After more than a decade of planning and construction, the Louvre Abu Dhabi finally opened its doors to visitors Nov. 11., 2017.

The museum serves as another stepping stone in the development of the United Arab Emirate’s cultural hub, Saadiyat Island, which translates to “Island of Happiness.” Although its construction ultimately cost the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture & Tourism an estimated $650 million, the Louvre is expected to reap rewards for the oil-rich nation.

Aiming to do away with its petroleum-based economic crutch, the United Arab Emirates is using the museum as a part of its soft power diplomatic policy. If successful, Abu Dhabi would complement Dubai’s presence on the world stage as a global city of cultural tolerance.

In a word, the museum is grand, epitomized in the museum’s architecture by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Jean Nouvel. The bold white of the museum gives it a remarkable glow against the water surrounding it.

The elaborate aluminum-lacing dome covering the building is composed of 7,850 individual “stars” arranged in a geometrical pattern. It weighs in at around 7,700 tons and measures around 591 feet high.

The opening ceremony did not lack in splendor, either. Among the attendees were Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi; Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai; French President Emmanuel Macron; and Moroccan King Mohammed IV.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi is being marketed as a synthesis of historical works from around the world. Nouvel said to Architectural Digest it “would become a museum of civilizations,” and Sheikh Mohammad Bin Zayed tweeted that it “brings together unique art icons that reflect humanity’s collective genius.”

Essentially, the Louvre Abu Dhabi is attempting to peer at history through a global lens. The goal is ambitious and the effort commendable, but the project has yet to fully achieve its objective.

When walking through the gallery, display s feel like they’ve been mixed and matched. Rather than grouping them based on chronology or geographic location, curators have placed objects together based on visual likeness.

Although this tactic results in the absence of a cohesive narrative, the hope is that viewers accustomed to colonialist approaches to curating art accept that all cultures and their arts are equally valuable. The nobility in that aim should be applauded.

The outcome is a painting by British painter Francis Cotes sharing space with a portrait by Japanese artist Kitagawa Utamaro. Torah scrolls are displayed next to Quranic scriptures. A sarcophagus and a statue of Ramses can be found in close proximity to a Virgin and Child sculpture.

With this approach, local visitors will not feel lost in a sea of foreign works. Various historical works from the Persian Gulf are scattered around the early historical galleries to give the museum some sense of cultural foundation. In some cases, that heritage is the centerpiece, as with the ancient coin exhibition.

While there are a plethora of famous works, the cultural breadth does not bring with it a sense of depth to the galleries. The experience is linear; visitors move promptly from one gallery to another.

Since everything is placed in this stream of rooms, there is no chance to make the main ideas of the galleries more comprehensive. This layout leaves viewers without the option of choosing different paths and exploring different themes in detail. Furthermore, the lack of contemporary art — particularly from Arab artists — is disappointing.

Nevertheless, these are minor issues for a young museum. Curators at the Louvre Abu Dhabi still have time to develop the museum.

As part of the arrangement that granted them with the “Louvre” name for 30 years — a project worth an estimated $1.5 billion in total — the museum may borrow and display works from French institutions. The museum is also continuing to shop for works around the Middle East; the museum should be able to display a unique permanent collection soon enough.

One piece near the entrance to the galleries particularly stood out — the third part of 20th–century Italian artist Giusepe Penone’s “Germination.” It consists of a porcelain disk with the fingerprint of the UAE’s founder in the center. Surrounding the print are circles that radiate outwards like ripples from a water droplet.

The piece was inspired by Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan’s vision which helped bring the UAE to where it is today. It makes one wonder if the Louvre Abu Dhabi, like Sheikh Zayed’s fingerprint, could create a similar ripple effect not only in the Middle East art scene, but in the rest of the world.

Only time will tell.

One Comment

  1. Nathan Meisner says:

    Thanks for sharing this perspective. Like you, Faris, I was disappointed in the contemporary art from the Arab world. However, I did appreciate that they highlighted some interesting artifacts found in the region. For example, I recall there was a Sumerian artifact on display, sharing that peoples of the UAE must have traded one of the renowned ancient civilizations of the world.

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