By Elsa Felgar
On the Island of Saadiyat rests a cultural hub where the East meets the West. The construction of the Guggenheim Museum, a New York University campus, and the Louvre Museum are taking place as part of an intergovernmental project envisioned to expand the art community and bring a focus to one of the most modern cities in the world today. On the coast of Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), lies the island where this major project is coming to life. Although the construction of the Louvre museum in Saadiyat is appealing to many, there is a strong argument in France over extending the Louvre outside of French territory. In addition, there is push from human rights organizations urging the French President François Hollande to confront the UAE about labor rights in the construction of the Louvre.
Louvre Abu Dhabi: A New Identity
In 2007, France and the UAE signed a trade agreement for the Louvre Abu Dhabi to begin construction. Immediately there was resistance from many French citizens who felt it was an affront to France’s national identity. The rich history of the Louvre impacts French society so deeply that it’s no wonder this project was not accepted with open arms from citizens and government officials alike.
To begin, the culture of the original Louvre dates back to 1793. Built in the 16th century and growing ever since, the Louvre is the world’s largest museum and is one of France’s main tourist attractions. Not only do travelers from all over the world come to see the artwork inside the Louvre museum, they also come to admire the building itself, which represents a truly unique culture. This explains why some are so reluctant to welcome the replica that will open in 2015 in Abu Dhabi. Many have questioned why a replica of the building and some of its original artwork should be moved to the Middle East. The dichotomy between the old and the new is too stark. Attaching the name to this new building, although arguably one of the most outstanding architectural masterpieces in today’s world, is unfathomable for some who insist on protecting French culture. Many believe it is symbolic of France’s culture, and should not be duplicated or used for political advancement elsewhere.
Those in favor for the construction highlight the agreement between France and the UAE itself. The fact that it is the first ever intergovernmental cultural agreement of its kind is a major step for projects like these to come, because it shows that it is possible for two countries to take on such an internationally collaborative task. The new Louvre will encompass diverse artwork from all over the world, ranging from sculptures by various distinguished African artists to the world famous paintings by French artists Cézanne and Manet.
The discussions over the building of this museum have been influenced by economic outcomes. Inside the $1.3 billion dollar deal is the name of the museum and the use of some paintings for permanent and special exhibits. In return, the UAE agreed to buy 40 Airbus 380 aircrafts and $10.4 billion worth of arms from France. In addition to the aircraft purchases, the UAE will continue buying artwork from France. These political and economic bargains are being done as a way to profit off of the selling of the Louvre’s name. Although this creates revenue for the French government, it leaves the Louvre in Paris without certain pieces it is famous for. Instead, the French artwork will be displayed in a new light and extend its already popular name to other parts of the world. This exchange of artwork is only a two-year trade agreement. The goal is for the Louvre Abu Dhabi to build up its collection over two years and once it has formed, they will give back some of the work lent out by Paris.
But some claim this is not a convincing argument. It is not possible to buy and sell culture and history. These are pieces that the world comes to Paris to see, and only Paris. In that sense, the Louvre Abu Dhabi is attracting potential tourists from Paris as well as reducing the excitement the original Louvre once encouraged. Along with the cultural problem is the actual construction. Human rights has unarguably been a longstanding issue when it comes to building new extravagant projects like this one. For French President Hollande, this is the current pressing issue.
The museum, as is shown from models, has a sleek design almost identical to the architecture of the Louvre in Paris. Slits in the dome-shaped building cause light to stream down, giving the illusion of falling rain. The dome itself has a diameter of almost 600 feet and weighs about 7,000 tons. Surrounding this dome is a pool of water that gives the impression of a floating building. And in the interior, there will be smaller pools of water that will be scattered throughout the exhibits. Unseen in these construction plans is the reality of the labor workers who will be working on its development.
During the beginning of the construction, workers are promised housing in a miniature village that provides all the necessities and amenities. However in reality, this housing is given to a few privileged laborers, whereas the larger majority live in far worse conditions. Violence, harassment, unsanitary living conditions, and low wages are all prevalent in the small camps that house these workers. Understanding the current situation makes supporting the construction of these museums a challenge.
These workers often come from places like Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, and Nepal, under the impression that they are going to make more than they had been making at their previous job. Instead their passports are taken from them, putting them into unfavorable work and living conditions. And once they arrive and start working, some do not see their paycheck for 6 or more months. This makes justifying the intergovernmental agreement very difficult for government officials.
This is where the French-UAE relations is crucial. If France supported the use of migrant workers to build these museums, it would keep the relations with the UAE strong, however France would certainly feel the pressure from outside organizations like the Human Rights Watch. Even after President Hollande’s visit in 2013, conditions have not improved. 7,000 workers and 12 million man-hours will go into the making of the museum anticipated worldwide. UAE’s Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) has undergone a recent wave of criticism regarding human rights, but continues to argue that they have strict working condition standards that are being enforced.
This project in particular shows that it is possible for countries to come together and forge cultural ties connect the world in new ways. The idea of creating a melting pot of cultures in a modern bustling city highlights today’s advancements in international cooperation. Unfortunately, there are negative domestic and international consequences that are being suppressed, while the successful agreement between France and the UAE has the spotlight. The human cost of building on the “island of happiness” detracts from the happy ending that the end product promises.
Photo by gordontour