ABU DHABI (Reuters Life!) - A controversial branch of the Louvre museum which rights activists say is being built by exploited Asian labor will promote "universalism" and a new multi-cultural harmony, French curators say.
President Nicolas Sarkozy inaugurated construction of the Abu Dhabi Louvre -- due to open in 2013 -- at a ceremony during a visit this week where France pursued political and economic interests while opening a French naval base.
France is vying with the United States for lucrative contracts in developing the UAE's nuclear energy program.
But Sarkozy did not actually visit the Saadiyat Island where the Louvre branch will be. Last week, New York-based Human Rights Watch accused the UAE of exploiting thousands of Asian workers hired to build museums and art galleries on the showcase island.
The UAE, where Asian blue-collar labor forms the largest group in the 4.5 million population, has denied the charges.
Dispensing huge oil revenues, it says it will ensure there is "model housing" so that workers who usually work long hours in the intense summer hear are not put up in shanty camps.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner made light of the ruckus during the tour this week. "Do you believe that forced workers have started the work? Sarkozy will lay the first stone. He is the first slave," he joked to reporters.
A source close to Sarkozy said France was aware of the controversy over workers. "You all know well that we are not in charge of the construction of this building but of course we will ensure it will be done in full compliance with our values."
At a series of panel discussions this week, French museum experts outlined lofty intentions.
"Universalism is at the heart of the Abu Dhabi Louvre," said Henri Loyrette, director of the Musee du Louvre. "It will not be a replica of the Louvre. It will be unique. Here barriers created by different artistic disciplines will be abolished."
Artists' images of the museum on a giant screen behind the speaker showed an ethereal-looking futuristic building in white, surrounded by water and filled with light.
A 29-piece collection is now on display in Abu Dhabi, which like other Gulf cities, is trying to put itself on the global arts map with prestigious museums, festivals and exhibits.
They include a Greek vase in Roman style, an early Chinese Buddha head and a Mamluk Quranic text showing Mongolian influence. Many have been bought by The Louvre team with Abu Dhabi money for undisclosed sums.
Yves Le Fur, director of collections of the Musee du Quai Branly, said although many artifacts found their way to Europe through colonial pillage, they would be "liberated from ideology" through being brought together in a new location.
"They are objects of other religions, philosophies, ways of thinking, other technology. They are also objects that we can have misunderstandings about," he said.
Sulayman Khalaf, a Syrian anthropologist who works in Abu Dhabi, asked whether the Abu Dhabi Louvre did not run the risk of being divorced from Emirati society.
"France and French institutions are helping Abu Dhabi to create a national institution," responded Laurence des Cars, the chief curator and scientific director of the project. She said the Louvre will run lectures to raise cultural awareness.
Additional reporting by Stanley Carvalho and Yann Le Guernigou; Editing by Thomas Atkins