Just before the pandemic, I had a direct lesson in the power of museums. I heard my young son complain that his history lessons were dull and boring. I asked him to show me his lesson plan, which included the Code of Hammurabi, humans’ first known, written set of laws, carved into an enormous diorite stone.
So I took him to the Louvre in Paris, to see the code in person. I explained that these laws were written in Babylon, in modern-day Iraq, almost 4,000 years ago, and we discussed why this was such an important achievement. I could see his imagination working. A connection was made, and he returned to his lesson with noticeable enthusiasm.
The next week he wanted to go back, but the museum was closed, because of Covid-19.
The Paris Louvre and Louvre Abu Dhabi are expected to reopen soon, after being closed for nearly four months. While we are not quite there yet, it is a good time to reflect upon what these museums represent, and the importance of not taking blessings, lessons and relationships for granted. In the grand scheme of things, four months is not a long time. But as we all know, our perspective has shifted, highlighting the importance of resilience, culture and beauty – those things of which museums, in good times, are meant to be living reminders.
The Louvre in Paris is one of the greatest museums in the modern world. Its displays include more than 38,000 works of art, and more than 10 million people pass through its doors every year. On Saadiyat Island, Louvre Abu Dhabi became an extension of that tradition, reminding us all that human progress is not the work of a single civilisation. It has been described as the “the first of its kind in the region, combining the cultural progress and openness of the Emirati vision, and French expertise in arts and museums, with the purpose of illuminating the very essence of humanity”.
French architect Jean Novel designed Louvre Abu Dhabi to capture this universal message of beauty and shared humanity, integrating Islamic and Arabian cultural elements into what is now considered a global architectural masterpiece: Consisting of eight different layers, a giant silver dome covers the museum. As the sun moves to the dome’s zenith, its rays pass through star-shaped perforations, bathing the museum’s halls in a “rain of light”.
It is truly a moving experience. As visitors move through the museum, they pass from epoch to epoch, tracing out the march of human progress, not always steady or linear.
In his dedication speech delivered under a full moon, French President Emmanuel Macron called Louvre Abu Dhabi a “testament to our determination”.
“It is from here,” he continued, “that we issue this universal call that seeks to remind the world that beauty is a universally shared experience... this light is our shared message against darkness and isolation.”
Those words certainly ring true today, as we move cautiously out from our isolation.
My son was not the only one wanting to return to the museum during lockdown. Over the past months, it has been remarkable to see the launch of hundreds or more virtual museum tours, as millions under lockdown sought beauty and hope in art and history, as a supplement or even an alternative to the buzz of Netflix and the noise of Twitter.
When the museums open once again, they will resume their role of telling the stories of those who came before us through the art they left behind. And we must not forget that they are there. While this instinct to connect and to be inspired and hopeful is present, we must make it a part of our daily lives so that it does not take more loss to make us remember that life is much more when we listen carefully, and seek deeper perspectives. That beauty and connection are all around us.
This is especially important for children enveloped in digital media, who have not had the exposure to museums that past generations have had. Both the Louvre and Louvre Abu Dhabi have made great efforts to reach out to young people.
While we are counting blessings, the reopening of Louvre Abu Dhabi will be an occasion for the Emirates to honour its relationship with France, which developed under the wise stewardship of Sheikh Zayed, the Founding Father, may God have mercy on his soul, and the late French President Jacques Chirac.
While it all looked effortless under a full moon two and a half years ago, the creation of Louvre Abu Dhabi was itself an act of beauty, which required an extraordinary degree of co-operation, persistence, trust, and mutual respect.
So while it may be some time before we are back to normal, we must resolve in our “new normal” to make time to incorporate beauty and perspective into our daily routines. We must go to museums – and bring our children.
Ali Al Ahmed is the UAE Ambassador to France
NOTE: This piece has been amended since it was first published, following advice from the Department for Culture and Tourism about when Louvre Abu Dhabi will reopen.