With Louvre Abu Dhabi, France displays new vision for global influence

The grand opening of the French-branded museum in the midst of the Arab world allows France to retain a presence internationally through cultural means, even as its political and military influence ebbs.

Satish Kumar/Reuters
Culture and tourism officials walk through the new Louvre Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates Nov. 6. It was designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Jean Nouvel.

The latticed dome, nearly 600 feet in diameter and comprised of 8,000 metal stars that weigh together the same as the Eiffel Tower, plays with Gulf sunlight to form a “rain of light” – the signature of what is being touted as the most ambitious museum project of the 21st century.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi, perched on Saadiyat Island overlooking the sea, opens to the public on Saturday, bringing the most recognized museum name in the world to the United Arab Emirates. And by lending its most valuable brand, not to mention its know-how, to the project, the French are also wielding power that’s been on the wane on the world stage but remains impregnable when it comes to cultural patrimony.

Of all of the Western investments in the UAE, from museums to universities, the Louvre's vision is the most spectacular, says Martin Kemp, a professor emeritus of art history at the University of Oxford. “It’s a particularly French vision,” he says on the phone from Abu Dhabi. “France as an operator on a world scale, obviously it is less financially and politically than it used to be, but in a way it can still do that culturally.”

Kamran Jebreili/AP
Boat lights are reflected on the water in front of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on Nov. 6. The Louvre Abu Dhabi, which opens on Saturday to the public, encompasses work from both the East and West.

Ten years in the making, the Louvre Abu Dhabi is no replica of the 18th-century institution born during the French Revolution. The play of light and shadow under the dome gives the visitor the feel of being in a souk, of being in a grove of palm trees found in the oases of the UAE, says Jean Nouvel, the famed French architect who designed the building.

It is the first “universal museum” in the Arab world and bears testament to the capital's “golden age,” says Mr. Nouvel. It’s been billed as a bridge between East and West, reiterated by French President Emmanuel Macron, who attended the museum’s inauguration Wednesday evening.

The more than $1.2 billion deal was signed back in 2007 under then-President Jacques Chirac. It designated $525 million for the use of the “Louvre” title over the next 30 years and $750 million for French experts to oversee 300 loaned works of art from 13 leading museums. Visitors Saturday will be able to view Leonardo da Vinci’s La Belle Ferronnière, on loan from the Louvre, or Vincent van Gogh’s self-portrait, formerly housed at the Musee D’Orsay and Musée de l'Orangerie.

Tristram Hunt, director of Britain's Victoria and Albert Museum, commended France’s assertion of soft power, contrasting it with the introversion of Britain in the post-Brexit era. “While Napoleon’s invasion was hard power,” he wrote in the Guardian, referring to the military leader’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 to spread Enlightenment ideals, “Macron’s visit is all about the long-term insinuation of soft power. Yet it signals a hard truth: if Brexit Britain is going to find its feet as a global player, we need to be thinking about similarly ambitious displays of cultural bravado.”

The deal kicked up a storm of criticism in France. There were those who objected to the Louvre and other institutions arguably selling their souls for petrodollars. “The idea of selling or renting the Louvre brand abroad posed one problem,” says Laurent Martin, a professor of the history of cultural policy in France and Europe at the Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3. “To do so with a country that does not respect the values of liberal democratic societies of Europe posed another.”

One of the more concrete controversies to arise during the 10-year project was the abuse of migrant workers constructing the site, called out by Human Rights Watch – not exactly the stuff of les droits de l'homme (human rights), declared in France in 1789, four years before the Louvre opened to the public.

But none of this was on the agenda as the museum was inaugurated in the presence of kings and other rulers. Mr. Macron called it a showcase, as a “bridge between civilizations,” of “beauty of the whole world.”

Nouvel, a Pritzker Prize winner who met with the Anglo-American Press Association in Paris in September, told the group he sees the museum as a “testimony of this golden age, as was done in every city of the world in the past.” It was built not for decades but for centuries to come: “It is like a cathedral in this epoch, it’s exactly the same thing.”

“An architect who is ambitious is not ambitious for himself but because the project is so important,” he said. “The ambition is the real will to leave the best testimony of the epoch.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to With Louvre Abu Dhabi, France displays new vision for global influence
Read this article in
https://www.csmonitor.com/World/Europe/2017/1110/With-Louvre-Abu-Dhabi-France-displays-new-vision-for-global-influence
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today
https://www.csmonitor.com/subscribe