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DURING my short trip to Abu Dhabi a visit to the recently opened Louvre Abu Dhabi(LAD) featured high on my to do list.
I went by taxi(surprisingly inexpensive) from Abu Dhabi to the LAD’s Saadiyat Island location about 17 kms from Abu Dhabi itself harbouring high expectations - too high perhaps. I came away not sure if I my visit had been a disappointment, or just confusing. Or maybe both.

The LAD’s stated purpose is to encourage visitors to “…..see humanity in a new light.” Light. Ahhh. The marketing literature was certainly right about that. Each of the spacious galleries was excellently well lit - except when they weren’t.

Some of the exhibits were displayed in side galleries - gold artefacts for example - which were lamp black inside. No light. While the exhibits themselves were illuminated with tiny spotlights stygian darkness surrounded them. It was impossible to see museum staff in their black suits. The only visual clue to their presence was a tiny sliver of white from the collars of their shirts.

Some of the galleries sadly had little to offer. Sparse contents. Some individual exhibits were fascinating and worth spending time with. But the overall collection did not, for me anyway, throw any new light on humanity. What was significantly lacking it seemed to me was art from the Islamic world. Perhaps it was in one of the dark galleries and I missed it. Even so did none of this work contribute to helping us see humanity in a new light?

There was ample art from the Western world though. Coming through the final couple of galleries there they were - the usual suspects from the Modern period onwards.  

Much of this content was on loan from the Louvre in Paris. It seemed as though there was one of everything. The collection reminded me of the pic n’ mix sweetie counter in Woolies. The question that kept popping into my mind was in a new venture art museum would you start with a mission and find appropriate art and artefacts to underpin it; or start with a collection and devise an umbrella theme to somehow hold it together?

But if I found the content lacking and the mission unclear, the building itself was a triumph for Jean Nouvel its architect. An absolute joy. Part of the museum stands in the Arabian Gulf connecting symbolically the sea to the land. This Louvre forms a kind of peninsula. Visitors can reach it by boat apparently, although I didn’t notice anyone arriving by this means.

Visitors and art critics alike comment favourably on the LAD’s unique roof - a ‘floating’ 7,000 tonne dome which casts a “…rain of light” within. And it truly does. The building covers 24,000m2 of floor space with 8,000m2 allocated to galleries.

And what about the cost I hear you ask? Well, frankly staggering. According to various media sources the LAD cost €600 million to build. Then there’s €420 million to be associated with the Louvre(brand?) back in Paris plus a further €575 million for art loans, special exhibitions and management advice. That’s a whole lotta euros. This provides the LAD with a 30 year licence agreement.

Ignoring the building costs then I make this operating licence to be worth €34 million per year give or take the odd euro. And the entry cost? A modest AED 60 plus AED 3 in tax, so around £12 approximately. I came away trying to decide if my experience had been disappointing, or just confusing. I’m still undecided. It comes down to a consideration of form and content. The LAD undoubtedly has superb form; the same cannot be said for its contents, or indeed its message.

There’s an expression we use in my native Yorkshire (yes, and in other counties too) that refers to wearing a fur coat and… but as it’s somewhat indelicate and I have no wish to offend, I’ll borrow a phrase from the US instead. Was the Louvre Abu Dhabi a case of big hat, no cattle? I rather fear it was for me.


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