In The Guardian, Kanishk Tharoor offers a lengthy analysis of the geopolitical dynamics behind the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, taking into account the history and political function of museums. An excerpt:
It is unfortunate that the first museum to break the west’s monopoly of the universal is so ethically flawed. The likes of James Cuno, head of the Getty, and Neil MacGregor, departing chief of the British Museum, are right to emphasise the need for humanist institutions like theirs in a time when information technology, global capital, and resurgent chauvinisms shove people both together and apart. Yet lifting the universal museum from its bedrock of western privilege remains a major challenge. (We should not sniff at online dissemination of art, but it still insists on the grossly unfair divide between people who get to experience art intimately, on the other side of the glass, and people who will only ever see that art from a remove, pixellated on the screen.)
Universal museums will never be evenly distributed around the world. The same legal and political conditions that limit the directors of the great western museums will make it hard for museums in Asia, Africa, and Latin America to build their own diverse collections. The laissez-faire norms of the 19th and early 20th centuries have given way to a more rigid system of cultural exchange, in which would-be curators cannot imitate their European forebears in happily relieving the world of its cultural patrimony. The best they can hope for is a trickle of expensive and grudging loans from institutions in the west.
Short of a Met in every middling metropolis, an ideal future for the universal museum might look something like this. It would be constantly in motion, moving from country to country as a touring exhibition of the world’s cultural patrimony. Like the Louvre Abu Dhabi, it would be organised chronologically, avoiding the taxonomy of region and civilisation. People in Lagos and Lima might walk its halls, studying the intricacies of Safavid chainmail or the unfurling of Chinese landscapes, and feel as much of a claim to those objects as Londoners do now. This roving caravan of marvels would be a logistical nightmare and a financial impossibility, but it would best express the ethos of the global museum, free of the bedevilling complications of place.
Image: The skeleton of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, designed by Jean Nouvel, rises above Saadiyat Island. Via The Guardian.