It has been a long wait of ten years. On November 11, 2017 the museum – fruit of a unique French-UAE collaboration – finally opened its doors
A unique intergovernmental agreement between the United Arab Emirates and France, signed in 2007, sealed the development of what would become the first universal museum in the Arab world. After ten years of intense work, Louvre Abu Dhabi has now entered the scene as the overnight sensation among international art museums.
Housed in a breathtaking architectural masterpiece, the growing collection presents exceptional treasures of ancient archaeological finds, decorative arts, neoclassical sculptures, paintings by modern masters, and contemporary installations. In its inaugural year, 300 masterpieces represent civilisations and artistic movements from significant moments in global human history, including ancient Egypt, the Roman Empire, ancient Chinese dynasties, the Kingdom of Benin in present-day Nigeria, the Renaissance, the Impressionists and the Modernists. Many of these will be displayed in Abu Dhabi for the very first time, including Leonardo da Vinci’s seminal work La Belle Ferronnière, on loan from musée du Louvre in Paris.
Louvre Abu Dhabi is not, as may be believed, a branch of its famous Parisian namesake but an independent institution, which, however, does have the right to use Musée du Louvre’s name for 30 years and 6 months. The 2007 intergovernmental agreement also grants Louvre Abu Dhabi the right to access invaluable expertise and training from 17 French partner institutions, as well as loans from 13 leading French museums for 10 years. Additionally, these institutions will support with programming special exhibitions at Louvre Abu Dhabi for 15 years. Louvre Abu Dhabi began acquiring works in 2009. Since then, some works have already been displayed as loans in eminent cultural institutions such as Centre Pompidou Metz, musée d’Orsay, National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., Kimbell Art Museum, musée de l’armée and Fondation Yves Saint-Laurent Pierre Bergé.
A Journey through Time, narrated in 12 Chapters
12 galleries, 55 buildings, and a total of 8,600 square meters… certainly no shortage of space to tell the story of Man’s course and development throughout civilization, and feature human contribution to arts, culture, and science from prehistoric times to today. And it is a discovery of epic proportions and encyclopaedic depth.
The Great Vestibule
Through a series of ancient works, the Great Vestibule presents universal themes that highlight surprising similarities between early civilisations: gold death masks, maternity figures, water containers, writing instruments, precious reliquaries, decorative patterns featuring the sun, figures at prayer and horseriding. The similarities between the artworks are not explained, but are there to make visitors ask questions. It invites the visitors to walk into the galleries.
Gallery 1: The First Village
It took millions of years for the human species to spread across the globe from its origins in East Africa. However, by 10,000 BCE, in the Near East, China and Central America, communities settled for the first time and domesticated animal and plant species, which led to the appearance of the first villages. Despite regional differences, the first village communities seem to have shared a desire to bind their community together, by means of beliefs and rituals around their ancestors. Human representation developed in the form of these female figurines that seem to express preoccupations with fertility. The wealth generated by profits from agriculture and livestock supported the birth of the first forms of power.
Gallery 2: The First Great Powers
The first kingdoms appeared in the fertile valleys of the Tigris, Euphrates, Nile, Indus and Yellow River around 3000 BCE. The emergence of these first great powers was accompanied by the spread of bronze weapons. Axes, swords and armour became emblems of prestige and splendour for the powerful. The new warrior elite also began to ride horses, a development that spurred long-distance exchanges, increased the size of kingdoms and broadened the horizons of communities.
With the development of the kingdoms of Mesopotamia and Egypt came the birth of the first cities, a crucial event in the history of humanity. Resulting from a population surge and a strong hierarchical organisation of society, the first cities became social and cultural melting pots that encouraged exchange and innovation. One fundamental invention was writing, which facilitated transactions and helped legitimise power.
Gallery 3: Civilisations and Empires
From about 1000 BCE, on most continents the first kingdoms gave way to vast cultural and political groups. The Assyrian and then Persian empires dominated the Middle East, while Greek cities became established around the Mediterranean basin. The Nok and Olmec cultures spread across West Africa and Mesoamerica respectively. The evolution, encounters and clashes of these empires stimulated artistic and philosophical fusions whose influences are still felt today.
