Louvre Abu Dhabi: The place to see works of art and... watch turtles

Louvre Abu Dhabi: The place to see works of art and... watch turtles

Abu Dhabi and Dubai are the two largest cities of one country - the United Arab Emirates - and at the same time, they are the capitals of the two largest neighboring emirates. Abu Dhabi is the largest emirate, its area is four times larger than that of the other emirates combined, its oil reserves are also greater than those of all the other emirates. Therefore, the people of Abu Dhabi rested on their laurels for a long time, while the people of Dubai did their best to steadily reduce the role of oil in their GNP and improve their well-being, coming up with unusual - sometimes stunning - projects to attract wealthy foreigners, and eventually turned into one of the world’s tourism centers. But the moment came when Abu Dhabi felt envy at the Dubai’s success and jealousy because, after all, the official capital of the United Arab Emirates is not Dubai, but people talk about Dubai much more than about Abu Dhabi. And since Dubai had already come up with so many initiatives, Abu Dhabi had to look for new “attractive offers”. Yas Island, one of the islands of the archipelago where Abu Dhabi is located, was allocated for sports and entertainment projects, a complicated Formula 1 track appeared there, among other things, as well as a Ferrari Amusement Park with the world’s largest and fastest roller coaster (up to 240 km per hour). And Saadiyat Island began to turn into a grandiose cultural cluster. Since their huge cultural heritage had not yet accumulated on the coast, an idea came - why not open branches of several of the world’s most famous museums on the Saadiyat Island? The most scandalous (which may be a good thing in this case) project widely discussed was the opening of a branch of the Paris’ Louvre Museum in the western part of the Saadiyat Island’s coast.

“Soap opera” with financial overtones

‘Cloning’ the Louvre is an unusual and difficult task. First of all, many people in France did not like this idea. And the idea was that France would lease about 300 artifacts and works of art of the Louvre Museum to the capital of the Emirates (later their number increased), as well as those of the Georges Pompidou Center and of the Palace of Versailles, and they would be exhibited at a specially built museum called the Louvre Abu Dhabi Museum. Nearly five thousand French art historians, painters, museum workers expressed their protests in petitions and letters, saying that “French museums are not for sale”. But after months of public discussions and a week of protests, the French government nevertheless announced its readiness to ‘lease’ the big name of the main museum of Paris and part of its artistic treasures. 2,400 most outspoken critics of the project who signed a petition accusing France of “selling its soul” were called “grumpy creatures” by Culture Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres.

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Thus, France followed the same path that was first laid out in the 1990s by the New York Guggenheim Museum that already has ‘clones’ in Venice, Bilbao and Berlin, and today another one is under creation in Abu Dhabi.

The agreement on the Louvre Abu Dhabi was signed in 2007, the opening of the museum was expected in 2012. However, according to caustic remarks made by the press, it took “many years of political and diplomatic ‘soap opera’” before the overseas “subsidiary” of the Paris Louvre Museum opened its doors in November 2017. In fact, another important issue was also discussed, a financial one. How much will it cost to use the world-famous brand name and how long will the sheikhs of Abu Dhabi use it? Initially, they discussed the sum of about 250 mn euros for using the great name and several hundred artifacts and art pieces for 20 years. By the time the deal was closed, the numbers had changed. According to the press, having paid 175 mn euros in advance, the Abu Dhabi Emirate agreed to pay another 400 mn euros for the use of the Louvre name for 30 and a half years, as well as another 190 mn euros for leased artifacts and works of art and 165 mn euros for technical assistance in organizing the Louvre Abu Dhabi Museum. Under the agreement, the artifacts and works of art should be returned to France in 2038. But the Abu Dhabi Emirate does not want to turn the building into a shopping and entertainment center after so many years of being proudly called the Louvre Abu Dhabi Museum! Therefore, a special organization - L’Agence France-Muséums (Museums of France Agency) - set up in 2007 to implement the project has been actively buying historical artifacts at auctions for several years to be able to fill the Abu Dhabi branch of the famous museum with them by the time when the artifacts and art works leased from the French Museum will be returned to the Louvre. For these purposes, the agency is annually allocated $52 mn. And the project was wallowed in new scandals.

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In July 2022, there were a lot of reports in press that two curators from France-Muséums had been detained for illegal trading in antiquities. One of them, Jean-François Charnier, was charged with providing intentionally false information about the origin of art pieces purchased for the Louvre Abu Dhabi collection. As it turned out, five of these works of art were stolen in Egypt.

France-Muséums curator Noëmi Daucé also fell under suspicion. The investigation will show whether both of them ‘suffered’ only because of their zeal caused by the desire to quickly fill the future collection of the Abu Dhabi Louvre Museum or they are connected with the illegal actions by Jean-Luc Martinez, the former director of the Paris Louvre Museum, who was fired for being engaged in the illegal trade in the works of art. Transactions related to the illegal trade in antiquities are a global problem. In 2020 alone, about 850,000 such items were confiscated by law enforcement agencies around the world, according to Interpol.

