The irony of Louvre’s soft-power lesson for China, as museum’s history tour comes to Hong Kong
An exhibition depicting the story of France’s Louvre museum, currently in Beijing and coming to Hong Kong, is a lesson in cultural power, although its history of acquiring relics from colonies would be frowned upon today
Mona Lisa. Venus de Milo. The Winged Victory of Samothrace. To most people, Paris’ Louvre Museum is a magnificent repository of some of the world’s best-known art.
Now, an exhibition featuring more than 100 artworks and models of the museum has turned the spotlight on the institution itself. It illuminates the story of the Louvre and its transformation from a medieval fortress 800 years ago, to a grandiose palace and then a home to academies and studios before it became the world’s most visited museum and a cultural titan.
“The Louvre is a famous name. But it is also a beautiful palace, and Inventing Le Louvre shows the important relationship between the museum and French history,” says Jean-Luc Martinez, director of the Louvre since 2013. He hopes the exhibition, currently at Beijing’s National Museum of China and moving to Hong Kong in April as part of Le French May’s 25th anniversary programme, will encourage more Chinese people to visit the real thing.
In return, China can learn from the story of how the Louvre became a cultural powerhouse as it, too, wants to promote its own culture abroad, says Pansy Ho Chiu-king, the Hong Kong patron helping to fund the exhibition in Beijing and Hong Kong.
Any museum would be envious of the Louvre’s attendance figures. A staggering 7.4 million people – 70 per cent of whom were from outside France – visited in 2016. It has consistently been more popular than any other top museum, including the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the National Palace Museum in Taipei.
Yet the Louvre’s story makes it a dubious role model for China. The incredible range of the exhibits coming to Hong Kong reflects the past glory of the same Western imperialism and feudalism that the Communist Party in China finds most repugnant. Consider the effect that a third millennium BC statue of Prince Gudea of Lagash, an archaeological find claimed by France in 1881, and Jean-Honore Fragonard’s Rinaldo in the Enchanted Forest, an exuberant symbol of the decadent Ancien Regime in Paris, would have on the psyche of some of the more old-fashioned cadres.
But perhaps the Louvre’s experience and diplomatic track record is useful to China, given the nation’s struggle with its global image and the fact that even a satellite Palace Museum within its own border has been condemned by some in Hong Kong as a hostile initiative.
The Louvre, along with other Western institutions such as the British Museum, find their collections and expertise much in demand worldwide, despite continued demands to repatriate relics looted from other countries in the past. In fact, The British Museum’s A History of the World in 100 Objects is being displayed concurrently with the Louvre exhibits at the National Museum of China.
“The way the Louvre has interacted with other cultures over the years is relevant to China today, as it embarks on its ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative,” says Ho, who curated the One Belt, One Road Visual Arts Exhibition in Hong Kong last year to promote the country’s development strategy to revive the land and maritime silk routes dating back to the days of Venetian merchant traveller Marco Polo.
The Louvre’s recent international activities are in part driven by fiscal needs. It made a loss of €9.7 million (HK$80 million) last year after attendance fell by 13 per cent from the previous year. A spate of terrorist attacks in France have deterred foreign tourists, and the museum had to close last spring when the Seine overflowed.
In October the French government raised its annual cultural budget by 6 per cent to €2.9 billion, in an effort to bring tourists back. It marked a reversal of years of cuts that President François Hollande said were necessary to help reduce the government’s deficits. Louvre curators say, however, that government funding is no longer enough to run a massive, modern museum.
“The French state always used to pay for the museums but that is no longer possible because of the new reality of economic liberalism,” says Pascal Torres, chief curator at the Louvre’s department of interpretation and cultural programming.
Under its previous director, Henri Loyrette (2001-2013), the museum boosted its overseas revenue by hiring out more turnkey touring exhibitions. Along with other Western museums, it also started to appeal to wealthy individuals around the world for donations. (Ho was made its “China ambassador” in 2013.)
Then, in 2007, the Louvre Abu Dhabi opened in one of the most significant shifts since the new “Grand Louvre” was unveiled with I. M. Pei’s glass pyramid in 1989.
The emirate agreed to pay France €1 billion in exchange for a 30-year use of the Louvre name, loans from French museum collections and museum expertise. It also agreed to cover the cost of renovating numerous French cultural venues. This include building a new gallery within the Louvre dedicated to its history, which forms the basis of the Beijing and Hong Kong shows.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi project has been beset with problems. The French museum, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and the British Museum – also involved in neighbouring museum developments on Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island – have been criticised by the Gulf Labour Artist Coalition for failing to protect the rights of migrant labourers working on their projects. Meanwhile, construction delays mean that the Louvre’s first overseas branch – Jean Nouvel’s beautiful design with a lattice dome – is scheduled to open this year five years after the original 2012 deadline. It is also unpopular in France. A plan to lend famous masterpieces such as La Belle Ferronniere (attributed to Leonardo da Vinci) to Abu Dhabi for a year or two had to be pared back to just a few months because of objections in France, Torres says.
The demand for the Louvre’s programmes in China stands in stark contrast to the limited international profile of the country’s own museums. Chinese collections simply do not match the diversity of those in Western institutions for historical reasons, but many museums also lack world-class professionals and the freedom to present programmes with broader appeal.
Recent in-house productions have been dominated by solo exhibitions of artists with no international profile, a collection of social realism paintings glorifying the “victory of the Long March” and a photo exhibition called Let’s Roll up Our Sleeves to Work Harder: The China Dream and the Beauty of Labour.
The Louvre’s success lies in its determination to evolve with the rest of the world, for the values it represents and for promoting cultural dialogue, Torres says.
“In the 19th century, the idea of universality was linked to the colonies. It was a way to conceive the world. Today it would be disgusting and impossible to present civilisation that way,” he says.
“There cannot be another Louvre but our experience can help another country create a proper Western museum. Outside of France, the Louvre is a symbol. Abu Dhabi is a new country that is one of the richest in the world. It wants to show that richness, and it asks the Louvre to add its name to the museum,” he adds.
It is not the museum’s mission to impose France’s democratic values, according to Torres. “The Louvre is a top museum in a republic, a democratic world. I know the UAE is not a democracy. Maybe our collections will impart some of our democratic values, but that is not our mission,” he says.
Torres stresses that it is not the Louvre’s policy to make a profit from overseas exhibitions – the money it receives enables it to keep its collection in good condition in France and to share it abroad.
“We ask supporters like Pansy Ho to donate, so we can continue our policy of showing exhibitions outside France. It is a very American method, but that’s OK. We don’t earn any money from the exhibitions. The donations just help to cover the cost of making them happen,” he says.
“Inventing Le Louvre: From Palace to Museum over 800 Years”, Hong Kong Heritage Museum,
1 Man Lam Rd, Sha Tin, April 26 to July 24
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: tour of beauty