Monday, March 05, 2007

France gets it (almost)

The proposal to open a branch of the Louvre in Abu Dhabi demonstrates that France has worked out a key fact about museums. Opposition to the proposal shows that the French do not.

The principal problem for all the great museums of the world has been finding space to display the treasures. The British Museum was built to display the booty of empire and was filled before it was ever opened. The private collections are vast. The National Gallery and the Tate have more art in storage than they know what to do with.

When I was at Oxford the college walls were hung with works by Pollack and Piper and Riley. The works the college could borrow were not the best work of the artists in the national collection but they were certainly respectable. If the college had been prepared to put in an expensive security system etc they could certainly have obtained more significant pieces of art.

If the great museums only ever put their first collection on display the vast bulk of the material is never shown. It would mean that each museum was only worth seeing once. There are very few works which merit being on permanent display.

The expansion of the Louvre to create the Grand Louvre didn't even dent the stockrooms. There was and is far more to show. Why not put it on display in Abu Dhabi?

The objectors seem to still be thinking in the imperial mindset of 'the point of having it is that you don't have it'. In the Internet age its the idea that matters, not the physical object that is the embodiment of the idea.

The Louvre has worked out a way to raise money, show works that would not otherwise be on public display and establish goodwill in a foreign country. Why is this a bad idea?

More importantly, consider the fact of where all this booty came from in the first place. Most of it was stolen by Napoleon or one of his cronies. One of the issues that creates real potential for irridentist type friction in future international relations are complaints of the form 'colonial power X stole our priceless cultural heritage and refuses to return it'.

This type of international exchange program if taken to its logical limit has the potential to restore a measure of balance. Cultural property becomes cultural ambassadors.

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