A tour of the museum that is not tiring

But enough about scandals, let’s make a tour of the halls of the first - and perhaps, not the last - Louvre branch abroad.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi calls itself a “global museum” with the works of art belonging to different epochs and different cultures. Indeed, within its walls, visitors can make some journey through time covering various periods - from prehistoric to modern ones. That is, an attempt was made to show the entire history of mankind in a relatively small museum space (it is called “relatively small” but the area of ​​the permanent exhibition makes a considerable 10 thousand square meters). In general, the collection is rather superficial and it could not be otherwise, since the exhibits were most likely selected not according to any method and approach, but according to the principle “what is given” to the Louvre Abu Dhabi Museum.

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The exhibits are arranged in their historical sequence, and the most ancient ones are in the first halls. One of the oldest depictions of a human is a two-headed portrait sculpture from Jordan (dated 6 thousand years B.C.), followed by stone tools from Saudi Arabia... There are also artifacts and art pieces displayed that belonged to the ancient Mesopotamia, India, Japan, China, South American civilizations. The artifacts from the ancient world are displayed in the next halls... and so on. A small number of artifacts and art pieces are displayed in each rather spacious hall, so the walk does not last very long and is not tiring, and some visitors think it is good.

Perhaps, the paintings are of the most interest. There is even a Leonardo da Vinci’s painting (John the Baptist), but some interesting works of art by not very famous old painters are also displayed at the museum. An entire hall is dedicated to the paintings by the impressionists, and this is probably the most interesting part of the exposition for the Russian visitors. For some reason, the French easily parted with the works by rebel painters of the early 20th century, and these pieces of art are displayed in several halls, and almost half of them were created by the painters of the Russian origin, including the paintings by Chagall, Kandinsky, Goncharova .... However, the art pieces by Picasso are also displayed there. You just need to keep in mind that this part of the exposition has a separate entrance from the side of ... how to call it ... a reservoir that plays a special role in the architecture of the museum.

And now, it’s time to talk about the museum’s building that is also very interesting from the point of view of its architecture. The author of the project, Jean Nouvel from France, decided not to philosophize and create anything sophisticated, so he used the traditional symbol of the Arab architecture as a basis - the dome covering several seemingly separate white buildings, combined and reminding a medina, an ancient Arab town. Outside, the 180-meter-diameter dome with fantastic holes shines under the bright Abu Dhabi sun. Inside, it ‘hangs’ over a rectangular water reservoir coming from the sea into the museum’s area to create a shadow interspersed with the glare of the sun on the water. As the architect explained, the amazing openwork dome and the beautiful water reservoir should give visitors the feeling that the museum is floating in the open sea under the star-studded sky.

Let’s not argue with this comparison. Indeed, after rather shadowy halls, it’s nice to go out onto a spacious square in front of the water body and suddenly see... large turtles in clear water with radio beacons on their shells.

Museum of the 21st century is more than a museum

The fact is that the Louvre Abu Dhabi is not just a museum, but a rehabilitation center for sea turtles as well. Manuel Rabate, Museum’s Director, says the initiative is “perfectly in line with both the design and the museum’s public service.” The rehabilitation of turtles is an important task for the Emirates because five of the seven species of turtles live in the country. They believe, that about 5,000 turtles inhabit the waters of Abu Dhabi. The National Aquarium of the Emirate provides care to injured and sick animals. From the Aquarium, some of them are moved to the museum’s lagoon where, according to Manuel Rabate, they enjoy the “excellent conditions, including complete safety, and there are a lot of zoo- and phytoplankton”. So far, there are about ten turtles, but the museum is ready to accept up to 50 animals. “Museums are part of society and must fulfill their role,” says the director.

The largest of the turtles, weighing over 100 kilograms, was recently released into the sea after the rehabilitation was over. The turtle’s name was Zaha Hadid in honor of the famous Arab woman architect. Well, it’s quite symbolic to name the turtles that were in the lagoon of the Louvre Abu Dhabi Museum after the prominent architects. It is also possible to name them after the greatest painters, why not? As they say, the place ‘imposes obligations’.

In the meantime, Abu Dhabi Emirate continues to come up with new projects and hopes for a significant increase in tourist flow. The goal is to increase it from 4.5 mn to 7.5 mn by 2030.

A brief afterword

There are no major cultural or tourist projects related to Russia in Abu Dhabi yet. But just in case, I would like to reveal a secret to Russian businessmen. If you would like to submit your offers to the sheikhs of the UAE, there must be a phrase like “the world’s unique”, “one-of-the-kind”, “the largest”, “the highest”, “the most unique”, and so on. In short, something like the Louvre Abu Dhabi Museum. This will immediately give you an advantage over other competitors.