The world’s first “universal museum” was born in London in 1759, when the doors of the British Museum opened to the public for the first time. Seeded with artefacts donated by Sir Hans Sloane, it set out to showcase all the world’s civilisations. Visitors have been drawn to its extraordinary collections of treasures ever since.
The appreciation of different cultures has never been more important. Nowhere is that truer than in our region where terrorist groups like ISIL have done such damage in recent years. Radicalised minds start from the position that only the tiniest slither of human history is worthy of celebration. Everything else should be destroyed.
Proving them wrong is why the UAE invested in the new Louvre Abu Dhabi. It is remarkable not only for the sublime architecture of the building, which juts off the shores of Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi’s emerging cultural quarter. It is also the first universal museum in the Arab world, and one of the very few outside the West.
With its mission to gather all of human history under one roof, this new wonder of the world is a direct descendant of the British Museum. But its ground-breaking approach to displaying the works takes the concept further. Museums have traditionally arranged objects by civilisation, region or period. In Abu Dhabi, the joint Emirati and French curatorial team present the history of art as a global continuum, rather than isolated episodes of brilliance.
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Objects from all over the world are brought together so that visitors can appreciate connections across cultures and time. In one of the 12 galleries a visitor might encounter an ancient marker stone for pilgrims walking to Mecca displayed next to Christian reliquaries. European globes can be inspected next to maps made by Muslim navigators. A newly acquired Yemeni Torah can be admired next to a sixth-century Quran and a Gothic Bible. The beauty all three objects share will be obvious to any visitor.
As Emmanuel Macron, president of France, said at its inauguration, the museum is “a bridge between the continents that today some would like to divide”. In the words of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, on the same evening: “We don’t just aim for a dialogue between civilisations, rather an alliance between civilisations”.
Respect for different cultures and religions is already a hallmark of Abu Dhabi, the capital of a diverse country that already has much to offer to tourists and international business people.
But the Louvre is not just for our foreign guests to enjoy. It will be equally important to our own citizens as we develop a knowledge economy less tethered to global energy markets. The museum’s outreach programme intends to bring as many people as possible from all of our seven emirates. The national syllabus has been updated to take greater account of art history and the practice of art.
The UAE can already stake a claim to being the cultural capital of the Middle East. Art Dubai now ranks among the world’s great international art fairs. Abu Dhabi Art is also developing fast. Emirati artists have been represented at the UAE pavilion at the Venice Biennale since 2009. The Louvre is just one part of the UAE’s investment in education and culture. More are on their way, including the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and the Zayed National Museum. The coming of the Arab world’s first universal museum is just the start of a cultural blossoming in the Gulf.
Sulaiman Almazroui is ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to the Court of St James’s in London