I went to a museum

woman standing infront of a wall mount painting

I went to the Louvre Abu Dhabi yesterday. Here are some thoughts I had.

The story a museum tells is more important than the artefacts it displays.

The most exciting thing about this museum wasn’t the collection (interesting though it was), but how it weaved that collection into a narrative around the history of humanity. I was taken on a journey that allowed me to see the pieces within the collection in ways that I otherwise never would have considered.

Unlike other museums, it grouped pieces by eras of history. This meant you had art from around the world shown together, which has allowed the curator to emphasise the global interaction and influence of cultures across different periods in our history. It also allowed ideas about the changing role of art through time to come to the fore.

A good museum is not a collection of objects, but the use of those objects to tell a story.

Art is not one thing

What is art?

A question I inevitably myself when staring at a blank canvas in the Tate Modern or, in this case, Duchamp’s Bottle Rack. I usually answer with Warhol’s quote: Art is what you can get away with. Louvre Abu Dhabi’s gallop through a global history of art shed some additional light for me on what makes art “art”.

A non-exhaustive list of what art could be:

Art is often a display of technique. It can be the perfection of a craft, redefining styles or creating new ones.

Art can be aesthetic. Many pieces were objectively beautiful to look at.

Art can be functional. Some of the exhibits were created to serve a purpose, be it bandages for mummification or inlaid boxes that were made to be diplomatic gifts. Were these objects always art or did they become art as they became imbued with history?

Art has been used to create awe. Early patrons of art were often those with power – religious and political elites – who used art (often huge works) as a mechanism to manipulate populations and legitimise their subjugation. Today this role is played by marketing (which has, over the years, become adept at psychological manipulation to sell ideas and products), and what we call art appears to have moved on to play a role in helping us think about ourselves and the world in different ways.

Art can make us ask questions about ourselves or society. Duchamp’s Bottle Rack (and the ready-made movement in general) is a case in point. He bought a bottle rack, stuck his name on it and someone then put it in a gallery.  This raises so many questions. Is it Duchamp’s celebrity that makes this art? If so, what does this say about us and how we value things? If not, was it already art before? Why the fuck am I writing about this work amongst the 600 or so others that I saw?

The subject of a work of art is only limited by the mind of the artist. Art can be outward facing or inward facing. It can be social commentary or it can be introspective or neither or both.

To my untrained eye, there seemed to be something that all art has in common – the artist (and/or the patron) and the observer. Art is human – it is the creation of a “thing” by a human being to create an emotional reaction in another human being. This emotional reaction is achieved through a variety of channels: the story, the scale of the work, the sheer beauty, the confusion and questions, the skill and probably lots of other ways.

There are probably good reasons why this museum is called the “Louvre”, but I could not see why on my visit

There is a Louvre in Paris. It is a wonderful museum. There is a Louvre in Abu Dhabi. It is a wonderful museum, but a very different one. Why is the museum in Abu Dhabi also called Louvre?

It is a stunning venue to display art and has a distinctive style of its own. There seems to be little to connect the two venues other than the name and that they are both art galleries. Should the Abu Dhabi museum have not built its own identity?

I’m sure there are benefits of being associated with the Louvre “brand”. Perhaps it allowed the museum to take items from the collection in Paris and to leverage the experts there. There is probably a short-term benefit around legitimacy. Abu Dhabi has so much money that I’m sure that all of these benefits could be achieved in other ways that would have allowed Abu Dhabi and the UAE to establish greater credibility and even leadership on the global cultural stage in a way it does not quite do by leaning on the history of the Louvre name.

This seems to be a trend in the Middle East in general. It seems that there has been a race to bring successful restaurant franchises in from abroad, with  Coya, Jean Georges, Nobu and Zuma just a few of the names that we can find in Abu Dhabi or Dubai or Doha. The main theme park in Abu Dhabi is Ferrari branded.

This has all been thought through by people much smarter than me and perhaps the appropriation of European and US brands is a shortcut to establishing the region on the global stage, with the next stage of evolution being the creation of homemade brands and the exporting of soft power. I can only speculate.

To be honest, my real gripe with this is that it is part of a global concentration of power. Every place in the world starting to look the same, with the same brands dominating shopping, eating and every aspect of our lives. The world is becoming smaller and less exciting as we share “best practices” across regions – Coya is becoming the rich man’s McDonalds. Global domination of a small number of mega-brands and companies concentrates capital, power and wealth in a handful of people.

As always, I’m left breathless in the face of what humans can achieve when we put our heads together…

Louvre Abu Dhabi is housed in a stunning architectural creation. The dome it sits under is worth the entrance fee. The thought that has gone into details of the museum (for example, the tiles in each room change to reflect the epoch it represents) is of the highest order. It is breathtaking.

… but questions still remain over the value of the humanity in its creation

Like all great monuments throughout history, this breathtaking structure is built on the backs of at best underappreciated and at worst exploited labour.

There is of course bias in the way that I look at the labour conditions here, because it is happening now, in my face, as reported by my Guardian. I didn’t notice the working conditions of the people that built Angkor Wat, Macchu Picchu or the Great Wall of China. I’m not often troubled by thoughts of the slaves that build The White House.

Can great structures anywhere only exist side by side with worker oppression? Are the wings that help us reach the soaring heights of humanity made of inequality and subjugation?


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