After setting out from the Greek kingdom of Macedonia in 334 BCE, Alexander the Great forged an unprecedented political union between Europe and Asia, which led to the formation of immense empires. As Rome, in its heyday, expanded its domination over the whole Mediterranean region, the Han Empire was expanding enormously in China. The collapse of these empires led to a regeneration of artistic forms that would be used by universal religions to communicate their message.
Gallery 4: Universal Religions
Beginning around 2000 years ago, the spread of universal religions succeeded in reaching most of the civilised areas of Europe, Asia and Africa in just a few centuries. By addressing their message to all humanity without distinction, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam transcended local cultural characteristics and deeply transformed ancient societies.
These religions shared with Judaism the concept of monotheism but diverged on such subjects as the representation of the divine. Their expansion was sometimes conflictual and brought them into contact with other beliefs, such as Hinduism in Asia, Confucianism and Taoism in China, Shintoism in Japan, and Animism in Africa. Religion had by then become a factor that unites communities and exerts an influence on intellectual and artistic activities across continents.
Gallery 5: Asian Trade Routes
The expansion of universal religions occurred in parallel with the establishment of vast networks of exchange between continents. In Asia in the 7th century, China became the main actor in these exchanges and a major hub for innovation. The invention of porcelain, gunpowder, paper and printing characters was to change the world. China passed most of its inventions to the Arab-Muslim world along the land and sea routes used in the silk trade.
The Islamic civilisation lay at the heart of this thriving trade network linking Asia, Europe and Africa. From the 8th to 10th centuries, Baghdad witnessed a golden age of the arts and sciences. The caravan routes taken by merchants crossed the paths followed by pilgrims, and promoted the spread of new modes of thought. These exchanges boosted the circulation of exotic materials and luxury items like silk, ceramics, jewellery, incense or ivory.
Gallery 6: From the Mediterranean to the Atlantic
The Mediterranean basin was the culminating point of the commercial and cultural routes across Asia and Africa. From the 11th century, exchanges increased between the Byzantine Empire, the Islamic world and Christian Europe, in spite of their rivalries and conflicts. While the cities of Venice and Genoa took an active part in these exchanges, the Iberian Peninsula, divided between Islam and Christianity, became a site of rich cultural diversity.
In Europe, competition between Christian kingdoms and flourishing trade contributed to economic and scientific development. At the end of the 15th century, Portuguese navigators explored the coastline of Africa and opened new trade routes to the Indian Ocean. The crossing of the Atlantic and discovery of the American continent created contact between Europe and the Amerindian civilisations, which had until then remained isolated.
Around 1500, for the first time since the beginning of humanity, man was able to travel all around the globe. Great navigators, such as Ibn Majid, Zheng He and Christopher Columbus, established direct contact between lands that up until then had remained remote or unknown to one another. Civilisations that had once traded on the grounds of geographical proximity gradually engaged in a system of exchanges on a global scale. The world witnessed an early form of globalisation.
Awareness of the magnitude of the world prompted questions about the meaning of the universe. Instruments used in navigation and cosmography developed rapidly. The first travelogues were published, recounting journeys to distant lands, while maps and globes charted the contours of this new world. The exotic materials and strangely-shaped works of art that filled “cabinets of curiosities” in Europe illustrated this fascination for distant and mysterious lands.
Gallery 7: The World in Perspective
Pioneering voyages broadened horizons and offered a new perspective of the world. Discoveries in the fields of mathematics and optics transmitted from the Arab world to Europe in the 15th century had important consequences for art. Forming the foundation of the geometric and abstract approach to representation in Islamic art, they also enabled European artists to create depth and three-dimensionality in images.
The flourishing intellectual and artistic activity of the time was called the Renaissance by Europeans who were rediscovering their Antiquity. For artists and architects, it provided an aesthetic model that profoundly renewed the representation of the human body and landscapes. In China, too, artists found inspiration in the models of the past to strengthen the cultural and political legitimacy of their monarchs. Meanwhile, the Arab-Islamic world developed an international style that placed emphasis on the use of geometric and floral forms.
Gallery 8: The Magnificence of the Court
Encounters between different worlds led to unprecedented rivalry between rulers. This phenomenon took on a new dimension in the 17th century and occurred simultaneously throughout Europe, China, the Muslim empires and the kingdoms of Africa. Sovereigns glorified themselves by displaying symbols of their power and commissioning majestic representations of their royal person and court. Equestrian portraits became a widespread form of representation.
