Bold new Islamic wing for Louvre

It is known as the Veil and is described by its architects as a giant glass Muslim headscarf in the heart of Paris. Former French president Jacques Chirac saw it as one way to avert a clash of civilisations in the run-up to the Iraq war. President Nicolas Sarkozy calls it the symbol of France’s friendship with the Arab world.

Sarkozy laid the first stone of the Louvre’s bold new Islamic art wing two weeks ago, launching the museum’s most daring project since IM Pei created the giant glass pyramid 20 years ago.

The world’s most visited museum will have Europe’s biggest purpose-built exhibition space for an Islamic art collection, which France hopes will reconcile the secular republic with the world of Islamic heritage.

The €86-million project will open in 2010, creating 3 000m2 of gallery space in one of the museum’s neo-classical courtyards. Rather than cover the courtyard, a glass “luminous veil” will “float” above the ground, covering two floors. The Italian architect, Mario Bellini, this week described the undulating roof as “a headscarf blown in by the wind”.

It was a pertinent image, coming soon after French citizenship was denied to a resident Moroccan woman who wears a veil. France outlaws the headscarf and other religious symbols in public schools and on Wednesday Fadela Amara, a Muslim and feminist junior minister, criticised all form of veils.

The project’s other architect, Rudy Ricciotti, said: “It is important for France, with a Muslim population of five million, to create something that speaks directly to the presence of Muslims in this country. This is a political museum in the noble sense of the term, in that the secular republic recognises all its people.”

The Louvre boasts one of the world’s most comprehensive Islamic art collections. More than 10 000 pieces range from the 7th to 19th century. Yet most of the Islamic works have been in storage for more than 20 years, never afforded the same prominence as Western exhibits.—

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