said. But by then, I wondered if the incident was a sign of something more serious rot.
The museum has created a buzz, but it needs a deeper collection and a bolder curatorial vision if it is to be more than just a star building.
This November, Louvre Abu Dhabi celebrates its fifth birthday. The emirates that exist now are not much older. The landmarks associated with Abu Dhabi and Dubai — the Burj Khalifa, Saadiyat Island, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, and now the Louvre — barely existed in 2000. Thus, the UAE, like other Gulf states, is often said to lack history. But this is also a rumor. Prior to the discovery of oil in the 1960s, several emirates (Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ras Al Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm Al Quwain) formed a British protectorate known as the Nation of Trusill. They became the United Arab Emirates in 1971.
Half a century later, politicians and art critics alike see Louvre Abu Dhabi as a cultural crossroads, a cosmopolitan hub between ‘East’ and ‘West’, and a harbinger of our new multipolar world order. But while the museum attracted 2 million visitors in its first two years, scandal has cracked its glowing dome. First, the museum was built by the hands of exploited migrant workers. Recently, there have been reports that its “King Tutankhamun” stele was illegally smuggled out of Egypt. Former curator Jean-Luc Martinez, accused of being an accomplice to the fraud, insists he was duped.
Other problems are more subtle, but no less serious. The Louvre Abu Dhabi is a universal museum. In an age of over-specialization—European art, Islamic art, and American art in their own right—its willingness to unite different cultures under common themes is indeed commendable. But its twelve-chapter “Human Story,” which stretches from “the earliest villages” to modern and contemporary art, faithfully follows the logic of progress. Universalist philosophy of history exploits this logic of progress to rank different nations on the ladder: European cultures are said to be further along in the race to modernity than non-European cultures. In Chapter 11, the writing on the wall acknowledges this critique: “During the 1900s, the notions of modernity and progress propagated by the Industrial Revolution were called into question. The two world wars led to a redistribution of global dynamics as instances of decolonization Many certainties are challenged.” But despite acknowledging this, the museum’s linear progression between chapters actually maintains a ladder of progress. Oddly enough, it gives the impression that all cultures are moving upwards together, step by step. Thus, in each chapter, most global cultures are said to have achieved the same more or less simultaneously. Thus, in Chapter 4, the simultaneous global spread of universal religion: “Starting about 2,000 years ago, the spread of universal religion managed to reach most of the civilized areas of Europe, Asia, and Africa in just a few centuries .” The last five words in the table of contents cannot be concealed: in a given chapter, the dates of the objects vary by hundreds of years, their coherence is broken.
I angry Museums limit the movement and imagination of visitors when they are open, and I will now repeat my complaint. Let’s run free! Get rid of chapters! Let the museum become a treasure cabinet! Visitors should be able to deviate from the script, going from wing to wing, zigzagging rather than following a predetermined path. After all, the arc of history in the United Arab Emirates is by no means linear. The history it follows is not one of steady progress but of unexpected leaps and eddies. Why enforce a historical narrative that denies this fact? In a small act of resistance, after reading the museum’s twelve chapters, I turned and walked backwards through the galleries.
Again, I understand the curator’s starting point: insisting on chronological order makes teaching easier, on the one hand.as robert wirth puts it new york times magazine“A consultant at MBZ told me that the main goal of the museum is to educate local residents, not to attract tourists.” This goal clarified the most surprising thing I heard on the museum’s first day in 2017: “Who Been to a museum before?” our guide asked cheerfully.
However, chronological history is only half the story. Museums don’t just tell art history, they tell history. Louvre Abu Dhabi performed well in the first category, but like most museums, it shied away from the second. Curators should do it. They have all the resources in the world, and the stakes for historical awareness couldn’t be higher: “He who controls the past controls the present,” Orwell tells us. Why not let visitors know how they’re telling “the human story”—or, better yet, let them walk down different paths in art history? There is plenty of space under the dome.
On my last day in town, I walked through the galleries again and stretched out in a cafe. Museums appear to be in a steady state. What has changed in the five years since I sat in the same cafe? Not much, I thought to myself, swirling the contents of the parfait as I took off the mask. Many of the paintings stood intact from day one, and the idea of the museum didn’t really develop. To be fair, nothing has changed over the past five years, but the framework we use to explain it has. The museum has created a buzz, but it needs a deeper collection and a bolder curatorial vision if it is to be more than just a star building. Also, maybe some community outreach. None of the locals I met in Abu Dhabi ever went in.
This article is commissioned Abigail Struer.
Louvre Abu Dhabi, photo by Jussi Toivanen / Flickr (CC-NC 2.0)