An Oasis in the Desert? Issues and Intricacies Concerning the Louvre-Abu Dhabi Museum Expansion

By Taylor L. Poulin
2010, Vol. 2 No. 02 | pg. 1/3 |

“You have created a Museum; carefully assemble here every masterpiece which the Republic [of France] already possesses…and the entire world will be eager to deposit its treasures, its singularities, its accomplishments; and the documents of its history: that [the Museum] be the archive of the world.”1

This statement was penned in 1793 by Comte François Antoine de Boissy d’Anglas to the museum commission in charge of filling the newly created Musée Central des Arts in Paris – the future Musée du Louvre. At the time it was terribly confident, but has become a quite accurate description of the museum. The Louvre does indeed contain objects from all over the world and from all stretches of time. Symbolically, it holds great cultural significance for the French, and, as supported by its very long history, owns a seminal position in representing the French national identity. However, recent developments have seen the Louvre taking steps toward national and international expansion, with the latter in particular putting this notion of a unique and intrinsic French identity in jeopardy. Within four years from now, two satellite museums will be created: the first in Lens, a small, industrial city north of Paris, and the second on Saadiyat Island, off the coast of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.

Indeed, the Louvre’s origin and early promoted the country’s newfound freedom, equality, and wealth, offering to the French people cultural knowledge as well as the ability to identify themselves as members of this powerful nation.

A satellite of the Louvre built on French soil is not a new concept,2 and thus the Lens museum project is fairly accepted. However, the French reception of the Abu Dhabi endeavor has been much more critical and understandably so, as the Louvre represents both a structure and collection that is deeply entrenched in French cultural and national identity. The argument in revolves around the motivations of Abu Dhabi in proposing this expansion and the resulting consequences for France. The following will explain the current situation involving France, Abu Dhabi and the Louvre from historical and theoretical perspectives, as well as current opinions of French detractors and Abu Dhabian supporters concerning this project. To these ends, I will begin by analyzing the history of the Louvre as well as a brief history of the early museum network in France, presenting how the museum has come into its role as a point of national identification for the French. Next I will illustrate the present issues concerning the agreement between the Louvre and Abu Dhabi, following this with a discussion of the Louvre-Abu Dhabi agreement. I will look to the power/knowledge relationship proposed by Michel Foucault to explain possible motivations and issues surrounding the project, as well as the postcolonial ideas of Homi Bhabha to explain how, in contrast with colonization of old, the new satellite may be creating a new type of colonization. To conclude, I will set the Louvre’s actions against those of the Guggenheim Museum in New York and the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, , to determine whether or not the Louvre should embrace a network of international satellites in the future as could be hypothesized by its involvement with Abu Dhabi.

The Musée Central des Arts opened its doors to the public on 10 August 1793.3 Built in 1190 under Philippe Auguste (1165-1223) to serve as a fortress against invading Normans, the structure known as the Palais du Louvre had served in some kind of royal or defensive capacity until the late eighteenth century. The move in 1793 toward an open display of what had formerly been a collection reserved for royals – built carefully by royal ancestors reaching back to François I (1515-1547) – was a bow to the victory of the French Revolutionaries, who had fought against the monarchy for an equal and fraternal society. In visiting the museum, the French citizen was to witness the glory of the country exhibited through the now nationally owned cultural treasures displayed there, and ultimately to understand himself “as a citizen of history’s most civilized and advanced nation-state.”4

Indeed, the Louvre’s origin and early development promoted the country’s newfound freedom, equality, and wealth, offering to the French people cultural knowledge as well as the ability to identify themselves as members of this powerful nation. The mission of the revolutionaries to open the Louvre to general admission was saturated with political undertones. The goal was twofold: to prove, in successfully opening the Louvre to the people, that this newly liberated governmental power was greater than any that had come before it, and to educate the people in a manner conducive to the Republican leanings of the government.5 Andrew McClellan explains the opinion of Revolutionary writer Armand Kersaint, author of Discours sur les monuments publics, on the effects the Louvre would have for the country as an open institution: “Completing the Louvre, [Kersaint] stated, would demonstrate that the new regime had accomplished ‘in several years what ten kings and fifty prodigal ministers had failed to do in several centuries.’”6 In addition, the government promoted national ownership of all the cultural treasures the Louvre contained. “The perception of collective ownership helped fashion…the ‘republican mold’ and to confer on the citizen ‘a national character and the demeanor of a free man.’ …At one and the same time, the museum symbolized the stability of the state and the triumph of the people.”7

The enormous exhibition mounted in the Louvre at its opening on 10 August – including over 661 objects, mostly paintings, sculpture and objets d’art8 – was an important statement about the glory of the arts in France and, in equal measure, about the ability of the government to provide these beautiful objects for the of the country. “Authority alone was not enough to direct a revolution: the citizenry had to be molded through direct and willing participation. The consent and participation of the people [in Revolutionary ideals] would be secured through a comprehensive system of public instruction….Man had to learn to be free; he had to be taught to reject his old values and to place his faith in the future of the Republic.”9 The Louvre and its contents were thus representations of the recently achieved national unity and a step toward fulfilling the Revolutionary desire to see France accept its new government. was no longer reserved for those in positions of authority, but was now accessible to the entire French public – upper and lower classes. This was made possible through the successes of the R and the government’s wish to see the whole country benefit from the knowledge to be had by it.

