Trapped in a gigantic former palace that’s stuffed with art and crowds, strong knees sag, the brain reels. You’ve embraced the Mona Lisa, and now she’s given you museum fatigue.
To avoid all that, a different Louvre aims to keep its audience constantly relaxed and diverted. This one is due to open in Abu Dhabi by December. No Mona Lisa there, but an even more mysterious Leonardo portrait, a 500-year-old siren, La Belle Ferroniere; she’ll be on loan from French headquarters, along with about 300 other famous works.
Abu Dhabi’s exotic version of the Louvre will be all the things that its Parisian parent is not: purpose-built, human scale, interactive, with a soft rain of light falling under a seductive dome to suggest a modern oasis, palm tree fronds, trickling water (there’s a moat) and attendant camels.
When a pragmatic French President Nicolas Sarkozy put this deal together with Abu Dhabi in 2007, lots of petro dollars moved around. Abu Dhabi got lucky with oil and gas in the 1960s, and its ruler Sheikh Zayed was making the tricky change from a desert-and-tent economy to one of the richest cities in the United Arab Emirates, second only to its flash neighbour Dubai.
There have been successful non- palace gallery conversions, of course: a decrepit Paris railway station became the Musee d’Orsay; a derelict power station became the Tate Modern in London. But because much of the old art was made especially for old walls, much new art demands more flexible facilities and buildings that are themselves works of art, such as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, a Frank Gehry masterpiece.
To show how it’s done in Australia, the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart has dug its innovative way into the rocks and tossed a lot of museum conventions into the Derwent.
For example, you get fewer pompous placards telling you things that contradict the paintings, there’s more room for humour; a blurring of the boundaries between the respectable and the outrageous; you more easily find emotional and visual affinities by juxtaposing ancient with modern.
So museums are changing. The worst of them were, some still are, simply mausoleums for masterpieces; the best are also big businesses, so catering to a small clutch of visiting connoisseurs doesn’t pay the bills.
Here’s the dilemma: the bigger the crowd, the more difficult the viewing. And to bring people in, the contents must appeal on many levels; even the building itself becomes an aesthetic experience. Hence new galleries invite spectacular architecture.
Paris Louvre has already established a junior branch just north of Paris to spread its masterpieces around.
As for other global museum movements, there are Guggenheim Museums in the US, Germany, Spain and Italy, and yet another Guggenheim gallery, opening in 2017, will join the Abu Dhabi Louvre on that same Saadiyat island. (There was even some vague talk of a Guggenheim for Geelong a while ago; nothing’s happened).
These two new museums will be connected by a special underground tunnel to, what will become in 2016, the Zayed National Museum.
Not everyone in the French art establishment is overjoyed with this. There’s dark discussion about corporatising the French patrimony; some suggestion that conditions for local workers on the project are less than ideal; the little matter of compensation for use of the Louvre name, speculation about whether a Muslim country might put some restriction on certain subjects, styles or artists, or indeed on viewers.
There’s also some hesitation about the long-term security of a place dependent on the lucrative flow of oil and gas.
No problem, say the local managers and the French Government; absolutely no restriction on style, content or politics, the selection is only governed by questions of ultimate quality.
In short, perhaps an inspired use of money. The idea is to create a harmonious set of cultural links between East and West, North and South, and to acquire works for the permanent collection. The Museum will also borrow from other French major and provincial museums.
In return, Abu Dhabi will support various shows in France.
Still, it’s ironic that a few barbaric extremists can happily violate some unique Middle Eastern artefacts, while this particular part of the UAE seems to need the rich artistic legacy of Europe’s Enlightenment; but that’s only one of the mixed messages from this complex part of the world.
Abu Dhabi’s Louvre will set a new pattern for an old culture.