Each year since 1977, May 18 has been recognised as International Museum Day. The International Council of Museums (ICOM) considers it an opportunity for museums to “engage with their public and highlight the importance of the role of museums as institutions that serve society and its development.” On this occasion, I would like to reflect and look ahead to how Louvre Abu Dhabi intends to serve society here in the UAE.
It has been quite the year. This goes for museums as well, as our very existence continues to be questioned. ICOM’s own programme this year, The Future of Museums: Recover and Reimagine, resonates with our November 2020 symposium – titled Reframing Museums – co-convened with NYU Abu Dhabi.
It is no surprise that threats outside our control lead us to question the roles of museums. They are sources of education, knowledge, enjoyment and rigorous research; they are not hospitals, schools or grocery stores. Museums’ essential services may be harder to identify but they are, I would argue, essential to society. To come back to ICOM’s theme this year, how will Louvre Abu Dhabi Recover and Reimagine?
In this UAE golden jubilee year and Louvre Abu Dhabi’s fourth anniversary, I want to explore the essential roles of our museum. Established together with the Department of Culture and Tourism - Abu Dhabi, these essential, guiding roles also represent innovative, accelerated reimagining.
Our first essential role is providing connectivity through storytelling. Immersive displays transport visitors across time and space. This is the powerful potential of the universal museum in the 21st century; Louvre Abu Dhabi explores universality through themes that connect all humans. So, how are we “reimagining” the transportive power of art in a world that feels so different today?
Our diverse artworks, shown together in dialogue, reflect interconnected cultures, people, traditions and beliefs across time. In 2020, we commissioned The Pulse of Time, an audio-visual journey through our collections allowing access to all virtual visitors guided by the voices of Saoud Al Kaabi, Charles Dance, and Irene Jacob.
Now, voices from the Kepler space telescope and android robots are also museum guides – if you use a smartphone. Available on Louvre Abu Dhabi’s app, We Are Not Alone is a sci-fi audio guide by Soundwalk Collective. Follow Hussain Al Jassmi, Willem Dafoe, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Zhou Dongyu, Nina Kraviz, Wim Wenders and Jean Nouvel as they guide you under our dome. The transportive power of art should be at everyone’s fingertips, and we will continue to reimagine new platforms and mediums to provide this experience.
The second essential role is entirely about locality. Louvre Abu Dhabi is reimagining its core-to-community mission. Our core activities are expanding research opportunities, education, enhancing social well-being, building a national collection for the UAE, and revealing interconnectivity between peoples, cultures and histories. From the first step into our galleries, a floor map marks the powerful interconnectedness of this region on the world stage.
Beyond a classical, western definition of the universal museum, the union of “Louvre” and “Abu Dhabi” offers the opportunity to relocate a global narrative of art history. We fulfil a dual commitment: to the local community and wider UAE, and to a global audience. Louvre Abu Dhabi is a meeting point geographically and intellectually, situated in a diverse, innovative, future-forward city. This reinvention of the universal museum could only have happened in Abu Dhabi, soon to welcome neighbouring Zayed National Museum and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.
Over 200 nationalities call the UAE home. While showcasing the heritage of the UAE and of the region in a global context, we are privileged to reflect this country’s diversity.
We have strong ties to our community. Since our reopening in June 2020, UAE Nationals top the index of visitor nationalities by far, followed by Indians or Filipinos. Despite the challenges of Covid-19, we have remained fully open since then, and our returning visitors have multiplied.
Our collection is also anchored in this region, its strength drawing on a balance between exceptional loans from major French museums, especially the Musee du Louvre, and a combination of our own growing collection with significant loans from regional and UAE institutions. Regional artworks revealing interconnected trade, ritual, and artistic tradition anchors our narrative.
Finally, this leads me to one last essential role as a museum – our social responsibility to our local community. A few days ago, we invited visitors to share Eid wishes, transformed into calligraffiti artworks by Diaa Allam and Michael Ang. We need to be mindful of each other and to participate in our collective resilience – whether from a kayak or through a yoga class, creating memories together over a meal or dreaming under our iconic dome.
In this golden jubilee year, we will continue to focus on our place and time in the UAE. We will lend our platform and spaces to new voices and homegrown talents.
Local audiences will continue to be at the heart of our programming. It is through art, through voices of the past and future, that connections between peoples and cultures are strengthened. These are our promises, as Louvre Abu Dhabi contributes to societal development, to Recover and Reimagine in 2021.
Manuel Rabaté is the Director of Louvre Abu Dhabi