Why the Louvre Abu Dhabi is worth celebrating, despite its dark side

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Why the Louvre Abu Dhabi is worth celebrating, despite its dark side
Global spread of great museums … Computer image of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, due to open in 2016. // Photograph © Anonymous/Associated Press
Why the Louvre Abu Dhabi is worth celebrating, despite its dark side
Global spread of great museums … Computer image of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, due to open in 2016. // Photograph © Anonymous/Associated Press

The Louvre Abu Dhabi looks set to open in 2016, as work on Jean Nouvel’s colossal construction speeds up and his vision of a modern medina starts to crystallise on what was once a desert island.

This vast project has been stupendously controversial. Bertolt Brecht’s question about a much earlier age of architectural grandeur leaves a bad taste in the mouth when applied to the Louvre Abu Dhabi:

Who built Thebes of the 7 gates?
In the books you will read the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?

The answer in this case, according to damning investigations, is that Abu Dhabi’s new cultural centre is being built by exploited and abused migrant workers. These workers, the Guardian reported recently, “are subject to destitution, summary arrest and deportation if they complain about their squalid and unsafe conditions, an investigation by Human Rights Watch has found.”

Yet the question asked by Brecht has a converse. Seeing ancient monuments, we tend to forget the toil and suffering of the builders. Fifty years from now, when the Louvre Abu Dhabi has established itself as one of the world’s great museums, how clearly will its dark beginnings be remembered?

Nothing excuses the inhuman working conditions that have been reported. But I suspect that when it opens, this audacious new museum will be admired as a world destination and artistic treasure house. And so it should be. ….

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