Louvre Abu Dhabi: A Convergence of Ideologies
by Stephanie Ackland
The expansion of the renowned Louvre to the Middle East was an initially unexpected, yet exciting move, that was announced just over a decade ago. On the 11th November 2017 their efforts came to fruition and the grand opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi was unveiled to the world. Designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, the contemporary building houses an extensive collection that ranges from pre-historic artefacts to contemporary artworks. The way in which the Louvre Abu Dhabi have presented their collection tells the story of humanity by taking the audience through a chronological journey through history. Starting with Gallery 1: “The First Villages” and concluding with Gallery 12: “A Global Stage”, the Louvre Abu Dhabi presents artworks from an array of cultures and unifies them under the one roof to tell as complete of a story as possible. The presentation of the artwork in a chronological fashion could be critiqued as being simplistic or over done however the chronological approach makes sense as this is the first major art museum in the UAE. Consequently, presenting the collection in this sequential manner reflects this metaphorical ‘beginning’. As the Louvre Abu Dhabi is their first major cultural institution, starting from the beginning and exploring all of these different ideas and stories enables the Abu Dhabi Louvre to cement its place as a symbol of cultural relevance in our globalised world.
For some brief context I grew up in the UAE for the vast majority of my life and have witnessed first-hand the country’s position on religions. It would have been a challenge to purchase religious iconography of any religion that was not Islam over a decade ago. It is only in more recent years that purchasing anything representative of other religions such as Christianity or Buddhism have been possible. When I was a child my mum wasn’t able to buy a children’s Bible as they weren’t allowed to be sold in the country. They have now been made readily available in most book stores but only in recent years. In regards to the general arts culture in Abu Dhabi, it has only been present since the creation of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture & Heritage (ADACH) in 2006.(1) Since this time a number of galleries and museums have been opened, along with the first artist community to be established in the UAE in 2012.(2) Since these key developments the presence of exhibitions, galleries, museums and festivals has increased substantially with internationally renowned events and destinations such as the Abu Dhabi Festival, Warehouse 421, and the Abu Dhabi International Dance Festival to name a select few. From the perspective of someone who has viewed the UAE as their home for over the past decade, seeing Abu Dhabi grow and modernise its culture with developments such as the Louvre Abu Dhabi, a museum that has dedicated itself to displaying and discussing significant artefacts from an array of religions was remarkable. A museum which celebrates human creativity that transcends culture or religion and encourages visitors to “see humanity in a new light” is an important monument that as many people as possible should see.
A Gallery which particularly resonated with me was a separate subdivision within Gallery 4: “Universal Religions” labelled “Sacred Texts”. This gallery space contained pages from the Torah, The Quran, The Bible and a Sutra. Rather than simply telling the theological and historical story of the Middle East, the Louvre Abu Dhabi chose to become a universal museum and dedicated not just one gallery space in which these ideologies could be displayed and contemplated, but the entire museum. The joining together of these universal sacred texts is an incredibly significant move on behalf of the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Given the current socio-political climate of the world, the inclusion of these varying ideologies and presenting them on the same metaphysical level—none placed in a higher regard than the other—is a noteworthy event. Written on the wall of the space as you enter it says:
“By addressing their message to all humanity without distinction, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam transcended local cultural characteristics and deeply transformed ancient societies.”
The unification of these differing ideologies and acknowledging the cultural impacts each religion has had on society is a refreshing deed. These varying religions and cultures have found a common meeting point in the Louvre Abu Dhabi as it has become a point of intercultural convergence in an already multicultural society. Artworks and artefacts from across time and cultures have collided into the singular space and the presentation of artworks such as a statue of the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus Virgin and Child (c.1500) situated next to a Section from a Quran, Last Volume, Juz’ 30 (1250-1300) showcases this newfound inclusivity. An artwork which particularly stood out to me was a large stained glass window depicting Scenes from the life of St Nicasius (1200-1225). It was not just the stunning stained glass window which stood out but an informational plaque discussing divine light situated underneath it. The plaque reads:
“Light has been symbolically linked with spirituality since Antiquity. This universal metaphor is common to all the great religions and philosophies that associate light with revelation. In Islam, light is sanctified in the An-Nur Surah, and shining from mosque lamps, is a direct and impalpable expression of the divine. In Christian cathedrals, light flooding through the windows illuminates the congregation and represents divine radiance. In Asia, the founder of Buddhism is called by the sacred title of the Buddha, meaning “the Enlightened One” and rendered in statues made of gold, a tangible manifestation of his enlightened state.”
The work Scenes from the life of St Nicasius intentions of symbolising the radiance of the divine and filling the congregation with wonder is not dissimilar to the work next to it: a statue of Shô-Kannon, the bodhisattva of compassion, who is a venerated mediator between the divine and human worlds. Bodhisattva’s are beings who have reached enlightenment and encourage people to achieve this state. Both works represent their individual religions ideas around light, the divine, and being enlightened and the way in which the Louvre Abu Dhabi have presented these differing opinions with zero bias is admirable. The tagline of the museum is “See Humanity in a new Light” therefore this plaque discussing these common threads throughout history is a message the museum is clearly passionate about. The Louvre Abu Dhabi has found a common theme within each of these religions, and through this ‘universal metaphor’ they have united these differing ideologies. It’s a brilliant metaphor for what the Louvre Abu Dhabi has achieved in its curatorial approach by displaying religions and cultures from across history in a variety of themed gallery spaces. It creates the perfect atmosphere to start a dialogue with its visitors and sincerely encourages its visitors to “see Humanity in a new light” and think contextually not only about the artworks they are viewing but the cultural backgrounds of the individuals who made them.
What the Louvre Abu Dhabi has very successfully done here is combine these colliding ideas and ideologies from both the past and present into one intersection to tell a singular story of the world’s history. Understandably, not all of history could be represented in one singular museum, that is simply not possible. Nonetheless, with the limited resources they had available, they were able to respectfully display as accurate of a story as they could. For that their efforts must be commended and it is an exciting prospect what this newly established museum may accomplish in the future.
Zeynep Aygen, International Heritage and Historic Building Conservation: Saving the World’s Past (New York: Routledge, 2013), 144.
“Abu Dhabi Exhibitions,” AbuDhabi.com, https://www.abudhabi.com/v/exhibitions/