Spiraling costs and migrant worker controversies had many wondering if the groundbreaking Louvre Abu Dhabi museum would ever be finished—and if so, whether it would be worth the wait. The answer to both questions, now that it’s finally open in Abu Dhabi—five years later than planned and at a budget rumored to be over $500 million—is a resounding yes.
For starters, the new Jean Nouvel-designed museum is its own masterpiece: A medina-like space that responds brilliantly to the Gulf climate and landscape as well as the museum’s mission to create a conversation about art and culture that stretches across humankind. An amazing domed roof signals the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s grand ambitions. In an engineering feat that almost defies physics, 7,850 steel “stars” create an interlocking lattice that filters Abu Dhabi’s searing sunlight and dapples an open-air plaza below with what Nouvel calls a “rain of light.”
Adding to the roof’s magical quality, its supporting beams are hidden inside the buildings below, so the 7,000-ton span appears simply to float beside the waters of the Arabian Gulf, which surrounds the space on three sides. Interlocking pools bring turquoise Gulf waters into the plaza itself, infusing the space with sounds of gently lapping water. It is almost impossible to take a bad photograph here: Each vantage point is framed by light and dark, curves and lines.
You might be tempted to visit the museum just to marvel at the architecture, but the galleries inside hold marvels, too. Some items on display will join the museum’s permanent collection; others are on loan from some of France’s most prestigious museums, including the Centre Pompidou and Musée Rodin.
If you like your art organized into rigid categories like “19th-Century Romanticism” or “German Expressionism,” you won’t find that here. Instead, the galleries are organized thematically: “Asian Trade Routes,” for example, or “Civilizations and Empires.” Within each gallery, objects from different countries, cultures, and traditions mingle. In the “Universal Religions” galleries, for instance, you’ll move from dancing Shiva to praying Madonna to standing Buddha: different cultural attitudes toward spirituality but with a shared reverence. Even if you disagree with the organizing principles, you’re still engaged in the conversation the museum wants to spark about what makes us human: How do we diverge and what commonalities unify us?
The entire collection is tightly curated—with about 600 objects on regular display—making it easy to cover the entire museum without feeling overwhelmed. Even with that tight focus, however, you could rent one of the museum’s iPad minis to design your own tour and happily wander for hours. A small but engaging “children’s museum” in one gallery draws young museum goers into the conversation about global art and culture; the museum also plans to hold frequent hands-on kid-friendly workshops. Once you’ve finished looking at art, you can explore the well-stocked (if pricey) gift shop or have a coffee in the lovely museum café, whose terrace overlooks the Gulf.
On opening day, I overheard a woman tell a friend that she’d been at the museum’s grand opening the night before, but she’d come back because she “would like to spend every day in this place.” You will too.
HOW TO VISIT:
The new Louvre Abu Dhabi is open Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Thursday and Friday until 10 pm. Adult admission is 60 dirhams (about US$16); children under 13 visit free. Visit the website, here.