A case study of the Louvre Abu Dhabi and what it reveals in term of international relations & cultural policy.
Panel entitled “Rethinking Culture and Education”, alongside Clare Walsh, Stephanie M. Hall andWilliam H. Rodick, chaired by Ngai-Ling Sum.
Conference papers available here
Preliminary academic essay entitled “New Museology: Looted Artefacts, Universal Museums & Development of Cultural Franchises in the Middle East.”, written during my M.A at King’s College, London.
New museology has faced a number of changes in the museum world (Ross, 2004) since its theoretical introduction by Peter Vergo in 1989, which includes a growing institutional reflexivity. As a result, a shift has been taking place: from being “ethnocentric” (Ross, 2004, p.7), museums now must tell the story of a “pluralistic and multicultural society” (ibid).
In this paper, I will try to decipher what is, if there is, a new museology in the 21st century. I will also show how it is closely linked to Western cultural diplomacy, mostly via local authorities, but, more generally, via people actively involved in the decision-making process within the museum world… and beyond. My starting point is to assert that the “new museology” has been exclusively theorized and discussed in the Western world (Vergo, 1989 ; Weil, 1990 ; Mairesse and Desvallées, 2010). I will therefore focus on three particular points within new museology implementation.
Firstly, new museology has brought “ethical constructions” (Gorman, 2011, p.11) and raised the debate around the repatriation of Antiquities. It has always been a delicate issue, linked to colonial practices by Western museums (Tharoor for the guardian, 2015). But new museology brought the debate to another level, as Western institutions started to be reflective about their policies and came to position themselves as encyclopaedic institutions, guardians of humankind’s patrimony (Ross, 2004).
Secondly, and this was used as a justification for Western institutions to keep their collection in-house, new museology has inspired (and vice-versa) the establishment of universal museums, or at least, museums that proclaim themselves as such. The Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums will be the illustrating example.
Finally, new museology, as well as the claim for universality as stressed before, have brought “the development of international cultural franchises” (Stam, 1993, p.2) in order to make museums sustainable vis-à-vis the market imperatives. I will discuss how branding is now a marketing tool used by Western museums, taking the case of the Louvre. Furthermore, I will show that it is not only a market-driven strategy, but also a soft-power instrument used by governmental authorities.
In order to remain seamless throughout the development, I will stick to the classic theoretical divide between Western and Eastern, including Middle Eastern, countries, as two “monolithic blocks with unshakeable and impenetrable identities” (Ajana, 2015, p.9). I wished I could have some time to criticize this concept itself, but suffice to say that it is still widely used in museum theories, as I have observed throughout my research. It is old-fashioned, admittedly, but will proved to be useful.
Art Repatriation: A Turkish case.
Let’s start with a broad definition of what is seen as a questionable concept (Flessas, 2013): ‘art repatriation’ refers to “the return of cultural objects to their country of origin” (Roehrenbeck, 2010, p.3). This debate has arisen in the public sphere concomitantly with the new museology (Roehrenbeck, 2010). Indeed, it has led Western institutions to proclaim that they are ‘universal and encyclopaedic’ and, as a result, they must keep the artefacts that they have acquired safe and secure, even though the acquisition process mostly occurred in times of conflicts and against the will of local populations (Ray, 2015). This renders repatriation more difficult, since Western institutions think that they have the ‘mission’ “to collect and preserve for the sake of knowledge, education, and entertainment” (Lamontagne, 2015, p.172).
More recently, ISIS destruction has revived the debate over repatriation of Antiquities… or at least, to its publicity in the medias (Thompson for Amos, 2016). Such action further weakens the case of Middle East countries in their claim for legitimacy to retain the cultural objects within their borders. Even people within the Middle East, like the Arab journalist Abdulrahman al-Rashed, argue that they don’t deserve their cultural patrimony and feel relief to see that Western institutions are acting like “asylums for their heritage”, as Louvre’s boss, Jean-Luc Martinez, claims (Martinez in the Economist, 2015).
Entering into the theoretical debate around the concept of repatriation and its roots could have been an option here; however, in the following, I will focus instead on a concrete case study in order to show how the process of repatriation illustrates the dynamic forces taking place in the museum world. Indeed, it is not only about what belongs to whom, where, and why. It is a manifestation of geopolitics’ rules and games between West and East throughout centuries.
