A walk through the Jean Nouvel-designed space is a little surreal and a little Sci-Fi poetry: a wash of white and pale gray, granite and basalt floors, and the signature “rain of light” that floods through an Islamic geometry-inspired, 80-metre diametre dome made of eight overlapping layers. “It is all about light,” says Nouvel, who adds that the structure “plays with the inertia and structure of the Madina, empowering Emirati identity through reinterpretation, not pastiche.”
The Louvre Abu Dhabi team, lead by director Manuel Rabaté, indicate that Nouvel’s architectural feature was built as much to play with light and the outdoor atmospheric ambiance as to alleviate temperature concerns—they worked with climate engineers to deflect the surrounding desert sun and heat. Considered an all year space, despite the museum’s largely outdoor layout nestled in the middle of the sky, sand, sun and water, the building dialogues intentionally with the inside and outside—apparent through Nouvel’s incorporation of the ‘urban window’ in the auditorium, which gives a view of the outdoor scenery and hints at the boat access—and encourages an organic ebb-and-flow.
Louvre Abu Dhabi’s plaza © Louvre Abu Dhabi. Photography by Mohamed Somji
Nouvel’s Louvre is more like a neighbourhood than a museum, with each interior differing in size and height but possessing visual continuity, linking each summer terrace, more ‘winter’ corner, or intermittently narrow and rectilinear viewing hall. Inspired by Islamic geometry and architecture since the 1990s when he first worked with its principles on the Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris, Nouvel has left numerous touches throughout the museum that stand equal to what the museum will offer art-wise. In his words, he is “an architect who does design.” From specially designed chairs in the auditorium and light boxes in the central exterior hall to the framing of the vitrines with bronze—because “the art felt like it was in jail, so the bronze adds rhythm and lets objects breathe”— Nouvel has created a flexible space embodying his vision of “a noble definition of architectural components” in the succession of novel spaces.
The conceptual foundation of the Louvre is likewise built around this concept of flexibility—it has 12 main gallery halls flanked by smaller rooms adorned with bronze panels to resemble a cabinet. For its premier, the curatorial team has chosen to fill the main halls with 12 universal steps of human history. “It is the heritage of human kind, a return to the narrative, and the first universal museum,” says Jean-Francois Charnier, scientific director of Agence France- Muséums. “The 12 chapters that compose Louvre Abu Dhabi’s museum trail have been chosen to reflect the universal story of humanity. From the hours on a clock face to the signs of the zodiac, culturally and historically, the number 12 has been symbolic across various civilisations.” The side spaces meanwhile, will adopt tangential themes.
Louvre Abu Dhabi’s ‘rain of light’ © Louvre Abu Dhabi. Photography by Mohamed Somji
“Each moment or chapter required a reflection on the sequence of history, asking which significant interlinking steps best capture the universal nature of humanity and our common connections through time, from pre-history to the contemporary world through a series of chrono-thematic galleries,” explains Charnier of the rigorous research and study behind the curatorial choices. “Each main gallery will display five or six topics, transcultural or monographic. This was not only a historical theoretical reflection but a study connecting history with aesthetic and cultural production, since our story is told through artworks and museum collections.”
The attempt to find methods for dialogue between the different cultures, departments and civilisations at the museum is an institutional first, just as it is to become a platform for thinking about multiplicity, asserts the team. However, Charnier clarifies, “The collection does not set out to be encyclopaedic.” Each hall is custom built around the works it houses, and Charnier adds that the loans will rotate annually, the paper works will change every three months, and the overarching themes are designed with a lifespan of four to five years in order to attempt to sidestep novel curating and continue to draw crowds.
Osman Hamdy Bey. A Young Emir Studying, Istanbul. 1878. Oil on canvas. 45.5x90cm, 73x118.2x13.8cm. Collection of Louvre Abu Dhabi. © Louvre Abu Dhabi/Agence Photo F
The Court of the Prince hall, as an example, explores global courtly culture and features Western marble sculptures alongside Chinese and Mughal works, as well as a display of pieces from the Kingdom of Benin, while the smaller galleries will tackle the art of war and armour. “Representation of the ruler becomes frequent, witnessing a need for legitimacy,” explains Charnier. “A gallery will demonstrate this richness of royal iconography from different civilisations, where royal portraits will be hung alongside each other allowing the visitor to compare models of representation and the way different cultures perceive the image of power.”
Agence France- Muséums, which structures French cultural institutions, has been working since 2008 to acquire the permanent collection which currently stands at around 600 works, as well as establish loans— some of which mark the first for France in two centuries—for the estimated 650 works which will be on display come the opening. While visitors can anticipate Egyptian relics, van Goghs, dancing Shivas from the 10th century and da Vincis, there will also be contemporary pieces by artists such as Cy Twombly and Jackson Pollock, or Giuseppe Penone and Jenny Holzer, who have outdoor installations. “The diversity of the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s collection will speak for itself at the museum opening,” says Charnier. “The collection offers a selection of works from prehistory to contemporary art.” This includes, he adds, ‘classics’ which would traditionally not otherwise be seen in the UAE or Islamic nation, but these works play an important role in art history, and ultimately, education is at the heart of the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
Gustave Caillebotte. Game of Bezique. 1880. Oil on canvas. 148.2x190.0x11.3cm (with climatic frame). Permanent collection of Louvre Abu Dhabi. © Louvre Abu Dhabi
“It represents a sea change in art historical education in the UAE, and we are already seeing the effects in schools, universities and beyond,” explains Charnier. “Over the years, Louvre Abu Dhabi has worked extensively with schools and partner organisations such as the Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC) to promote understanding of art and culture, and to translate our collection, vision and research facilities into academic programmes and the curriculum. In turn, Abu Dhabi has seen a real increase in availability of bachelor and postgraduate degrees in curation and museum studies launched by local universities, including NYU Abu Dhabi, Zayed University and Paris-Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi.
“We are very pleased to support higher education in the field through initiatives like the Student Ambassador Programme,” he says. With the museum is in place, Charnier elaborates on its future initiatives, including acknowledging the rise of Emiratis pursuing cultural sector careers, many of which are being brought on board at the museum; the children’s sector, which will feature the inaugural exhibition Travelling Shapes and Colours covering artistic traditions across the globe and time; the inclusion of innovative mediation devices in the galleries such as animated maps “to perceive the universality of the sequence or visual stories, short movies allowing the visitor to understand an artwork”; a programme of symposiums, performances, concerts, dance and visual arts, many of which will be held in the 260-seat auditorium; as well as four annual temporary exhibitions organised by French partner museums through Agence France-Muséums. “If Louvre Abu Dhabi can feed into this intellectual debate,” says Charnier, “then it will be fulfilling its role.”