Let me just say up front: I have never wanted to go to Abu Dhabi. Actually, to be completely correct, I’ve never been tempted to step out of the city-state’s airport during transit or transfer. There was no need for me to. It was a hastily constructed city built for business on a 1990’s vision of luxury — malls! Mega malls! Ferrariland! Luxury hotels found everywhere else in the world! – while razing to the ground almost any sense of history as the souqs were replaced with Chanel and other brand names that are easily accessible in the U.S.
But, as my mother used to say, “Never say never” – and I found myself booking a four-day stay in the Emirate this January, intrigued with the Louvre Abu Dhabi which opened its doors in November of last year. I’d been mildly obsessed with the new museum since reading The New York Times piece on it, in which Jean-François Charnier, the project’s chief curator and scientific director for Agence France-Museums, said, “What is the Louvre Abu Dhabi? It’s a narrative of humankind from the beginning of knowledge, using art as a witness of the times.”
I reserved two entire days for the museum, and two more for attempting to find archeological sites, cultural activities, and emirati food (a unique blend between Middle Eastern, Indian and African cuisines).
Built on a man-made peninsula, and open to the water on three sides, the museum is an awe inspiring pan-national ode to globalization. A look at humanity and our history through the art and objects we have made. It is a maze-like walk through history in small interconnected square buildings and shows how, through trade, and growth, humans became inextricably interconnected. How cultures, religions, regions influenced education, science and art. And how, even though early civilizations were thousands of miles apart, and had never been in contact, there were still striking thematic similarities in their art: maternity figures, the sun, death masks, utilitarian items like water ewers, a fixation on livestock and fertility (be it human or agricultural).
Throughout the galleries – separated into 12 “chapters” of humankind – you physically walk through the evolution of all of us, from the smaller civilizations, to the city states, as they become nations and influenced each other via land and sea trade routes. How our religions are connected and how one “pure” culture is really an amalgam of many.
For some the museum may be too obvious – putting three similar objects from around the world, made in a similar time frame. Or it may seem that it openly celebrates Islamic art and Arab dominance of mathematics, sea faring and science during the 18th century — but why not? Not many global museums have done this. And frankly, subtlety just seems to confuse most people, especially in the West where many seem unaware of the influence of the Middle East in global culture.
The modern area of the museum was a delight. I laughed out loud at Rene Magritte’s “The Subjugated Reader,” was mesmerized by Osman Hamdy Bey’s “A Young Emir Studying,” and was taken aback by Omar Ba’s “Act 1- Repaire.” Outside is just as inspiring as the inside.
Jenny Holzer’s huge limestone reliefs of cuneiform tablets telling the story of creation set the background for Rodin (and many, many instagrammers doing pensive or still walking shots). There is Giuseppe Penone’s three-part Germination installation, as well as other smaller, more hidden installations, all under Jean Nouvel’s nest-like dome which, through mathematical genius and trapezoidal shapes, filters the sunlight into a sort of starlight – ever changing throughout the day. According to the museum’s information packet it was inspired by the stars that guide the Bedouin in the desert and “pays homage to the vital importance shade in Arabia.”
The effect is akin to visual meditation. It was quiet – except for the sound of the water and birds and the over all effect was like walking through an open air place of worship. The overall effect is an epic experience that left me truly moved and optimistic.
It is an especially poignant and necessary museum, as in this age of cultural isolationism, refugees, wars and uncertainty, the Louvre Abu Dhabi physically shows how not only has this all happened many times over human history – but reassures us that our better instincts should and (hopefully) will prevail.
It aims to (and I believe it does) show how real growth, be it financial, spiritual or cultural, can come only through exchange – not isolationism.
Pity the poor Instagram-addicts (many of who arrive at the museum with assistants or parents in tow to capture their perfect picture) who run through the museum after a few “pensive” pics in front of the Manet, the Monet, or DaVinci (along with a selfie, natch) and then race through to line up for the perfect shots under the dome, usually perched on the edge of some wall to get the best “water-shot” – and miss the full beauty of the museum. I also felt bad for the tourists who were visiting off of the cruise ships or from the airport and had only a few hours to take it all in, often in the company of a large group.
Because this museum, like a good book, is meant to be mulled over, and revisited time and again.
It has accomplished more than what it set out to do. It has (along with the archeological sites by Al Ain, the fascinating Falcon Hospital) and the made Abu Dhabi – the pre-fab, Miami-esque shopping mecca – an actual destination. And given the world a reason to no longer treat it like a large airport good for a quick stopover.