By Sylvia Smith with photographs by Richard Duebel
The architect is a Frenchman, Jean Nouvel, known for having designed the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, France and the soon-to-open National Museum of Qatar; the setting is Sadiyaat Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates and inside are masterpieces from many countries including China, Nigeria, Israel, and of course France, which has lent its name and hundreds of objects to an unparalleled project.
No longer a project, the Louvre Abu Dhabi opened its doors two weeks ago and stunned visitors with its extraordinary lightness – illumination from above as light filters in through its honeycomb roof as well as the lightness with which it wears the monumental task of reshaping the way history is presented in major institutions.
Jean-Francois Charnier, Scientific Director of Agence France-Muséums, who is responsible for selecting and presenting the objects, displays remarkable sang-froid when he says, “everything is done to ensure that the visitors’ encounters with works of art give rise to emotions and questions.” He steers away from the received methods of separating each civilisation opting instead for cross-referencing, creating his own categories and sections of history.
In the Louvre, back in his native France, objects are presented according to a Western perspective. Not here. In engaging with a multi-cultural audience, a non-hierarchical approach allows the diverse audience to compare and contrast different cultures each once presented on an equal footing.
Chrissa Amuah, a Ghanaian visiting from London stops and looks at the commemorative head of an Oba King from Nigeria , 1800 -50. “This museum is game changing,” she comments. “We can see the similarities between cultural objects from widely diverse countries across different epochs. The West can no longer manipulate the past to serve its own purposes.”
Challenging the accepted approach, the Louvre Abu Dhabi is creating new norms tackling head-on the question of how to present world history to multi-cultural audiences with different backgrounds who question more. Jean-Francois Charnier places Sumerian priest-kings and the pharaohs of Egypt side-by-side commenting on “the remarkable similarities” between the two.
That might upset traditionalists but upsetting the established order is what is demanded with the West no longer holding the cultural upper hand. It makes sense to set masterpieces in new contexts with cultural tourism on the rise along with demands for a new way of understanding the evolution of our complex world.
This glorious building is at the forefront of technology and the objects are of the highest quality. With new challenges facing major museums, e.g. le Musee du Louvre in Paris will soon to welcome more visitors from China than any other single nation – the Louvre Abu Dhabi might just be showing the way forward.