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In March 2007, the UAE and France entered into an unprecedented partnership.
These two countries, separated by thousands of miles, would unite in cultural exchange.
The jewel in the crown of this agreement would be the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
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Tate Britain. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Rijksmuseum. Each of these world-renowned establishments has helped define culture and enlighten minds in the countries they inhabit.
The tale of the world’s newest cultural monument is tied to one of its oldest, though their evolutions bear little resemblance. To understand why Abu Dhabi would choose to embark on such a progressive and expensive partnership, you must first understand the legacy of France’s most famous museum.
The Louvre’s rich history spans 800 years. Once a fortress on the outskirts of the city, it’s now one of the world’s most popular museums, welcoming 7.4 million visitors in 2016.
On March 6, 2007, France and the UAE signed an intergovernmental deal. As part of a larger $1.3 billion agreement with France's cultural authority, Agence France-Museums, the name of the Louvre would be loaned to Abu Dhabi for a reported $520 million.
While the Louvre Abu Dhabi would be an entirely separate institution, France would loan artworks and provide management expertise for a number of years. The deal would also see wider cultural exchange and high-profile collaborations between the two countries, including the establishment of an Abu Dhabi outpost of the Paris-Sorbonne University, and the renovation of the historic theater at Château de Fontainebleau.
But the idea for the museum – and the cultural district it would inhabit – came before the Louvre name was attached. It was just one facet of the country’s wider strategy to diversify the economy and, according to a statement by Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak, chairman of the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority, to “inspire a new generation of cultural leaders and creative thinkers to contribute to our rapidly-changing and tolerant nation.”
A Frank Gehry-designed outpost of the Guggenheim and a national museum designed by Norman Foster, would join the future Louvre on Saadiyat Island, off the coast of Abu Dhabi, along with universities and luxury hotels.
“See humanity in a new light.” The Louvre Abu Dhabi’s tagline conveys a message for the global community. Much like the Louvre museum in Paris, the Louvre Abu Dhabi displays art and artifacts from throughout human history, originating from all over the globe. Through this wide-reaching collection they seek to examine the story of humanity through creativity.
The difference here is the museum’s head curator, Jean-François Charnier, has chosen not to arrange pieces by place of origin. Instead, he’s organized them chronologically and thematically. Museum staff hope this will allow visitors from anywhere in the world to identify with the stories being told, and form new connections.
The museum features more than 600 artworks, half of which are on loan from other institutions. For the last decade, the Louvre Abu Dhabi has been amassing its own collection, which includes a 1922 Piet Mondrian painting (the museum’s first acquisition) and a Bactrian princess from Central Asia (the museum’s oldest.) Contemporary artists Jenny Holzer and Giuseppe Penone were commissioned to create site-specific works, which have been incorporated into the building itself.
Below are six pieces from the museum's opening presentation we have chosen to highlight.
The deserts of Abu Dhabi, where the air is often hazy with sand and dust, are not the ideal setting for housing priceless works of art. Add to this the fact that the museum would be surrounded by water, and you can understand why transporting and installing the masterpieces could be challenging.
In this clip, we see the “Apollo Belvedere” arrive at the Louvre Abu Dhabi after travelling some 3,100 miles from its home at the Château de Fontainebleau in France.
Joining the roster of architectural heavyweights on Saadiyat Island to design the Louvre Abu Dhabi would be Pritzker Prize-winning architect Jean Nouvel.
Before he was commissioned, the Frenchman was already known for his work with cultural institutions such as the Arab World Institute and Fondation Cartier in Paris, and the Culture and Congress Centre in Lucerne. Each of his buildings seek to embody their surroundings while fulfilling their intended purposes.
“He never does the same thing twice. You never see two buildings of (Nouvel’s that) look like each other,” explained Hala Wardé, a partner at Ateliers Jean Nouvel. “Working with situations – this is what he teaches – is to make every project specific to where it is in terms of all the context, including the cultural (context), the history and the place itself.”
If there is a visual thread that unites Nouvel’s buildings, it’s the use of geometry and light. These elements would dominate his designs for the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
Like many of his designs, Jean Nouvel’s plan for the Louvre Abu Dhabi began as a simple sketch, drawn over lunch with Thomas Krens, the former director of the Guggenheim Foundation, who was involved in the initial planning stages for Abu Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island.
The key facets were already there in those early moments: the concept of a neighborhood, a dome and a microclimate.
Meeting the building’s diverse needs would be a balancing act. It had to be visually stunning, enough to rival the skyscrapers on the horizon. It had to be fit for a challenging purpose, housing priceless artworks in the inhospitable desert. And it had to be culturally relevant, reflecting the lofty ideals of both the institution and the country.
The construction process, which took place over eight years, faced various delays and presented serious engineering challenges. “You have difficult marine works. You have difficult finishes. You have difficult electro-mechanical works. You have a gigantic steel structure and difficult concrete,” explained Shehab Taha, senior construction manager of Turner International.
One of the first major milestones, reached in 2010, was the laying of foundations, which saw 4500 piles driven into partly-reclaimed land. Another milestone was the flooding of the site in May, 2016 over the span of eight weeks in four carefully monitored stages – an ambitious feat of engineering.
Those who visited the site during its construction were often astounded by the scale of the job. Nick Leech, a journalist for The National (an UAE news service) who has been reporting on the museum’s construction since December 2012, commented: “Not only did you have 4,000 men working on the site all at the same time, but you also had them working at three different levels. You had guys who were working in the basement. You had guys who were working at ground level. You also then had guys who were effectively working in the air, who were building the early stages of the dome. It felt actually more like a hive, or an anthill.”
Chairman, Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority.
After a decade of work the Louvre Abu Dhabi has opened, becoming a symbol of the UAE's cultural ambitions.
Jean Nouvel has built his career by exploring the intersection of local culture and Western modernism.
In a quest for universality, the new Louvre Abu Dhabi has assembled artworks and artifacts from around the world.
The restoration of Chateau de Fontainebleau’s iconic theater is emblematic of the cooperation between France and the UAE.
The Louvre Abu Dhabi is attracting worldwide attention, but the impact it will have on future generations within the UAE should not be overlooked.
Becky Anderson takes viewers inside the new Louvre Abu Dhabi, which has finally opened its doors.