Louvre building new galleries for Islamic art; single largest expansion project since pyramid
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Louvre building new galleries for Islamic art; single largest expansion project since pyramid
View of the construction underway. © R. Ricciotti – M. Bellini / Musée du Louvre © photo 2011 Musée du Louvre / Antoine Mongodin.

PARIS.- The creation of a new wing dedicated to Islamic art at the Louvre represents a decisive phase in the architectural history of the palace and in the development of the museum. The design and installation of these new galleries is the museum’s single largest expansion project since I. M. Pei created the now-famous Pyramid twenty years ago. The new department will soon be home to one of the most exceptional collections of Islamic art in the world, owing to its geographic diversity, the historical periods covered, and the wide variety of materials and techniques represented.

This unprecedented project grew out of one of the first observations made by Henri Loyrette upon his appointment as the Louvre’s president and director in 2001: the museum’s collection of Islamic art, due to its existence as a mere section of the Department of Near Eastern Antiquities, lacked sufficient space to reveal the full measure of its wondrous treasures to the public. From its inception, the resulting project received the unwavering support of Jacques Chirac, then president of France, who viewed it as a way for the Louvre to “solidify its mission as a universal cultural institution, while underlining for France and the rest of the world the essential contributions made by Islamic civilizations to our culture,” to encourage a dialogue of cultures and civilizations, and thus was instrumental in ensuring that the Louvre could reinstall the museum’s collection of Islamic art in a space where its indisputable richness and diversity could be more readily appreciated. On July 16, 2008, at the ground-breaking ceremony for the Louvre’s new galleries dedicated to Islamic art, current President Nicolas Sarkozy in turn emphasized the importance of this project as a way to promote understanding between peoples and cultures.

More than 2,500 works will be exhibited in the future galleries, including works from the Louvre’s own collection, supplemented by major permanent loans from the collection of the Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs. The new department will cover the entire cultural reach of the Islamic world, from Spain to India, and will span its full chronological range, from the seventh to the nineteenth century. These works, many of which will be on public view for the first time, have also been the focus of a comprehensive and prodigious restoration plan.

Throughout the eight hundred years of its history, the Louvre palace has repeatedly attracted each period’s most talented and influential innovators in the field of architecture. Set against the backdrop of the restored Cour Visconti, one of the palace’s most ornate interior courtyards, the new Department of Islamic Art will offer a expansive window into the extraordinarily rich and diverse artistic heritage of the Islamic world. In the immediate context at the Louvre, visitors will be able to explore aspects of contrast and continuity between collections, as the new wing will adjoin the museum’s presentation of late antique art from the eastern Mediterranean, including works from Roman and Coptic Egypt, Syria, Phoenicia and Palestine (in a redesigned exhibition space entitled “The Eastern Mediterranean Provinces of the Roman Empire”).

The creation and integration of this new wing raised considerable architectural challenges at a site of such immense historical importance. To meet these challenges, the architects Rudy Ricciotti and Mario Bellini have achieved a subtle and elegant balance between the seventeenth-century courtyard’s neoclassical facades and the need for a contemporary yet universal homage to Islamic art by way of an undulating glass roof enclosing the galleries, which discreetly allows diffused natural light to fill the exhibition spaces. The entire edifice, a symphony of glass and metal, extends beneath the Cour Visconti’s existing facades to create two sub-levels in addition to the courtyard level, one of which will be used to display objects that are highly sensitive to light, while the other will house technical facilities.

A feat at once architectural, cultural and artistic, this major project also takes on another dimension, which goes to the very heart of the Louvre’s mission as a universal museum, by breaking down barriers, crossing borders, and fostering a dialogue of cultures and civilizations. Today, the Louvre is a museum open to the world and, at the behest of numerous institutions worldwide, is present across all continents through exhibitions, archaeological excavations, as well as exhibition and museum planning and curatorial consulting. At a time when dialogue and exchanges between peoples and cultures are of fundamental importance, the new Department of Islamic Art will be a space and a venue paying tribute to and also furthering mutual understanding, building bridges between the East and the West where we can speak of our differences but also, and above all, our shared history and reciprocal influences over the centuries.

The very name given to this new wing Department of Islamic Art is in keeping with an approach that the Louvre intends to embrace to its full extent. The objective is to present the luminous aspects of a civilization, its impact on a richly varied humanity, by way of a broad and inclusive panorama presenting very different cultures (Andalusian, Mamluk, Ottoman, Persian, etc.). More than merely inviting visitors to view a succession of works, the aim is to take them on a genuine journey of the senses to the heart of Islamic civilization. To this end, the plan for the new galleries incorporates a substantial outreach component conveyed in particular through a set of tools and resources designed to help visitors contextualize the works on display, situate works historically and geographically, decipher motifs and figures, and even test their own conclusions against those of specialists.

The building of this new wing at the Louvre dedicated to Islamic art has been made possible through the generous support of the museum’s exceptional sponsors and donors. Our first and main sponsor, actively involved from the project’s very inception, is His Royal Highness Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, who was the guest of honor at the ground-breaking ceremony in July 2008. Several national governments subsequently signed on to lend their support to this major project: His Majesty King Mohammed VI of Morocco, His Highness Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah, Emir of Kuwait, in the name of the State of Kuwait, His Majesty Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said, Sultan of Oman, and the Omani people, and the Republic of Azerbaijan.

In summer 2012, once all of the collections have been installed, the opening of the Department of Islamic Art’s new galleries will mark the culmination of a project lasting nearly four and a half years.

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