When I first moved to Abu Dhabi, back in 2009, I did so partly because of the excitement (okay, hype) around the emirate's grand cultural master-plan. It heralded the establishment of not one but five major cultural venues by 2013, and envisioned Abu Dhabi as a new destination for intrepid art lovers. I wasn't planning on staying in the UAE long but, somewhere in the back of my mind, I hoped I'd still be here to cover a museum opening or two. Life, of course, has a way of not going to plan and so – I stayed and the museums never materialised.
Through the aftermath of the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, oil price fluctuations and other events, I watched Abu Dhabi's cultural apparatus form and reform, while the expanse of land on Saadiyat Island allocated for the museums remained untouched. In 2013, the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage, now replaced by the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority (TCA), rolled out a new roadmap: the Louvre Abu Dhabi would open by 2015, Zayed National Museum the following year and by 2017, the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi would be completed as well. You can tell from this old blog post how mind-bogglingly ambitious that timeline was, considering the only active construction site at the time was the Louvre's, while the others were practically untouched.
Having followed the twists and turns of the Louvre story for eight years, I found myself walking into yesterday's press conference, at which the museum would reveal its opening date, in a state of giddy anticipation. As they addressed an auditorium full of journalists, publicists, curators, officials and dignitaries, the speakers seemed to share the sentiment. When the first address, by HH Sheikh Nahyan Bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, Minister of Culture, Youth and Community Development, was over the opening date suddenly appeared on a large screen. An awkward, short ripple of applause went through the crowd. 11 November 2017. On deadline and just over two months away. And so, voilà, just like that, le chat was out of the bag.
Immediately, a good proportion of the assembled audience began to frantically tweet and text and continued to do so through the second speech, by French cultural minister Francoise Nyssen. Next was Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, chairman of TCA, followed by Jean-Luc Martinez, the president-director of the Louvre museum, and Manuel Rabate, director of the Louvre Abu Dhabi. The museum's architect, Jean Nouvel, was present but did not hold a speech.
What was the upshot of it all? The feeling I was left with, and not for the first time, was that it is difficult to talk and think about this museum without resorting to one of two extremes: United Nations-grade aspirations of tolerance, peace and global connectedness, on the one hand, and an entitled form of cynicism that is at once righteous and tinged with ignorance and prejudice, on the other. The language around the project can wear itself thin with hyperbole, both in its promotion and criticism. But what else is there to say? The architecture is iconic, the museography is groundbreaking and the art is world-class. Encouraging people to discover world history as a unified narrative and art as an expression of shared humanity probably is some kind of long-game antidote against violence and extremism. But, by the same token, the thousands of workers who built the museum also did labour under an outdated, often inhumane and exploitation-prone system. Abu Dhabi is an absolute monarchy governed by Sharia law, with all the resulting limitations on human rights and freedom of expression that brings. Importing big-name cultural institutions and commissioning star architects is a bombastic, rather commercial way of creating a cultural destination from scratch. Listening to the speeches, it was clear to me that all of these things may be true. But that doesn't change the fact that a new museum is about to be born – the Arab world's first universal museum, no less. Whatever your level of cynicism, a little giddiness is in order, wouldn't you agree? I, for one, am incredulous but happy to still be around to witness it.