Louvre Abu Dhabi’s exterior. Picture: Louvre Abu Dhabi/Mohamed Somji
Louvre Abu Dhabi’s exterior. Picture: Louvre Abu Dhabi/Mohamed Somji

The new Louvre Abu Dhabi is open

The Virgin Mary, Isis and Phemba share a display case in the first room in the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Looking at them, I realise this is not going to be like other museum visits.

The Catholic saint, Egyptian goddess and maternity figure from Congo sit side-by-side with their children in the room known as the Great Vestibule, where nine cases each hold three objects from different cultures including three sets of horses with riders from Iran, Cyprus and China, and three figurines with hands clasped in prayer from Greece, Syria and Gabon.

"The Louvre Abu Dhabi is a universal museum, organised in chronological order but taking into consideration civilisations and cultures from all over the world." Our guide, or "moderator" Dina Turkish explains. "Artefacts are displayed according to their themes, to the connection between them not according to individual cultures, civilisations, geographical themes, or religion."

Eyebrows were raised when it was revealed Abu Dhabi would have its own Louvre and pay around A$688 million to use the famous Paris institution's name for its first 30 years.

It's been 10 somewhat controversial years between the deal being signed in 2007 and the Louvre Abu Dhabi's November 11 opening. The museum has been criticised for its treatment of migrant workers, the original opening date of 2012 was missed, and there were fears the new Louvre would impose Western notions of art and culture on the Gulf region.

But rather than serving a dose of cultural imperialism the first universal museum to open in the Arab world has focused on exploring the connections between cultures.

"It is organised like a storybook so you will enter chapters of history." Turkish tells us before leading us through 12 chapters from prehistory to the present day.

We start with one of the oldest statues in history, the Monumental Statue with Two Heads that dates back to around 6500BC in the First Villages room and work our way through the First Great Powers followed by Civilisations and Empires before reaching Universal Religions where a page from the Blue Qur'an, a Gothic bible, Buddhist sutras and Torah sit side-by-side.

There's a room dedicated to Cosmography that shows how views of the world varied depending on where people lived, and includes a rare 15th-century map of the world from Iraq and an illustrated globe by Italian cosmographer Vincenzo Coronelli, and it is not until my second lap of the museum after our official tour ends that I feel like I've walked into someone's Art Deco home. I then discover the Louvre has transported an entire room designed by Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann from British aristocrat Harold Harmsworth's 1920s apartment in the Champs Élysées to Abu Dhabi.

Throughout the museum there are around 300 works of art from Louvre Abu Dhabi's permanent collection, including Ai Weiwei's seven metre tall chandelier installation Fountain of Light, which was commissioned by Louvre Abu Dhabi, and another 300 on loan from 13 French institutions.

Louvre Abu Dhabi’s plaza. Picture: Louvre Abu Dhabi/Mohamed Somji.
Louvre Abu Dhabi’s plaza. Picture: Louvre Abu Dhabi/Mohamed Somji.

Borrowed pieces include Leonardo da Vinci's La Belle Ferronniere on loan from the Louvre, Jacques-Louis David's Napoleon Crossing the Alps from the Chateau de Versailles, and Rodin's Bacchus in the Vat from the Musée Rodin.

Then there is the biggest work of art, the building itself. Architect Jean Nouvel, who gave Sydney the plant-covered towers One Central Park in Chippendale, designed both the exterior and interior of Louvre Abu Dhabi, from the stunning "rain of light" dome to the display cases and seats inside.

While the dome has often been compared to an oasis, Nouvel describes it as a complex geometry of interlacing Arab motifs, and references the light and shade that is seen through the pierced screen of a mashrabiya. The 180m diameter dome weighs 7500 tonnes, 200 tonnes more than the Eiffel Tower, and its eight layers of cladding create 7850 starlike patterns that filter the sun above to create the rain of light below.

There is no doubt the artworks inside are masterpieces but my most vivid memory of Louvre Abu Dhabi will always be the moment we stepped out of the interconnected galleries into the plaza and felt the full effect of the patterns in the dome above and the dappled light below.

Nouvel has also included sections of water in the building, and the reflections of filtered light bouncing off the water to dance on white walls is mesmerising, made all the more beautiful by the birdsong of white cheeked bulbuls that occasionally flit in to perch on trees near a special museum space set aside for children.

As I sit breathing in the beauty all around me I wonder what the Louvre Abu Dhabi will be like in 10 or 20 years. One thing is for sure, the island around it won't be the same.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi is the first major piece in Abu Dhabi's cultural island puzzle. While Yas Island is known as the entertainment island with the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix's Yas Marina Circuit, the world's fastest rollercoaster at Ferrari World, and the world's first hydro magnetic six person tornado waterslide at Yas Waterworld, Louvre Abu Dhabi is on Saadiyat Island, which is being described as the cultural island.

St Regis Saadiyat Island Resort, Abu Dhabi. Picture: Supplied.
St Regis Saadiyat Island Resort, Abu Dhabi. Picture: Supplied.

For now the 27 sq km island has the new Louvre, two five-star hotels, a Park Hyatt and a St Regis, the region's first ocean golf course, some apartments, and a whole lot of empty space.

But if all goes according to plan the island's future will include a Frank Gehry designed Guggenheim, a Sheik Zayed National Museum by Normal Foster in the shape of a falcon's wing, a maritime museum by Tadao Ando, a performing arts centre by the late Zaha Hadid, and shopping malls with international designers.

So what will this all mean for Abu Dhabi? As someone who had never been tempted to leave the airport before the lure of the new Louvre I am now among those travellers who will happily break up my long haul travels with a stay in this desert city.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi didn't just introduce me to new artworks and architecture, but to a new destination, and after talking to other first-time visitors in the museum's opening week I know I'm far from the only one.

Mission accomplished.

The writer was a guest of the Department of Culture and Tourism, Abu Dhabi and Etihad Airways


Getting there

Etihad has 42 weekly flights between Abu Dhabi and Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Sydney, including two A380 flights a day from Sydney. Passengers flying through Abu Dhabi with Etihad in economy can take advantage of the airline's 2-for-1 stopover and get their second night's accommodation for free. Those in business receive one free night stay and first class has two nights free accommodation.


Park Hyatt Abu Dhabi Hotel and Villas. Picture: Supplied.
Park Hyatt Abu Dhabi Hotel and Villas. Picture: Supplied.

Staying there

The Park Hyatt Abu Dhabi and St Regis Saadiyat Island Resort both share Saadiyat Island with Louvre Abu Dhabi.

Saadiyat Island is a 10-minute drive from downtown Abu Dhabi. Jumeirah at Etihad Towers is a five-star luxury hotel in downtown Abu Dhabi with a private beach and views over Abu Dhabi from the Observation deck from the 74th floor.

Corniche bay in Abu Dhabi. Picture: iStock.
Corniche bay in Abu Dhabi. Picture: iStock.


The Louvre Abu Dhabi is closed Mondays, open from 10am to 10pm Thursday and Friday and open 10am to 8pm every other day. General admission is 60AED ($22).

Visitors can take a self-guided tour with the museum's app, or choose between three tours. All guided tours are 40AED ($15) for adults and 30 AED ($11) for under 22 year olds.