Following the reopening of Louvre Abu Dhabi, we invited the museum's director, Manuel Rabate, to reflect on lessons learnt as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, and how these might shape the museum of the future.
What are the key lessons learnt by Louvre Abu Dhabi as a result of Covid-19?
"The first lesson is that it is painful to close your museum. We were in our third year – it was the year of consolidation, the year of maturity and stabilisation. We were thinking of Louvre Abu Dhabi 2.0, of our next steps. And then we were brutally struck where it hurts, exactly on our DNA.
"Louvre Abu Dhabi is about connectedness, and about witnessing the value and beauty of the connection between humans, throughout history. So when a virus comes and attacks that very connectedness, forcing us to be removed, it is really attacking us. But when your identity is attacked, it means you understand even more strongly what it means. And for us, the key thing was to reconnect.
"We really fought our ground. We had a good understanding of the multimedia and digital within our walls, but we made huge progress in outreach and in understanding how to interact and how to be accessible. The key learning is that digital experiences are here to stay."
How did you adapt your digital offering?
"The digital [element] was already present – we are a museum of the 21st century, so digital was obvious. The application was there, but we always thought of it as a tool to help visitors. What was new and drastic was the tool instead of the visit. That mind shift, you can take it as a constraint or as an opportunity to explore new things.
"During the closure, we created some very interesting experiences – our partnership with Anghami, for example. In a way, they curated, just like our own curators, a soundtrack inspired by what we are. I'm sure we will have a follow-up, which can definitely be a new way to discover the museum.
"We Are Not Alone, [a cinematic podcast produced] with the Soundwalk Collective, was a crazy project from the start, using the Louvre Abu Dhabi structure as a trigger for a science-fiction story. These kinds of experiments are not disconnected from the museum. We can reinforce them now the museum has reopened.
"But one of the most important things is that we have original and authentic artworks. The best experience, the pinnacle, is the physical, which can be prepared for, accompanied and then followed with the digital."
Will the pandemic have an effect on how curators approach their collections moving forward?
"I don't think it will drastically change the curation for Louvre Abu Dhabi, because, as I said, we were already talking about connectedness. But perhaps visitors will see a bit more relevance to what we are saying.
"We are telling a story of beautiful objects, but behind the objects, you have stories, and these stories are complex. What we see is the resilience of mankind. And we think we are, more than ever, a mindful museum. We think of the other; we respect the other; we are interested in what they have to say. This will be exacerbated, but we will not rewrite the narrative of Louvre Abu Dhabi.
"Humanity has already faced challenges and the optimist in me says we have overcome them by coming together. We need to be safe, but, within that, there is value in us working together. This is what you see in the galleries of Louvre Abu Dhabi, and this is what we believe in."
How is the museum planning to reconnect with its community?
"A museum has to be in its territory. And this is something we introduced in the galleries when we specifically handpicked masterpieces and very important objects from the history of the UAE, the Gulf and the Arab world.
'There is currently the opportunity for the community to re-appropriate their museum. In a period in which discovering the world will be possible, but still complex, the best way to prepare yourself to discover the world is to go to Louvre Abu Dhabi, because you will see artworks from all civilisations; and you will see yourself, your identity, but also 'the other'."
What, in your view, does the museum of the future look like?
"Health and safety will be a key component of the museum of the future. Like any public space, we will have to demonstrate that, for this crisis and for the future. This is now a given. Just as we need to be accessible for people of determination – in the 21st century, if you are not completely accessible, you shouldn't be open to the public. Similarly, the physical space has to be a safe space.
"This is the first pillar. The second pillar will be this mix between the physical and the digital. Louvre Abu Dhabi is about the materiality of the artworks, but at the same time, our navigation in the world is through digital tools. This merger will have to happen. Not as a filter, but as an acceleration, a facilitation.
"And the third element of the museum of the future is on the mindful side of things. It involves wellness, inclusivity and the social positivity that a museum has to create; it's about the museum's integration into the social fabric – with a capacity to heal, to develop and to educate.
"We are aiming to develop some programmes for wellness and art therapy. When you talk about the community, understanding yourself better is a way to have a better society. Understanding myself is understanding the other."