November 2017 will witness the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, a massive structure designed by French architect Jean Nouvel. The museum represents a milestone in the vision of His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, who led the commissions to build a network of global projects in Abu Dhabi that also include branches of the Sorbonne, New York University and Cleveland Clinic.
Louvre Abu Dhabi is significant for a number of reasons. At the outset, it is the very first universal museum in the Arab world, displaying an expansive array of human cultural production from Africa, to Asia, Europe and the Americas. This allows visitors to gain a better understanding of human creativity throughout the ages. Louvre Abu Dhabi will act as a conduit not only for the Middle East to learn from western best practices, but will also channel Middle Eastern and “global south” best practices and knowledge to the West. There are just as many lessons we can teach as there are to learn from the world, and that is the opportunity that Louvre Abu Dhabi will hopefully present.
What the Louvre Abu Dhabi will also do is to present Arab and regional art in a historical context since the museum is designed in a chronological order of displays. The question of what constitutes art and culture has for centuries been based on Eurocentric ideas of beauty and aesthetics. After all, an appreciation of regional cultures, aesthetics and artistic traditions are essential to understand the world we live in. These include Quranic manuscripts and modern Arabic Hurufism art, tent making, dhow building, and a wide selection of artefacts and adornments that are currently on display at the Lest We Forget exhibition at Warehouse 421 including jewellery, daggers, burkas and traditional garments worn by Emirati women and men.
One of the most anticipated by-products of Louvre Abu Dhabi will be the seminars, talks and conferences that it is expected to host throughout the year. The Agence France-Museums network, that oversees the Louvre in Paris, includes an array of scholars and researchers who can share their knowledge about the global artefacts in the possession of the museum and elsewhere. The Louvre Abu Dhabi resident experts will also be able to assist regional countries in their plans to develop their own institutions and collections. It will also give a boost to publishing of artistic books that are produced in the Arab world and will lessen the need to depend on western-based expertise and research can be conducted at least partly in the UAE.
The new museum can also play a role in identifying looted regional items and storing them until they are ready to be repatriated to their respective country of origin. Sadly, across the Middle East and as a result of the numerous conflicts this is a recurrent matter that needs all the resources we can spare.
The opening of the museum is also a reminder of the importance that Abu Dhabi ascribes to soft power at a time of increasing regional manifestations of military strength.
Louvre Abu Dhabi will, unlike many regional museums, have a website that will include details on its collections and various information about the works. Surprisingly, in this day and age, few museums in the Arab world have invested in creating a website that can offer in-depth information and an extensive online browsing experience of their collections, not to mention the use of audio guides and smart screen displays within their facilities. Additionally, Louvre Abu Dhabi will benefit from the possibility of loaning works from its sister museums in France, which include some of the world’s most prized global artefacts giving citizens, residents and tourists in the UAE the chance to view them in a less hectic environment.
Although I am a fan of home-grown brands, the most important aspect of Louvre Abu Dhabi is that there will be a collection that Abu Dhabi owns outright. This is not a dwindling natural resource or a stock market investment that may crash or disappear in the next crisis. In fact, these artistic and historical items from paintings to sculpture can only go up in value due to the fact that so few of them exist in the open market. A few decades from now, building an equivalent collection of what Louvre Abu Dhabi has amassed will be prohibitively expensive — if it were possible at all. To a significant degree the opening of Louvre Abu Dhabi will mark a seismic shift of the global museum network towards the south. No longer will the Northern Hemisphere dominate what of human heritage can be seen, researched and displayed.
This article originally appeared in Gulf News on October 28, 2017.