Jack Lang, the former French culture minister, had a word or two to say about bravery last week and it wasn’t related to the Armistice Day that commemorates the dead of two world wars. Instead, he was focused in our discussion on the fifth anniversary of the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, of which he was an enthusiastic backer from the moment the idea was presented.
Courage attends the UAE museum project in many forms, according to Mr Lang. There is the ground-breaking nature of the suggestion so boldly proposed by the UAE’s Founding Father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan.
Mr Lang recalls this as something that the French officials, led by former president Jacques Chirac, had not before heard broached nor given any consideration. So it was audacious from the first moment. “Sheikh Zayed proposed such a project to the French and it was immediately obvious that the essential role of culture to connect people and to build bridges could be fulfilled,” Mr Lang recalled in Paris. “It really was a fabulous idea.”
To his surprise, not all would see it that way from the outset.
The Louvre Museum in the heart of Paris has a special place in the French imagination. An old guard was zealous in its possessive attitude to a national treasure. So for Mr Lang, the real battle was trying to convince the doubters that the opening would be to the glory of France and the good of the traditions that surround the premier dame of French museums. “They argued that for the Louvre of Paris, it would be dilution of the soul and that somehow the Louvre as it was would disappear,” he said.
To counter these fears, Mr Lang sought to change the focus to what could be gained. “I argued that going out into the world was a great chance for our culture and for links for France between people. It took some time but finally the project was adopted and the project was carried out with great courage. It is a risk we have taken and now we can see that its success is the best answer.”
He points out that the Louvre Abu Dhabi is now unrivalled in the scale of transfer and the type of its exhibits in the Arabian Gulf region. “Louvre Abu Dhabi is a unique project, an original that is open to all the people of the region,” he reflected.
For Mr Lang, there is immense pride in an institution that he had a role in setting up, and which he calls a “reference museum for the entire world” that attracts so many to the UAE. “It is remarkable that it has welcomed 3 million people from all over the world in such a short period of time,” he recounted.
The importance of this is felt throughout the culture-appreciating world. The curation team that determines its own policy, as it seeks to go its own way to maintain the unique Louvre Abu Dhabi identity, had strongly impressed Mr Lang. “What is important to note is that those responsible for the museum are free to organise the exhibits according to their own ideas, and the French and Emiratis are respectful of this process,” he said.
The former politician speaks from a position of knowledge as he runs the highly regarded French body, the Arab World Institute, in Paris. The institute promotes cross-cultural engagement between Arabs and the Francophone world.
For Mr Lang, that element of progress is a two-way street. “This institution is at the cutting edge of culture as we see it in the western countries, and of the culture of the Emirates and in the region.“
The example set in one part of the world resonates elsewhere, according to Mr Lang, who has been an enthusiastic visitor to the Abu Dhabi masterpiece since its launch. “It is important to make both a strong image for the Louvre Abu Dhabi where it is located and among the people of the West too,” he said. “Gulf countries have a glittering pearl to love.”
While standing in the colonnades of the Louvre in Paris, one gets to view an architectural landscape that is unique on Earth – across the glass and steel triangular structure, which the American architect IM Pei designed, in the courtyard and up to the cupola roof. The Louvre Abu Dhabi proved equal to its parent, not least in its design by the French architect Jean Nouvel, particularly the smooth dome of the steel roof. Viewed at a short distance, it has a floating serene profile that – at least in the mind’s eye – sticks just as readily as the pyramid on the Paris property.
Further, the Arab world’s first universal museum has hosted Leonardo da Vinci masterpieces in a rotation that each time reinforces the partnership between the two bodies. The special days are a matter of routine for the Abu Dhabi institution.
In a long career, Mr Lang has stood out from the ordinary fray of French politics. In his push for the Louvre Abu Dhabi to take root, he proved himself a visionary for a better kind of future.