The case study evolves around the calls for repatriation made by the Turkish government to the British Museum. Those two entities are particularly relevant here. Indeed, since 2003 and the rise of Erdogan as a key actor in Turkish politics, the process of decolonisation and nation-state building set up by Erdogan has impacted the cultural sector (Flessas, 2013). It has led his government to claim for cultural property, as a way to build a nation self-consciousness (Anderson, 1983) … Like the Western museums did in the 18th century, in their own process of nation-states building (Paul, 2012). For its part, the British Museum is putting itself as an encyclopaedic museum, which gives it therefore legitimacy to host several cultural artefacts coming from countries such as Turkey (Cuno, 2010). The changing nature of Turkish policies and the theoretical positioning of the British Museum have led to numerous repatriation-based conflicts that I will elaborate.
It should be stressed at this stage that, because of the past involvement of Turkey and the Ottoman Empire in conflicts, the Turkish cultural heritage has suffered from “plunder and pillage” (Özel, 2010, p.177). From this point of view, Turkey is therefore similar to a lot of countries in the Middle East, like Egypt: “culturally rich but economically poor” (ibid). Because of multiple interacting factors, a lot of Turkish cultural objects are now in Western museums’ collections or displays, including the British Museum.
The claim from Turkey, one of the most publicised in Western’s medias, occured in 2013, when Turkey reclaimed sculptures created for the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus and was detained in the British Museum since the mid-19th century (Alberge, 2012). An Istanbul-based lawyer, Remzi Kazmaz, made an interesting statement in the Observer newspaper: “We thank the British authorities and the British Museum for accommodating and preserving our historical and cultural heritage for the last years. However, the time has come for these assets to be returned to their place of origin.” (Kazmaz, 2012). Opacity seems to have prevailed in this legal case, from both sides actually, when Kazmaz declined to elaborate on the legal argument used, and when a British museum representative declared that “we have not heard anything about the legal case … we can’t comment.”. The spokewoman also said that those sculptures were acquired in perfect legality. But what is legality in cultural heritage and patrimony? This raises a number of issues.
Another conflictual situation occurred when the British Museum was planning an exhibition about the Haj in 2012. The Topkapi museum was supposed to loan several artefacts, but cancelled at the last minute. Indeed, in exchange, Mr Gunnaï, Ministry of Culture, claimed for the repatriation of the Samsat Stele, displayed at the British Museum since ninety years. After a diplomatic battle, the British Museum stated that they won’t return permanently the stele, but they will loan it to Turkey. For how long? For how much? It was unclear. It is very difficult to get information on such legal cases… And the only consistent message in the global press was Western institutions’ targeting the instrumentalisation in Turkish cultural policy.
Indeed, in order to put further pressure on Western institutions for repatriation of culture artefacts, the Erdogan government has denied some dig permits for archaeologists from countries like the UK or France (Pinkowsky, 2015). This blackmailing has of course given rise to widespread criticism from Western governments, pointing at Erdogan’s autocratic decisions. All the more so as, in pursuing real estate projects for the future of Turkey, Erdogan’s government has damaged some archaeological sites (ibid). All those factors interact constantly, which makes the case very complex but is telling about Turkish foreign policy and its objective as an international actor.
Also, it is interesting that Western museums leaders, like James Cuno, claim that repatriation process in general is “made in the interests of nationalism”. The debate is therefore not about the protection of cultural heritage, but more about Western museums and modern-states’ nationalist claims (Cuno, 2010). Museums professionals from Western institutions are then trying to change the focus of the repatriation debate. But then, in this view, the ‘national’ and ‘encyclopaedic museums’ are oxymoron. When looking at Erdogan’s Neo-Ottomanism (Barchard, 1985), one can say that culture is an instrumental tool to achieve nationalist aims. There is a fundamental paradox in the terms used: The British Museum is an encyclopaedic museum because its leaders claim that it is one, but it is still a national museum (Flessas, 2013), celebrating Britain colonial past and its diverse and gigantic collection of cultural artefact. George Abungu, former director general of the national museums of Kenya, makes a point when he questions the British museum’s legitimacy in calling itself an universal museum: “Why do they still call themselves by their original names? Why not “Universal Museum in Britain” rather than “British Museum”?”(Abungu, 2004)
Repatriation is seen here as an instrumental tool in cultural policy. Both sides claim their rights, with different philosophies and private interests regarding their cultural heritage. A solution might be to set up a transnational assembly, acting as a neutral referee. But where is the ‘neutral’ in cultural diplomacy? At least, it would be a better solution than the existing mosaic of cultural regulatory bodies and texts. This fragmentation of views within the museum world is particularly visible in the ‘Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums’ of 2002. It would therefore be the second manifestation of the new museology mind and of an increasing self-awareness within Western institutions, using ‘universality’ as a policy umbrella (Andersen and Oakley, 2009).
The Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums: What for/for whom?
Let’s focus on the textual appearance of the Declaration and try being objective in introducing this interesting piece of cultural policy. New museology has brought the notion of cosmopolitanism to the fore at the international level (Appiah in Cuno, 2010). Cosmopolitanism, in broad and philosophical terms, is “the idea that we have obligations to others […] that stretch beyond those to whom we are related by the ties of kith and kin, or even the formal ties of a shared citizenship” (Appiah, 2006). Concretely, it means that there is a way in which the global and local could interact positively. Museum professionals have thus incorporated those cosmopolitan values in the institutions’ management and policies. One of the principal outputs is the publication of the Declaration in 2002, emphasizing that signatories/Western institutions are ‘universal museums’, with an encyclopaedic blanket virtue (Flessas, 2013, p.17), aiming to educate people and promote a wide access to what seems to be the humankind patrimony (Flessas, 2013). Fantastic idea, isn’t it? Purely altruistic or marketing strategy? Or, for some, another manifestation of Western imperialism?
If we stick to the initial text, the signatories claim that “over time, objects so acquired have become part of the museums that have cared for them, and by extension part of the heritage of the nations which house them“; they add that “calls to repatriate objects that have belonged to museum collections for many years have become an important issue. Although each case has to be judged individually, we should acknowledge that museums serve not just the citizens of one nation but the people of every nation.”. The expressions used here emphasize the apparent leitmotiv of Western museums: we are part of one world and therefore the cultural patrimony doesn’t recognize any barriers (Curties, 2006).
Before the release of the Declaration, the idea of universal museums sounded idealistic and old-fashioned, like the one that inhabited the Universal Exhibitions’ spirit. But this concept came into a “new focus with the controversy provoked by the Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums” (Fiskesjö in Smith, 2014). This Declaration gave birth to an interesting debate around the role of Western museums vis-à-vis the cultural patrimony. But the concrete measures and outputs of the Declaration are very hard to identify, since there are different levels of readings and some gaps in the readings, and which are more Western-biased. As a result, I will focus on the different voices within the debate, and go further by claiming that the debate itself is in the continuum of Western imperialism.
As they were anticipating critics, museums directors put forward their goodwill when they released the Declaration. Neil MacGregor, British Museum’s director until recently, was the most present in the medias. This stems primarily from the Parthenon Marbles’ battle at the time, which was also a mediatized case. His argument was that the British Museum has this encyclopedic nature (MacGregor in Cuno, 2004) and has developed particular skills for the protection of artefacts. He stressed the number of visitors, saying that the institution allows people from all around the world to discover other cultures than their own (ibid). But in stressing the “other” cultures, did he really imply being universal? It seems like MacGregor and the other signatories understood well the strategies lying behind the ‘new museology’, like putting forward the “worldwide civic purpose” of their institutions (MacGregor in O’Neill, 2004, p.3).
It is true that, as some scholars admit, Western institutions, with the biggest collections, might be the only channel to “explore the relationship of the universal and the particular” (O’Neill, p.10, 2004). In other words, they are the only ones having the potential to achieve the cosmopolitan ideal. But the critics, with their targeting of how the Declaration have “fed the rationale for colonial domination” (ibid) are far too heavy to be ignored. Therefore, Western institutions should find a way to display a universal and cosmopolitan approach which does not embody Western cultural values inherited from the Enlightenment period (Branningan, 2000). At the same time, critics show how the Declaration isn’t a way toward this ideal, which might not even be the museums’ current leitmotiv.
Indeed, critics aroused quickly after the release of the Declaration. For some, let’s say half of the people involved in the debate, “the Declaration is a statement of self-interest, made by a group representing some of the world’s richest museums“ (Lewis, 2004: 3). Clearly, if one starts to contextualize the Declaration, it is easy to see that the signatories were facing rising repatriation demands (Fiskesjö in Smith, 2014). I mentioned the British Museum, but the list is actually quite broad, even though the Parthenon Marbles’ case is probably the most famous one. Speaking of what, it seems like the Declaration is explicitly addressing this particular issue when writing that “Moreover, the distinctly Greek aesthetic of these works appears all the more strongly as the result of their being seen and studied in direct proximity to products of other great civilizations.” In 2002, alongside the Declaration, the Italian government itself was putting pressure on the British Museum to give back the Parthenon Marbles to Greece (Gibbons, 2002).
