The Louvre Abu Dhabi: A Review

I found myself in Abu Dhabi, UAE in January— the starting point of a contract I was doing. The place is fascinating, in all kinds of ways. I can’t give the city itself a sterling recommendation—there are more interesting places you could support with your tourist dollars, frankly. Maybe some places that don’t still do flogging and stoning, say. But I can tell you that you will almost certainly enjoy the visitor experience at the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

What I loved:

Almost everything. What a pleasure to visit a building that has been constructed solely for the purpose of showcasing art and artefacts, and on a virtually unlimited budget. It puts Europe’s repurposed palaces and halls to shame.

The Louvre Abu-Dhabi is gorgeous. I don’t know how else to put it. The pieces have room to breathe! Nothing is mashed together; nothing has that overstuffed-cabinet-of-curiosities quality that plagues so many of the world’s museums. The effect is exhilarating: with the open physical space comes a feeling of enhanced intellectual space. Suddenly it becomes easy—and gratifying—to see the relationships between objects in a room. This is one of the reasons why I love good exhibits: the placement of objects is the story. I love that moment of, “Oh HEY I see what you’re doing here…” as you piece together the meaning of the layout.

The use of natural lighting is worth the price of admission alone. The architect has managed to harness the blazing intensity of the desert sunshine outdoors, and tame it in the most artful, useful ways.

I was worried that the design of the building would overshadow the museum experience; it doesn’t. Certainly, once you step outside to the remarkable (and remarkably costly) courtyard, with its dappled-leaf-steel roof, the experience is all about the building. But inside, it’s all in service to the galleries; it’s all about the pieces.

What I liked less:

The museum tells the story of civilization’s unfolding, from early tool-building to the dawn of agriculture to the rise of cities and empires, the development of art and technology, and so on. And, as you can imagine, the material culture that the Louvre has at its disposal to illustrate the story is formidable.

But it’s uneven. The Louvre is, ultimately, a European art museum and despite what I suspect were their best efforts to represent the world’s cultures equitably, one is left with an embarrassingly European slant. Sometimes it feels like they’re just showing off: “Here are two beautiful 18th century Japanese prints, and here are four beautiful Polynesian sculptures and OH LOOK HERE ARE 30 REMBRANDT SKETCHES BECAUSE WE’RE THE LOUVRE, BABY.” I mean, their collection is insane. But it isn’t anything close to well-rounded, and the European chauvinism is particularly poignant when placed here in the United Arab Emirates.

And what I hated:

Some of the translations were just eye-pokingly awful. Seriously, people, you spent $525 million just to license the Louvre name, but you couldn’t afford fifty cents a word for a decent translator?

shitty translation
Seriously, I have read this like fifteen times. I’ve even tried reverse-engineering it back into French and I cannot tell you what they’re trying to say.

And here’s a particular peeve of mine, and it speaks to the Euro-conceit of the overall curatorial approach. When dating objects, why oh why do we still insist on a CE/BCE dating system? Why on earth are we contextualizing the creation of Persian artwork against the birth date of Jesus, of all people? Can someone explain this to me? Why should I have to do mental math to figure out that a Babylonian piece, (“c. 2400 BCE”) is about 4300 years old? What the hell is wrong with “Before Present” (BP)? Is it so hard? Particularly in an Arab context! It’s insulting.

End of rant.

Should you go the Louvre Abu Dhabi?

If you find yourself in that part of the world—and so many Canadians seem to, with our oil patch connections—hell yes. Once you’re in the door, you won’t regret it. (But before you commit to going, you should probably read about how the project treated its foreign labour.)

louvre abu dhabi
Burqa optional.


  1. Don – I enjoyed your piece on the Abu Dhabi Louvre.

    I understand your frustration with the collection. Though I won’t see it until April, there is bound to be European slant. However, I had heard that the Louvre was going to supply its AD branch will more if it’s priceless middle eastern artifacts, and that the European works were largely an effort by the emirate to gain credence with western visitors who link the Louvre-name with western art. Not an excuse, but just passing along what I had seen/heard earlier.

    The translation business is rather funny, as the passage you cite here reminds me of students who try to appear lofty and profound, and just come off as obtuse, confused and pompous.

    As for the BCE/CE business, this is something that has become standardized in history texts and classes as a way to deal with the western/Christian slant of European and American history. We cannot create a new calendar to resolve the inherent bias. And we cannot simply revert to some other civilization’s calendar to be au courant or P.C. The BCE/CE solution was a simple way to acknowledge the general acceptance in the history field of the split of time as seen in the BC/AD division of history. Even Arabic, Jewish/Israeli, and Asian publications use both their local calendar dates and the Western dates. Call it Western aggrandizement or left-over colonialist influence, but it is what it is.

    “Before Present” doesn’t help as when is the “Present”? So as inelegant and imperfect a solution BCE/CE is, it certainly is an attempt to rectify something of the bias inherent in using BC/AD. And it certainly avoids the problem of understanding what “AD” means. (You would not believ the number of people I have encountered who believe that AD means “After Death”.

    Best regards

    Craig Pilant

    • Hi Craig and thanks for your comment.
      Interesting about the need to establish credibility through the exhibition of European treasures. Credibility and profitability, of course. Those Rembrandt sketches do bring in the crowds. And the da Vincis, of course.
      Nope, not gonna cut you slack on the BCE thing. “Before Present” is obvious. Present is now. In the scale of “c.4300 Before Present”, and given the shelf life of an exhibition label (3-5 years), there is not much that would be sacrificed in terms of accuracy, and much to be gained in interpretive clarity and equitability.
      Let me know what you think of your visit. PS: just a heads up: the coat check/storage lockers are another total train wreck that I didn’t have space to write about in my article. Total charlie-foxtrot, pitting visitors against each other. Get there early.

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