Plans for 'Desert Louvre' Provoke Outrage in France

French architect Jean Nouvel, Louvre director Henri Loyrette, Mubarak al-Muhairi, director general of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority, and French Culture Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres talk to journalists at the signing ceremony Tuesday.
French architect Jean Nouvel, Louvre director Henri Loyrette, Mubarak al-Muhairi, director general of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority, and French Culture Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres talk to journalists at the signing ceremony Tuesday. (By Kamran Jebreili -- Associated Press)

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By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 11, 2007

PARIS -- The most visited museum in the world -- the Louvre -- is set to open its first international outpost on a currently uninhabited island off the coast of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.

In the largest foreign museum deal in French history, the petro-rich but museum-poor Persian Gulf emirate agreed last week to pay France $1.3 billion to borrow the Louvre's name and hundreds of its artworks, as well as treasures from the Picasso Museum, Pompidou Center, Chateau de Versailles and other French museums.

French President Jacques Chirac described the mega-museum agreement as an important way of bridging what the "world considers a clash of civilizations" between Islam and the West. To many French art experts and historians, however, it represents little more than putting the nation's priceless patrimony up for rent.

"Appalling!" declared Daniel Alcouffe, 68, an honorary curator of the Louvre who headed its decorative arts department for nearly two decades. He echoed the outrage expressed by some of the country's most prominent art experts and historians. "It's a shame to see France selling out its heritage," he said.

The "Desert Louvre," as the French press has dubbed the deal, is part of a revolutionary initiative by France to expand its global influence through its vast cultural heritage and holdings -- the one realm where it remains a dominant world power -- in the face of its shrinking diplomatic and economic clout.

The French government is offering up some of its greatest cultural names and assets to Middle Eastern governments awash in cash, as well as to newly wealthy developing nations eager to globalize their cultural offerings. In January, the Pompidou Center in Paris, one of the world's largest museums of contemporary and modern art, announced plans to open a branch in Shanghai. The Rodin Museum is considering adding a site in Brazil. Chirac says he wants museum partnerships in Russia, India, Africa and South America.

The global outreach effort includes other cultural icons. The Sorbonne university in Paris opened a satellite campus in Abu Dhabi in October, the first expansion in its 750-year history. And the elite military academy established by Napoleon Bonaparte, the Ecole Speciale Militaire de Saint-Cyr, is considering a training academy for military officers in the Persian Gulf nation of Qatar.

But none of the plans has caused as much uproar as the Abu Dhabi Louvre, one component of a $27 billion arts center the emirate is creating on the sands of the 10-square-mile island of Saadiyat, just off its mainland. The center is Abu Dhabi's effort to compete with glitzy, neighboring Dubai for tourists and international recognition.

The Abu Dhabi Louvre will be housed in a French-designed, domed building resembling a giant flying saucer -- or a mushroom, depending on one's perspective. The complex, scheduled to be completed in five years, will include the world's largest Guggenheim Museum, 29 luxury hotels and three marinas with berths for 10,000 yachts. Sheik Sultan bin Tahnoon al-Nahyan, chairman of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority, said the emirate's ambition is to "reach an arts and architectural level never before achieved."

When word of the pending Middle Eastern Louvre deal leaked several months ago, French opponents circulated a petition on the Internet under the headline "Our museums are not for sale!" As of last week, 4,700 curators, art historians, archaeologists and art enthusiasts had signed.

"We're not selling the French legacy and heritage," French Culture Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres insisted during the signing ceremony in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday. "We're proud that Abu Dhabi wants to bring the Louvre here. We're not here to transform culture into a consumer product."

The next day, the Louvre's director, Henri Loyrette, assured reporters in Paris that the Louvre's most famous works, such as the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo, which helped attract 8.35 million visitors to the museum last year, would "never be loaned out."

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