How does one define and build a world museum in the modern age? Manuel Rabaté, a trained civil servant who now serves as the director of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, considers this simple yet complex question.
“There is something around the world happening with museums revisiting the universal approach,” he says. “The voice of the Louvre speaks beyond the Louvre itself. We try to show commonalities, and we try not to go back to the geography and separation.”
It’s an ambitious ask, but with over 55,000 museums around the globe, the Louvre Abu Dhabi has already positioned itself as a distinct entity, and different in tone from its namesake counterpart in Paris. “This is not a Western way of showing the history of the world,” says Rabaté. “All the civilizations and all parts of the world are represented fairly.”
When visitors walk the polished floors and explore the various wings, they will find it hard to pinpoint one central theme: European sculptures and oil paintings alongside sweeping histories of civilization from the First Villages in East Africa, to Asian Trade Routes and multifaceted exhibits that are truly global in scope bridging stories from the East and the West. “We went into this dynamic of reinventing the universal museum and we just brought it a few steps further.”
In this sense, it represents what a 21st-century museum should be, away from a didactic archetype that spotlights one era, while still retaining an impressive inventory and roster of exhibits. The museum works with 17 French institutions, and has the ability to borrow from 13 of them.
At its grand opening, a number of dignitaries, including French President Emmanuel Macron and members of the royal family, notably the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, were in attendance.
Shortly after its inauguration in 2017, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates, posted on Twitter, “This key cultural and architectural monument is a celebration for all Arabs, bridging East and West and introducing Abu Dhabi as a bright new global cultural hub.” With over two million visitors since its inception, the Louvre Abu Dhabi has demonstrated that its audience is eager for more.
While the “Louvre” name was a conscious investment on the part of Abu Dhabi, the building and artwork transcend its geography. In this respect, it is in sync with Rabaté’s vision of a decentralized history of art. Nonetheless, bearing the name of the Louvre, the museum had not only to exceed expectations, but also resonate deeply with a demanding audience that was already familiar with magnificent structures like the marble-clad Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque and the Manarat Al Saadiyat.
Designed by the Pritzker Prize-winning Jean Nouvel, who was inspired by the concept of a medina, the structure mesmerizes with its silvery metallic mashrabiya-like dome forming 7,850 stars overhead.
“I wanted a strong symbol, an immediate dialogue, a powerful spiritual dimension,” said Jean Nouvel of the building. With the “rain of light” that filters through the dome and dances on the floor of the visitor entrance, Nouvel’s intension was to unites civilizations via design.
While the palatial Louvre in Paris was built by the kings of France and used as a place of residence, the museum in Abu Dhabi is conscious about its own contemporary sense of place and time. Both the architecture and its exhibits pay attention to the different beliefs, cultures, works and aesthetics that make up the United Arab Emirates, the Middle East and the world at large. From the ancient indigo pages of the Blue Quran from 900 CE with gold Kufic calligraphy to a Phoenician sarcophagus lid from 450 BCE Egypt, the art- work and artifacts from the Middle East and beyond resonate with both a regional and global audience.
Rabaté’s success with the museum can be attributed in part to the groundbreaking exhibits he has chosen. A recent stand out was the 10,000 Years of Luxury exhibition. The 350 works of fashion, jewelry, visual art, furniture and design— among them objects from famous fashion houses including Chanel and Christian Dior—were on display in 12 rooms. A collaboration with the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, the exhibit shone a light on Rabaté’s genius for partnerships. Opulence, a word synonymous with the Middle East, was an inspired thematic choice. Each piece posed the question, “What is luxury?”
“Our winter exhibition [explored] the fascinating concept of luxury through a long lens, contextualizing objects across time and culture to illuminate evolving notions of beauty, wealth and value,” Rabaté notes. The objects traced the history of opulence through pearls (a nod to Abu Dhabi’s own fishing and pearling traditions), silk, gold threads and more.
The museum’s latest exhibition is yet another tour-de-force. Furusiyya: The Art of Chivalry between East and West has a virtual 360-degree walk-through online that allows viewers to look at minute details from breathtaking works. The exhibit explores the roots of chivalry and the history of combat and knightly values that have led to specific cultures in the Islamic East and Christian West via 130 rare artworks and artifacts from the 10th to the 16th centuries.
Co-curated by Élisabeth Taburet-Delahaye, the former director of the Cluny Museum in Paris (known for its medieval artifacts), the exhibit is divided into “Riding,” “Fighting” and “Living as a Knight,” and is an excellent example of how the museum creates a deliberate dialogue between two distinct cultures.
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With its passionate commitment to the encyclopedic approach to knowledge and the idea that learning does not stop at the exit but continues online, the museum has taken great care to enhance its digital assets.
“We need to be high-tech savvy and at the same time, we are promoting very old artifacts that I am proud of,” says Rabaté. “We are not a museum of reproduction; we are a museum of real artifacts and this is what we offer to view—the authenticity of that. You can use digital techniques to interest, to enrich, but driving people to the real thing.”
Examples of these techniques include playlists curated by Anghami—the leading music platform in the Middle East, inspired by museum masterpieces. Through a partnership with Fady Ferraye (the musical curator-in-chief of Anghami), listeners can hear the history of music, and how it has transformed over the years from folk to electronic genres. In the museum’s online “Art from Home: Stories of Cultural Connections,” viewers can see a wide range of artifacts, from a Mayan polychrome vase covered in delicately painted court scenes, to a diverse collection of Buddha heads.
Few world-class museums have a dedicated section just for kids, but education is paramount at the Louvre Abu Dhabi: In 2019, 15 to 20 school groups visited the museum daily and a growing number of students have been using the website as both a research tool and a digital mood board.
The Louvre’s own Children’s Museum had an inaugural exhibition, Travelling Shapes and Colours, which featured original art accompanied by interactive displays. While other children’s museums of the world typically have replica works of art, the Louvre Abu Dhabi presents original works at eye-level for children; these included a stone vase dating from 1000 to 500 BCE. Kids can still find resources on the museum’s app that will inspire their curiosity, as well as several “Make and Play” videos online (these include making a mask, a paper hippo and even a collage).
Of the initiatives in place for young art lovers, Rabaté says, “The Children’s Museum is really an act of trust in your community and also in the families and children [so that] they can understand the reality of the object.”
With some museums revisiting a regional approach by spotlighting individual artists from specific cultures, the Louvre Abu Dhabi is going the other way by attempting to emphasize connections rather than differences. “When you arrive at modernity, what do you want to show? The pure essence or the influence?” asks Rabaté.
With the average age of visitors to the museum being 38, he sees the new Louvre as an opportunity to talk directly to this demographic, while still addressing the interests of all nationalities and ages. “This is a space we are questioning all the time,” he says with pride. “Maybe the answer is in the constant [and] rapid changes of this world, to be able to play and to adapt with creativity.”