After ten years of planning, five years of delays, and hundreds of millions of dollars spent, the Louvre Abu Dhabi is ready to open to the public.
The museum is the first outpost of the famed institution in Paris, and it boasts dazzling architecture and hundreds of precious artworks. Officials of the United Arab Emirates hope the museum will help transform Abu Dhabi into a major world cultural destination, but the project has been dogged by controversies since its inception.
Here are five things to know about the beautiful, but often-contentious new museum:
It is located on an island
As James McAuley of the Washington Post reports, the Louvre Abu Dhabi is the first major installment of a multi-billion-dollar cultural complex planned for Saadiyat Island (or “Island of Happiness”), one of about 200 that dot the coast of Abu Dhabi. A maritime museum, a performing arts center, and an enormous Guggenheim satellite, among other institutions, are also slated to be built in the Saadiyat complex, but according to Oliver Wainwright of the Guardian, none of these projects have broken ground yet.
Visitors can drive to the new Louvre from the mainland, but VIP guests will have the option to cruise up to the museum in a boat.
Its roof is a sight to behold
An enormous dome built of eight layers of interlocking steel, the roof sits atop 55 different buildings and weighs 7,500 tons—almost as much as the Eiffel Tower, reports Javier Pes of artnet News. The layers of steel have been fashioned into star shapes, which cast beautiful patterns throughout the museum. The effect makes visitors “feel transported to another realm,” writes Wainwright of the Guardian.
The UAE government paid some $464 million to use the Louvre’s name
It will have rights to the museum’s brand for 30 years. Over time, the country is expected to pay more than $1 billion for the guidance of French experts and hundreds of loans from French museums.
The exchange stems from an unprecedented 2007 agreement between the French government, which owns most major museums in France, and the UAE. According to McAuley of the Post, the contract should be seen as part of France’s efforts to establish itself as “a chief interlocutor on the world stage, especially in the Middle East on the question of Iran.” France has a permanent military base in Abu Dhabi, which was established in 2009, but the new museum is often described as an exercise in “soft power”—or the use of art and culture to influence foreign policy.
French President Emmanuel Macron was on hand to unveil the Louvre Abu Dhabi on Wednesday, in advance of its opening on November 11. Speaking at the event, Macron referred to the museum as a “bridge between civilizations,” according to the BBC.
The museum is home to a collection of more than 600 diverse artworks, 300 of which are on loan from France
Among the illustrious items on display are "Monumental Statue with two heads," a circa 6500 B.C. plaster depiction of the human form discovered in Ain Ghazal, Jordan, Leonardo da Vinci’s "La Belle Ferronnière," (which Forbes contributor Ann Binlot already posits may become the Louvre Abu Dhabi's statement attraction), Jacques-Louis David's famed "Napoleon Crossing the Alps," as well "Fountain of Light," a crystal and steel sculpture by Ai Weiwei.
The museum’s 12 galleries are arranged chronologically, presenting a narrative of world history through an artistic lens. The exhibits seek to emphasize connections between different cultures. A much-remarked upon gallery, for instance, displays a medieval Koran, a medieval Bible and a medieval Torah from Yemen—a somewhat unusual choice, since the UAE allows only a small number of non-Islamic places of worship, and there are no synagogues in the country.
“One of the most beautiful books we have is the Yemeni Torah,” says Mohamed Khalifa al-Mubarak, the director of Abu Dhabi’s culture department, according to the Post. “The message of balance and acceptance will be broadcast from this particular gallery.”
It is controversial
The plan to build a Louvre outpost in Abu Dhabi has ruffled feathers from the start. When the agreement between France and the UAE was announced, some 2,400 people signed a petition accusing the French government of “selling its soul” to the highest bidder, according to the Times. Other critics have noted that although the UAE seeks to present itself has a modern cultural hub, it continues to commit serious human rights abuses, including the suppression of free speech and the arbitrary detainment of dissidents.
The treatment of workers who built the Louvre Abu Dhabi was a major source of contention. A damning Human Rights Watch report released in 2015 found that contractors and subcontractors withheld wages and benefits from workers, seized their passports, refused to reimburse recruiting fees, and housed them in squalid conditions.
But these controversies do not seem to have dampened enthusiasm for the new museum. According to the BBC, tickets to the museum’s opening day are completely sold out.