Monarchs competed to attract the best artists, commission new decorative settings and invest enormous amounts in the construction of palaces and religious buildings of exceptional opulence. The magnificence of court life, the luxury of costumes and weaponry and the splendour of art collections gave rulers a dazzling image that was designed to overshadow other kingdoms and states.
Gallery 9: A New Art of Living
During the 18th century, the affluence enjoyed by monarchs was attained by an increasingly large segment of society. The spread of manufactured products around the globe progressively transformed economies and stimulated new modes of consumption. Greater attention was paid to the furnishing and decoration of houses and to clothing. In China, Japan and Europe more manufacturers offered goods to an increasing number of customers.
Across all continents, the arts reflected an increased emphasis on the private sphere, the individual and the family. With the growth in global exchanges, the arts developed an imaginative image of remote lands and cultures. Europe was increasingly pervaded by a philosophy of progress and reason referred to as the Enlightenment. This intellectual movement focused on the individual and their role in history, as illustrated by the American and French revolutions at the end of the century.
Gallery 10: A Modern World?
Economic competition between nations gave birth to the Industrial Revolution in Europe. Having been an instrument of Europe’s colonial enterprise, this revolution spread progressively to the rest of the world during the 19th century. The development of means of transport and colonisation impacted all civilisations, which, in return, provided European artists with inspiration. Technical progress and artistic creation were glorified in universal exhibitions.
Photography, a product of industry, took on an important role in the art world. By capturing reality and eliminating distance, it gave the individual the impression of taking possession of the world. Since its invention, photography revolutionised artistic creation, prompting painters in Europe, then around the world, to drastically alter the way they capture images and translate the real world onto canvas.
Gallery 11: Challenging Modernity
During the 20th century the notions of modernity and progress, which the industrial and colonial West had spread across the planet, were brought into question. The two world wars and many instances of decolonisation challenged a great number of certainties. Artistic creation reflected these developments, experiencing constant reinvention, punctuated by divisions and radical movements such as abstraction, ready-mades and the imaginative universe of the Surrealists.
Echoing the remarkable pace of modern life, the rapid succession of artistic movements constantly opened new perspectives. The boundaries of art were continually redefined, extended and in constant transformation. The avant-garde movements in Paris and elsewhere in Europe attracted artists from all over the world. The growing influence of North American artists coincided with the broadening of artistic horizons to encompass the world as a whole.
Gallery 12: A Global Stage
At the beginning of the 21st century, the scale of communication around the globe seems to have transformed the planet into a global village. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 marked the end of a historical era in which the West had occupied centre stage. The economic rise of most continents has given way to a multipolar and multicultural world in which artists have taken it upon themselves to invent a different version of modernity.
The instant spread and omnipresence of television and internet images place the representation of the world in a state of constant self-reflection. Creative works have become mirrors of our collective memory stirred by identity issues, the self as a narrative, as well as our concerns about our fragile planet. Artists continue to help us raise or put these existential questions in perspective, as they have done since the dawn of humanity.
Significant Loans from France and the Arab Region
Numerous French and Arab museums and cultural institutions contributed to this incredible wealth of artwork. France loaned chef-d’œuvres from musée du Louvre, Centre Pompidou, musée d’Orsay and musée de l’Orangerie, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, Réunion des Musées Nationaux et du Grand Palais, Chateau de Versailles, musée National des Arts Asiatiques-Guimet, musée de Cluny, Ecole du Louvre, musée Rodin, Domaine National de Chambord, musée des Arts Décoratifs de Paris, Cité de la Céramique – Sèvres & Limoges, musée d’Archéologie nationale – Saint-Germain en Laye, Château de Fontainebleau, and OPPIC (Operateur du patrimoine et des projets immobiliers de la culture). High-profile regional Arabic museums and institutions, including the National Museum of Ras Al Khaimah, the Al Ain National Museum; the Saudi Commission for Tourism & National Heritage; the National Museum of the Sultanate of Oman; the Zayed National Museum and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi also contribute a total of 28 significant works representing the cultural history of man from a prehistoric stone tool dating back to 350,000 BCE to contemporary artists.