A few years after the Louvre was made accessible to the public, the work of one man enhanced tenfold the collection and reputation of the museum. Napoleon Bonaparte (emperor from 1804-1814/15) served France as a general before becoming one of the country’s most iconic leaders. As a general, he spent several years battling his way across Europe and Egypt, aiming to secure territory for his country. With an additional desire to see Paris as the cultural epitome of Europe, he sent loot, in the form of artwork, from his conquests back to the city to be displayed in the Louvre.10 However, feeling that the Louvre was beginning to overflow with the magnificent works Napoleon shipped back to Paris, then Ministor of Interior, J.A. Chaptal, sent a letter to the emperor: “It cannot be disputed that Paris must retain the greatest works in every category. …But the inhabitants of the provinces may also claim an inviolable share of the fruits of our conquests and the heritage of French artists.”11 Chaptal proposed the solution of creating museum outposts in the provinces, located in cities where “sufficient understanding already exists to afford them adequate appreciation.”12 The twelve cities that met Chaptal’s standards included Marseille, Dijon, Caen, Bordeaux, Brussels, Geneva, Mainz,13 Lille, Rouen, Toulouse, Lyon, Nancy, Rennes, Nantes, and Strasbourg. Agreeing with Chaptal, in 1800 Napoleon signed a document ordering museums to be built in these cities. The new museums would receive paintings from the Louvre and ideally establish cultural and national pride throughout the land.14

The Louvre and its holdings, with its original objectives of education and public inclusion and now its incredible, almost unbelievable collection, had set a superb example for how the power of the country – cultural and militaristic – could be displayed. Napoleon clearly saw political advantages in displaying artwork throughout France that had been appropriated from all over Europe. He desired that his country be the superlative in power and glory – what better way than by proving he had collected more cultural treasures than even Paris could hold, works which were considered elemental to other countries’ own national heritage? For example, during one of his Italian conquests Napoleon was able to negotiate the Laocoön from Rome, bringing it to Paris to be displayed.15  This significant sculpture, created sometime between 42 and 20 B.C., depicts Laocoön and his sons being strangled by snakes for their unsuccessful efforts to expose the Trojan Horse as an attack on the Romans by the Greeks.16 Thought to be created for the Roman emperor Nero, the sculpture was buried under the streets of Rome until 1506, when it was rediscovered and appropriately lauded as a work of incredible beauty and import. “Finding the Laocoön was a dream come true for well-educated Renaissance artists and patrons who were intent on restoring Rome to its ancient glory…By March of 1506, Pope Julius II managed to procure the sculpture for his own antiquities collection, and in July of the same year he triumphantly transported the sculpture through the streets of the Rome.”17 The sculpture’s dynamic, tangled composition influenced many later European artists, but arguably had the most notable effect on Michelangelo.

[Michelangelo’s] oeuvre clearly demonstrates that he was intrigued by the sculpture's muscular tension and by the spiraling motion of thecentralfigure as he struggles to free himself from the strangling snakes. On the Sistine Chapel Ceiling, Michelangelo created numerous figures with similarly muscular anatomies and placed them in serpentinata positions that recall that of the central figure in the Laocoön.18

The Laocoön quickly became a major inspiration for many Renaissance artists, and when it was carted away to France its loss must have been felt deeply in Italy.19 However, Napoleon was intent on his goal. In spreading art around the provinces, the emperor was uniting his country on the basis of its cultural supremacy – which stemmed from the Louvre – and, in a way comparable to the Revolutionaries, offered knowledge, via the provincial museums, ultimately made possible by the power of the government.

The early museum hierarchy that arose in the provinces during the Napoleonic era was an excellent example of how power was created through the diffusion of knowledge. During the nineteenth century, the direction and control of these provincial museums was left largely to the local community to maintain. In his essay “The Bourgeoisie, Cultural Appropriation and the Art Museum in Nineteenth-Century France,” Daniel Sherman describes the evolution of the larger provincial museums from neglected, poorly-assembled collections consisting mostly of art sent by the government,20 to institutions that had the power to define and influence the community.21 This was done, he explains, through “a cast of characters: lawyers, merchants, ship-owners in the port cities, manufacturers in Rouen and Marseille, a sprinkling of bankers and real estate developers.” Clearly a powerful group, these members of the upper class desired to prove their authority as well in the cultural realm.22 They improved upon the collections with their own money and rebuilt the museums in ciphered architecture which the learned alone could truly appreciate.23 These efforts “present[ed] art as flowing naturally from commerce and industry, the defining activities of the nineteenth-century city and the source of the political power of its rulers.”24 The museum was offered to the whole community, but still maintained a sense of being a product of the elite. While it seemed democratic on the surface, the museum in general possessed a sense of a special access to knowledge, and a sense of exclusion. The French provincial museum is a perfect example of the creation and production of power, as knowledge was offered freely but in a dissimulated manner; the upper class was presenting knowledge masked by an affirmation of their status in society. Where national identity is concerned, this development could be positioned as the maintenance of local over national pride. However, I would argue that if it were not for Napoleon originally effectuating the network of provincial museums, and his desire to see France linked by a common awareness of the country’s cultural superiority starting with the Louvre, then the nineteenth-century local elite would not have had this avenue through which to exercise powers of cultural influence in their own society, ultimately boosting the overall cultural authority of the country.

The years in between the Louvre’s early development and its current activity saw a great deal of change, occurring simultaneously in the structuring of the Louvre as well as the notion of national identity it would produce. The present physical composition of the Louvre – a two-armed U shape – was created in 1871 when the Tuileries Palace, a vestige of Catherine de Medici (1547-1559), was burnt to the ground by revolutionaries opposed to the ruler at the time, Napoleon III (1852-1870).25 A little over a hundred years later, the motley spread of galleries, wings, and museums within the Louvre were finally united in 1989 with I.M. Pei’s underground entrance, marked aboveground by a seventy foot-tall glass pyramid. The pyramid sparked an intense debate over the appropriateness of something so modern placed amidst more traditional, refined architecture. It became evident through the uproar caused by the pyramid that the Louvre did indeed seem intrinsically connected to the French identity; the French were feeling threatened by the loss of the traditional façade of the Louvre.26

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