Most of the critics also point out the “Western elite culture with ideas of the universal that is the most perturbing aspect of the Declaration” (Curtis, 2006, p.6). Indeed, this highlights a delicate paradox. When Cuno and McGregor claim that their museums are ‘encyclopedic’, they don’t put action to their words, in particular with respect to the repatriation requests. Indeed, if you take the repatriation demands from a universal point of view, no matter where the cultural artefacts have been kept and for how long, they belong to where they come from (even though this last concept of ‘cultural property’ is debatable) (Flessas, 2013).
Surprisingly (or not), Eastern countries’ cultural institutions are absent for the debate. From Eastern and Middle Eastern Countries, only George Abungu, expressed critics. Back in 2002, he wrote a paper in the ICOM (International Council Museums, created in 1946 in Paris by an American museum worker) newsletter: “The Declaration, a Contested Issue”. First of all, it was published on the ICOM website only, not in a ‘Eastern’ media. It could be assumed that the ICOM would be selective in its choice of published articles and would certainly put aside the ones that are deemed ‘too’ critical. Also, when looking at George Abungu’s background, it is worth mentioning that he studied and worked mostly in Western institutions, or in partnerships with the latter. In 2012, he was awarded with the Knight of the order of Arts and Letters by the French president, François Hollande, for his role in the conservation of ‘humankind patrimony’ (Oluoch, 2013); once again, it was in the name of the universal, but it was rewarded by a Western government. He is definitely not representing Eastern and Middle Eastern institutions’ voice in the debate, positioning himself in a ambiguous ‘entre-deux’.
As a result, it can be ascertained that the Declaration itself reflects a Western point of view on the cultural heritage and that even the debate that aroused afterwards encountered mostly Western, white and, for that matter, male participants. At least, the Declaration reinforces the realities of our society, filled with “gender and racial inequity” (Kaplan, 2016).
I would tend to say that the potential benefit of a Declaration like this one and its repercussion in the public sphere is to trigger a deeper debate within institutions, which could eventually lead to a deeper institutional critique (O’Neill, 2004). A new ‘new museology’ for 2016? It is questionable, since new museology’s trends are still widely used by Western institutions, which still make the running and define the ways a cultural institution should be run.
Indeed, it is also in the name of cosmopolitan values and the establishment of universal museums as an ideal-type model (Weber, 1904) that Western institutions are creating satellites and branches all over the world; both de jure and de facto, those new entities represent their reputation via the use of their name as a brand (Jones, 2014). One case is the Louvre Abu-Dhabi, soon-to-be-open after a three-years delay. I will discuss this case study in this third and last part of my paper.
The Louvre™ in Abu-Dhabi
Nike, Louis Vuitton, Apple… When you buy, you buy a brand. But when it comes to the museum world, it is slightly different, but actually not that much! It is the final stage in the building of a strong identity, implying a “reputation, following and clear expectations about what you’ll find there” (Jones in the guardian.com, 2014). When saying the Louvre, you are thinking about the Mona Lisa, aren’t you? Well, it means it is a successful brand strategy.
It is precisely the new museology’s orientation that has led to the implementation of this managerial and business-oriented strategy into the museum world. It has of course given rise to loads of critics (Gilmore and Rentschler, 2002).
One must say that a successful brand management is the recognition of the institution’s reputation under one name (Caldwell, 2000). Think about the Guggenheim or the Louvre (ibid). With respect to the latter, you think about Mona Lisa, but also certainly about the castle-like building, the prestige and quality of the display. The Louvre will be my focus, since the opening of the Louvre Abu-Dhabi has been widely debated, while representing the ‘success’ of exporting Western brands.
The Louvre Abu-Dhabi is now supposed to be 95% completed (Diaa, 2016), which renders this particular issue quite topical. Thus, I will focus more on the role played by the local authorities to explore how the critics could be counter-productive when ‘only’ talking about how ‘shocking’ it is to have business-oriented management strategies for museums.