Architecture: Contemplating the World
To do justice to so much cultural beauty, the premises had to match, and no one else but Pritzker-award winning French architect Jean Nouvel would do. World-famous for his buildings that have become landmarks all over the planet… L’Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, El Torre Aigües in Barcelona, or Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, to name but a few… his Louvre Abu Dhabi museum is as much a work of art as the objects it houses. Inspired by traditional Arabic architectural culture, Nouvel designed Louvre Abu Dhabi as a ‘museum city’ in the sea, a series of contrasting white buildings echoing the medina and low-lying Arab settlements. The majority of the museum complex is covered by a vast dome, 180 metres in diameter. The interplay of traditional design and modern, environmentally-conscious construction techniques creates a tranquil environment which invites visitors to enjoy the ever-changing relationship between the sun and the dome and between sea, buildings and land.
“Like the stars that guide the nomad in the desert, Jean Nouvel’s dome invites us to look up and contemplate our world. At the intersection of mathematics and organic life, the dome delineates a realm unto itself, in which the space and time of the museum unfold,” said Jean-François Charnier, Scientific and Cultural Director of Agence France-Muséums (AFM), the organization that oversees the involvement of the partner institutions and provides direction for the curatorial and cultural programme. “The dome also pays homage to the vital importance of shade in Arabia, and at the same time filters the light to create a kind of cosmic calligraphy of imaginary forms. Beauty is born from this adjacency of opposites.”
Special Exhibitions 2017 and 2018
Louvre Abu Dhabi will present four special exhibitions each year, curated and organised in collaboration with French partner institutions and Agence France-Muséums. This rich and diverse programme complements the permanent collection and enhances the museum’s universal narrative.
In the inaugural year, these exhibits will explore the history of Paris’ musée du Louvre; the representation of the world through spheres; early photography; and the decorative paintings of the Nabis group. In addition to these exhibitions, Co-Lab: Contemporary Art and Savoirfaire will also be on display during the opening year. This collaborative project is a “skills workshop” giving four UAE-based artists the opportunity to work with four premier historical French manufacturers.
Cultural Education starts early in Life
Art is universal, and if anything, it helps bringing cultures, civilizations, and religions closer. That was the declared goal of the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s creators, and the gulf nation takes this mission seriously. More tolerant and Western-oriented than some of its conservative neighbours, Dubai invests heavily in its future by developing the nation’s youth into highly educated critical thinkers, prompting them to look closely and think deeply about the artworks on display and the wider cultures and ideas they represent. Numerous pedagogic activities for museum visitors of all ages therefore reflect this approach.
Criticism in France, Excitement in Dubai
The project is not undisputed in France, where purists fear for the rank of the Paris Louvre as the world’s leading arts museum. Others worry about ever-increasing ties to a region that is nowadays frequently associated with a hostile ideology that has caused much grief and pain over these last few years. Certain voices have likened the new museum in the United Arab Emirates to a wholesale of French art, and one even called it a blatant case of art theft.
But these fears and accusations are short-sighted and groundless. During the joint inauguration by Abu Dhabi’s crown prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayad Al Nahyan and French president Emmanuel Macron on November 7, Louvre Abu Dhabi was hailed as an example of how beauty can “fight against the discourses of hatred” and an invitation to see humanity in a new light. Quoting the Russian writer Feodor Dostoyevsky who famously said that “only beauty can save the world”, Macron pointed out that this collaboration across the European and Arab world would in fact be instrumental in the fight against “idiocy” and the “lies” of “obscurantism”.
“Louvre Abu Dhabi is our cultural pride – it will bring together the East and West and represents our ability to fight darkness with light; fight ignorance and intellectual extremism with artistic beauty,” said Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai in his speech at the opening ceremony. “The key message of Louvre Abu Dhabi is that our strength as human beings lies in the convergence of minds and the meeting of people and the alliance of civilizations”.
A message to heed indeed.
Louvre Abu Dhabi
Saadiyat Cultural District
United Arab Emirates
Tel: +971 600 56 55 66
All images courtesy and © Louvre Abu Dhabi
– Lead image Louvre Abu Dhabiís exterior with Abu Dhabiís skyline (night) © Louvre Abu Dhabi, Photography: Mohamed Somji;
– Louvre Abu Dhabiís exterior © Louvre Abu Dhabi, Photography: Mohamed Somji
– Louvre Abu Dhabiís plaza © Louvre Abu Dhabi, Photography: Mohamed Somji