The Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Ethical Enjoyment of Museums

Jacques-Louis David's 'Napoleon Bonaparte, First Consul, Crossing the Alps,' on loan from Versailles. The Louvre Abu Dhabi has over 300 pieces on loan from the Louvre. (Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images)

A great museum is a great catalog of plunder. Not just of objects stolen, bought, traded or loaned, but of entire civilizations, placed out of time and plundered of meaning. The Louvre itself was opened on August 10, 1793, a year after the arrest of Louis XIV. The royal collection became a national collection, and under Napoleon it became a symbol of empire, with entire new wings built just to house the plunder sent back during military campaigns.

Today, what can no longer be gotten through force can be rented. The Louvre Abu Dhabi is a beautiful new building with a rented artwork and a borrowed name — the museum needs time to develop a collection of its own, preferably without several revolutions. But what will be the character of this new collection, the first of its kind in the Middle East? In his review of the Louvre Abu Dhabi for The New York Times, art critic Holland Cotter reflects on what the museum does — and what it should do.

In short, the Louvre Abu Dhabi fails where most, if not all, encyclopedic art museums do: in truth-telling. And the failure applies to the present as much as to the past. In news releases and public advertising, the institution promises to be “a museum for everyone”; to show “humanity in a new light”; to embody an “openness” and “harmony” reflecting the “tolerant and accepting environment” of Emirati society. But in the years since the building broke ground, international human rights groups have repeatedly criticized the Abu Dhabi government for mistreatment of immigrant laborers at work on Saadiyat Island projects.

During the museum’s inaugural week, two Swiss journalists, filming laborers as part of their coverage of the opening, were arrested by the police, grilled, forced to sign a “confession” and then expelled from the country. Over the past several years, people campaigning for workers’ rights have been barred from entering Abu Dhabi, or deported.

A walk through Mr. Nouvel’s domed museum complex, with its luminous shade and its breeze-channeling sea vistas, is an enchantment, almost enough to make you forget grim physical and social realities that went into creating it. And the manifold beauty of galleries filled with charismatic objects nearly persuades you not to remember that art is a record of crimes as well as of benign achievements. It takes an exercise in ethical balance to engage fully with our great museums, to walk the shaky bridge they construct between aesthetics and politics. A mindful visit to the Louvre Abu Dhabi requires this balance. That may be what is most universal about it.