The Louvre Abu Dhabi, first of its kind

Abu Dhabi's Louvre museum surrounded by sea water.
Abu Dhabi's Louvre museum surrounded by sea water. PHOTO: AFP

ABU DHABI (AFP) - The Louvre Abu Dhabi, the first museum to bear the Louvre name outside France, presents around 600 pieces in a modern, light-filled structure in harmony with its desert-island setting.

Flagged as "the first universal museum in the Arab world", it sits on the low-lying Saadiyat Island, a developing tourism and culture hub 500 metres off the coast of the United Arab Emirates' capital.

It opens its doors this week, bringing the famed name to the Arab world for the first time.

It is the first museum to open on the island, also the site of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, which is still under construction. 

French President Emmanuel Macron is set to attend the Wednesday (Nov 8) inauguration on his first visit to the United Arab Emirates since taking office in May.

For the next 10 years, 13 of France's top museums will lend works to the UAE at their discretion and for a maximum of two years each.

The museum currently has some 300 pieces on loan, including an 1887 self-portrait by Vincent van Gogh and Leonardo da Vinci's "La Belle Ferronniere".

The oil-rich emirate, which has made no secret of its push on soft power, has also spent years quietly building its own permanent collection.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi is displaying more than 250 works of art from the Emirati collection, including Edouard Manet's The Gypsy and works by Dutch abstract artist Piet Mondrian and Turkey's Osman Hamdi Bey.

'GEOMETRY WITH LIGHTS'

French architect Jean Nouvel was inspired by the island's position "between sand and sea, shade and light", the Louvre website says.

"I also wanted to play on this idea of openness, that of a desert open to the sea," the winner of the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize told AFP in September.

The site comprises 55 white buildings reminiscent of traditional Arab medinas.

Two-thirds of the museum is covered by a dome, 180 metres in diameter, which provides welcome shade from the scorching Gulf sun.

Pierced with 7,850 star-like openings formed by the layering of the building's structure, like interwoven palm leaves, the dome is intended to resemble silver lace.

"For me, great Arab architecture (is) geometry with lights," Nouvel said.

As the museum put it, "sun filters through the dome like a delicate, protective rain of light... reflecting the constant interplay of light and shadow in the country." The vast project claims to be "the first museum of its kind in the Arab world: a universal museum that focuses on shared human stories across civilisations and cultures".

30-YEAR ACCORD

The museum's price tag was initially estimated at US$654 million (S$892 million), to be put up by Abu Dhabi under a deal signed with France in 2007.

But costs have risen due to funding and construction delays.

Under the 30-year agreement, France provides expertise, loans works of art and organises temporary exhibitions - in return for one billion euros (S$1.58 billion).

The Louvre in France takes a 400-million-euro share of that sum for the use of its name up to 2037.

For the next 10 years, the Paris museum will lend works to its Abu Dhabi partner on a voluntary basis, for a maximum of two years.

For its permanent collection, the museum has acquired hundreds of pieces, dating from the earliest Mesopotamian civilisations to the present day.

Thirteen top French museums, including the Musee d'Orsay and the Palace of Versailles, will also loan the Louvre Abu Dhabi 300 works of art over the first year.

These include Leonardo da Vinci's La Belle Ferronniere, Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David, and a self-portrait by Vincent Van Gogh.

'MORE UNIVERSAL THAN LOUVRE'

The UAE government is promoting the museum as the first of its kind, a 23-gallery "museum city in the sea" on Saadiyat Island off the Abu Dhabi coast.

Some five per cent of the museum is dedicated to contemporary and modern art, including a monumental piece by China's Ai Weiwei.

The main focus, however, is on world history and religions. Among the exhibits are a sixth century Koran, a gothic Bible and a Yemeni Torah facing each other, open at verses carrying the same message.

Jack Lang, who was France's culture minister when the Louvre in Paris received its controversial pyramid, said the Abu Dhabi museum would be "much more universal than the Louvre in Paris".

"It is a chance to open the idea of a museum to different continents and different civilisations," he said. "It joins the art of the Louvre (and) the Musee d'Orsay, in a space that is much more open and less separated."

The opening comes a decade after France and the UAE agreed to a 30-year partnership initially reported to be worth US$1.1 billion (S$1.5 billion), including nearly half a billion dollars for the rights to the Louvre brand alone.

Emirati and French officials declined to disclose the final cost of the project.

The museum design, by France's Pritzker Prize-winning architect Jean Nouvel, conjures up the image of an Arab medina as seen through the eyes of a contemporary cinematographer.

A silver-toned dome with perforated arabesque patterns appears to float over the white museum galleries, creating what Nouvel describes as a "rain of light".

To reach the ground, each ray of light must cross eight layers of perforations, creating a constantly shifting pattern that mimics the shadows cast by palm trees or the roof of a traditional Arab market.

CLIMATE CONTROL, COUNTER-TERRORISM

Authorities have taken serious measures to protect the art from the heat during transport and storage, in a country where summer temperatures soar well above 40 degrees Celsius.

The art is also guarded by Emirati forces in coordination with French experts including civil defence and terrorism security forces.

The museum initially sparked heated debate in France, where criticism erupted in the early years of the project over the sale of a French name to an Arab state.

Questions of labour rights have also hung over the project, linked to the overall status of migrant workers in the Gulf.

Notably, Human Rights Watch has raised the alarm around conditions for migrant workers employed to build the museum.

It documented rights violations connected with the museum in 2015, after the UAE introduced improved labour rights laws.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi is the first of three museums to open its doors to the public on Saadiyat Island, where the UAE plans to launch the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, designed by Frank Gehry, and the Norman Foster-designed Zayed National Museum.

A spokesperson for the Guggenheim in New York told AFP a contractor had not yet been selected for the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and that construction was still on hold.