Indeed, the critics coming from French scholars, art historians and museums workers might be surprising to some. It is certainly admitted that cultural institutions have to function and take appropriate strategies to survive within a “capitalist economy and competitive market” (Benhamou and Moureau in Vivant, 2011, p.2). The Louvre Abu-Dhabi contract is simply the logical consequence of the new museology managerial aspect. But French critics are targeting the “France’s business model vis-à-vis the Louvre partnership” (Ajana, 2015). Multiple voices and petitions are denying the financial benefits that the Louvre actually needs urgently: between 2000 and 2005, for instance, the Louvre’s budget had doubled and the benefits didn’t cover it (Benhamou, 2007). But for the critics, even though the deal might help the Louvre to remain sustainable in this rapidly-changing landscape, cultural artefacts shouldn’t be traded and museums shouldn’t be ruled by capitalism imperatives (Grimod, 2007).
The critics also raise the censorship issue (Tharoor, 2015). It sounds very French to be shocked by a ‘conservative’ approach to culture because the French are still inhabited by the “bourgeois values of liberty and individualism” (Tharoor, 2015) rooted in the French Revolution. But, for practical purposes, how can you claim for the opening of a new universal museum in the Middle-East that will bring cosmopolitanism to the other side of the Mediterranean when paintings of Christian saints won’t be displayed? Without going as far as saying that Western’s culture is only represented by catholic art and nude, when one looks at the Louvre’s collection, it is quite often that you can encounter a naked breast.
Unfortunately, those critics have taken us away from the real debate. Indeed, they are revealing the inner contradiction in the French cultural field. The private sector is seen as the devil when entering the latter. The French culture is therefore defined by a certain protectionism and pride vis-à-vis the supposed superiority of the French model (Benhamou, 2007). It is interesting to see that behind the critics made in the French territory, there is a Western imperialist and nationalist discourse laying.
Indeed, more than a management strategy (Vivant, 2011), the opening of the Louvre-Abu Dhabi is an opaque decision made by two governments, which is therefore not only linked to the museum world but to broader considerations.
First of all, the Louvre Abu-Dhabi is a consequence of an intergovernmental agreement between France and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) initiated in March 2007 (Ajana, 2015). This agreement wasn’t initially seen as part of cultural policy issues. Indeed, the fact is that this brand trade occurred in parallel with riffles and Airbus 380 sales. Conscious of this contested aspect, the Louvre and French politicians have stressed the inherent universality and cosmopolitanism of a city like Abu Dhabi (Louvre.com, 2015). But some writers remember us that “Abu-Dhabi itself did not exist in any form until 1791” (Tharoor, 2015) and that the UAE are still in need of legitimacy other than their oil in order to be heard when their natural resources will dry up (ibid).
Back in 2006, the French government decided to refresh the ‘label France’ (Lévy and Jouyet, 2006). Since national museum directors, like the Louvre’s, are mostly appointment by politics, there is a huge convergence of interests between the politic and the cultural spheres (Bourdieu, 1979). The opening of the Louvre Abu-Dhabi finds its roots in a long-term process, which started with a governmental impulse in 2006. This neo-liberal shift impacted the way cultural institutions were managed and led them to become an “autonomous and accountable State corporation” (Vivant, 2011, p.6). After developing partnerships, in France and abroad, this governmental strategy reached its peak with the Louvre Abu-Dhabi project. French authorities therefore have played a key role, and the new elections that occurred in 2012, bringing a left-wing government, didn’t affect the strategy.
It is interesting how French individuals involved are justifying this project in the name of, once again, universality. Jean-François Charnier, director of Agence France Museums, emphasizes how great is the idea to open an “universal museum” (Louvre.fr, 2016) in the Middle East. According to him, it is the only way to promote an alternative to the Westernization of culture (Charnier, 2015).
But it wasn’t only the French government that decided to export the Louvre’s name as a brand to Abu Dhabi; it was also a strategic choice made by the UAE. It draws from a myth according to which “museums are a city’s savior” (Vivant, 2011). Attracting a prestigious institution such as the Louvre is a key aspect of Abu Dhabi’s urban planning and ‘Oil for Art’ strategy. The use of a museum brand is then important for giving a positive image of a city (ibid). It is always a way to attract “tourists and consumers belonging to the transnational (upper) classes” (Vivant, 2011, p.5). So: universal? Maybe; but not from the audience accessibility point of view.
This debate is a proof of the implicit dynamics behind the cultural exchanges between two countries. It also reveals the contradictory discourses when it comes to defend or attack the turn that new museology has taken. Let’s hope that those intense discussions will lead to the creation of a space within the public sphere where a more critical approach will be allowed. The key issue is to integrate those different voices and set up a neutral space in order to agree on concrete outputs. Museums for the people, by the people.
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