Sharing game: museum exhibits

As a sneak preview of the treasures acquired for the Louvre Abu Dhabi gets underway, Vision looks at why and how priceless artefacts traverse the globe

Artworks by Picasso, Magritte and Manet went on show at the Manarat Al-Saadiyat visitors’ centre in late April as part of an exhibition of 130 treasures that have been acquired for the forthcoming Louvre Abu Dhabi.
 
Due to open in 2015, the museum will emphasise the UAE’s position as a geographical crossroads, with artefacts from contrasting cultures displayed side by side. The bulk of these objects will be bought outright – and many already have, from Indian miniatures and a Tang dynasty inlaid box to an ancient Qur’an – but some will be borrowed from the collections of French museums, as part of a deal between the French government and the city of Abu Dhabi. These museums include the Pompidou Centre, Musée d'Orsay and Palace of Versailles, as well as the Louvre itself.
 
The Louvre’s “vocation,” France’s former President, Jacque Chirac, said in the past, is “to reach out to the world, to the essence of mankind, through the contemplation of works of art,” and certainly the primary aim of most national museums is to educate the widest possible audience, but there are many reasons for a top institution to lend artefacts.

Raising awareness

A loan may give a boost to the reputation of a lending museum, which in turn can help attract sponsors and donations, or highlight the rich cultural history of an entire civilisation, as when China lent the British Museum 120 ancient objects belonging to the First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty for its record-smashing exhibition The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Warriors back in 2007.
 
Hannah Boulton, a spokesperson from the British Museum, told Vision: “The lending institution has an opportunity to reach a global audience through the Museum’s visitors,” and pointed out that the partnerships are highlighted on promotional materials. “We are fortunate that because of the Museum’s international reputation, lenders are keen to allow us to borrow objects, just as we are keen to lend our material to other museums across the world.”
 
Of course, international loans frequently come with financial incentives; money raised often goes towards preserving a museum's own collection, new acquisitions, or to help fund any necessary refurbishments.
 
But while money may be important, it’s not at odds with those other reasons for sharing art, as Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, France’s Culture Minister when the agreement was made, pointed out at the time. “We’re not selling the French legacy and heritage,” he said. “We want this culture to radiate to parts of the world that value it.”

New insights

At other times, reciprocal deals are struck. At the National Gallery’s huge 2011-2012 Leonardo da Vinci exhibition, the Louvre lent its famous Virgin of the Rocks to display alongside the National’s own version of the same work by the artist. A few months later, the National shipped its Leonardo painting of St Mary, her mother, Anne, and an infant Jesus – a draft version, or “cartoon” – to Paris for the Louvre to display alongside its own, completed version. Such deals allow scholars to come up with new insights about important works, and allow visitors the rare opportunity to see the development of a masterpiece.
 
At the British Museum, “the negotiation process for each exhibition is different,” Hannah Boulton says. “We usually have strong existing relationships with other museums, so the negotiations often begin from those personal relationships.”
 
Sometimes, these negotiations can be challenging. But with 460 key works already acquired, and a deal in place with a gaggle of the world’s best museums, the Louvre Abu Dhabi shouldn’t run into too many difficulties.