Cracks in the Louvre Abu Dhabi

The museum has made its splash, but if it wants to be more than a work of starchitecture, it requires deeper collections and bolder curatorial vision.

I had wanted to visit the Louvre Abu Dhabi a day earlier, but the Alhosn app on my phone was not working. Do not underestimate the Alhosn app. It confirms that you do not have Covid, and to get around Abu Dhabi these days, you’ll need to flash it everywhere. Locals tell me you can outsmart the app—just don’t refresh it once it turns green. But for those less inclined to risk angering a cosmopolitan autocracy, a PCR test is required every two weeks. That would be a pain if the testing process weren’t so simple. Late June, on my first day in town, someone in a lab coat put something up my nose, and my results arrived a few hours later via a text message. Paris, Walter Benjamin wrote, was the capital of the nineteenth century. Maybe Abu Dhabi is the capital of the twenty-first.

The next day I passed Jacques Chirac Street and entered the museum in the morning. It was 115°F outside. In the museum lobby, a staff member snapped a photo for my membership card, and I repeated a familiar ritual of pandemic-era air travel, removing my thin mask, half grimacing, half smiling, so a tiny camera could authenticate me.

My membership card would have to wait. In an institution that has cost over $1 billion—for the artwork, the naming rights to the Louvre, and its extravagant dome—the laminator was not working. Its malfunction, which drew the attention of multiple employees, struck me as comic, more akin to something that would happen at the DMV. Days later, I got my card. “We were waiting for you,” an employee said. But by then, I wondered if this incident was a sign of greater decay.

The museum has made its splash, but if it wants to be more than a work of starchitecture, it requires deeper collections and bolder curatorial vision.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi turns five this November. The Emirates, as they exist now, are not much older. Almost none of the iconic buildings associated with Abu Dhabi and Dubai—the Burj Khalifa, Saadiyat Island, the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, and now the Louvre—even existed in the year 2000. For this reason, the U. A. E., like other Gulf states, is often said to lack history. But that, too, is a canard. Prior to the discovery of oil in the 1960s, a patchwork of sheikhdoms (Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ras al-Khaima, Sharjah, and Umm al-Quwain) formed a British protectorate known as the Trucial States. They became the U. A. E. in 1971.

A half-century later, politicians and art critics alike have deemed the Louvre Abu Dhabi a cultural crossroads, a cosmopolitan hub between “East” and “West,” and a harbinger of our new multipolar world order. But while the museum drew two million visitors in its first two years, scandals have cracked its luminous dome. The museum, for starters, was built by the hands of exploited migrant laborers. And more recently, reports emerged that its “King Tut” stele was illegally smuggled out of Egypt. Former curator Jean-Luc Martinez, charged as an accomplice to fraud, maintains he was duped.

Other problems are subtler, but no less serious. The Louvre Abu Dhabi is a universal museum. And in an age of overspecialization—of separate wings for European, Islamic, and American art—its willingness to marry different cultures under shared themes is genuinely laudable. But its twelve-chapter “story of humanity,” which ranges all the way from “the earliest villages” to modern and contemporary art, faithfully obeys the logic of progress. Universalist philosophies of history exploited that logic of progress to rank different nations on a ladder: European cultures were said to be further along than non-European ones in the race to modernity. In Chapter 11, the wall text acknowledges this critique: “During the 1900s, notions of modernity and progress spread by the industrial revolution were called into question. Two world wars caused a redistribution of global dynamics as instances of decolonization challenged a number of certainties.” But despite this acknowledgement, the museum’s chapter-to-chapter linear progression actually maintains that ladder of progress. Oddly, it gives the impression that all cultures are walking up it, step by step, together. Thus, in each chapter, most global cultures are said to have achieved the same thing, more or less, at the same time. Thus universal religions spread across the globe in tandem in Chapter 4: “Beginning around 2000 years ago, the spread of universal religions succeeded in reaching most of the civilized areas of Europe, Asia and Africa in just a few centuries.” Those last five words from the catalogue cannot be glossed over: in a given chapter, the dates of the objects vary by hundreds of years, their coherence coming undone.

chafed at the museum’s restrictions on the movement, and the imagination, of its visitors when it opened, and I’ll repeat my complaint now. Let us roam free! Get rid of the chapters! Make the museum a cabinet of curiosities! A visitor ought to be able to deviate from the script, wandering from wing to wing, zig-zagging instead of following a predestined path. After all, the historical arc of the United Arab Emirates has been anything but linear. It has followed a history not of steady progress but of unexpected leaps and eddies. Why enforce a historical narrative that denies that fact? In a small act of resistance, after following the museum’s obligatory twelve-chapter story, I turned around and walked through the galleries in reverse.

Then again, I understand where the curators are coming from: hewing to chronology makes teaching easier, for one. And as Robert Worth put it in The New York Times Magazine, “M. B. Z.’s main goal for the museum, one of his advisers told me, was to educate the local population, not attract tourists.” That aim clarified the most surprising thing I heard on the museum’s first day of existence in 2017: “Who has been to a museum before?” our tour guide cheerily asked.

Yet chronological history is only half the story. Museums tell not just the history of art, but the history of history. The Louvre Abu Dhabi excels in the first category, but, like most museums, shirks from the second. The curators should go for it. They have all the resources in the world, and the stakes of historical consciousness could not be higher: “Who controls the past controls the present,” Orwell tells us. Why not clue visitors into how they are telling the “story of humanity” — or, better yet, let them follow alternative paths through the history of art? There is plenty of space beneath the dome.


The World the Gulf Has Built

By Deen Sharp

On my last day in town, I walked through the galleries again and stretched out in the café. The museum seemed to be in homeostasis. What had changed in five years since I sat down in this very same café? Not much, I thought to myself, as I took off my mask and twirled the contents of a parfait. Many paintings stand exactly where they stood on day one, and the museum’s philosophy has not really evolved. The past has not changed in five years, to be fair, but our frameworks with which to interpret it have. The museum has made its splash, but if it wants to be more than a work of starchitecture, it requires deeper collections and bolder curatorial vision. Also, maybe some community outreach. None of the locals I met in Abu Dhabi had ever stepped inside.


This article was commissioned by Abigail Struhlicon

Louvre Abu Dhabi, photograph by Jussi Toivanen / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)