In February 2018 I had the chance to visit the Louvre, Abu Dhabi (part of the Saadiyat Cultural District), and while I was blown away by the architectural beauty of the building, my main take-away was disappointment. The new Louvre formally opened in November 2017 and I expected to see innovation and creativity both in the museum exhibit and in the architecture.
Moreover, I expected this to be integrated, planned, and synergetic – designed together towards a new way of experience the museum exhibition. Unfortunately, there was a disappointing lost opportunity to integrate the permanent exhibition space into the architecture of the building, and in my view a complete lack of creativity in the
1. Disconnection of the building from the exhibition design.
I am starting from the assumption that the building has been designed to house the collection of the Louvre, and therefore that the design of the museum building has been built to maximise the function of the exhibition inside…
For a positive starting point, the building itself designed by Jean Nouvel, is a masterpiece and it blew me away completely from the exterior.
Photo: Louvre Abu Dhabi, exterior view.
However this did not last long. The permanent exhibition space was, frankly, a disappointment. The visitor enters the museum exposition, and is guided through a long exhibit with only one traffic route (think of a crowded weekend visit to IKEA).
The exhibition rooms are standard square exhibits, with low ceilings. There are a few windows showing highlights of the building but these are minimal or blocked (owing also to the requirement to protect the pieces from sunlight). Despite the huge size of the total building, the museum space itself it rather limited and cramped.
I had the sensation that the museum exhibition collection was just a “square box” placed within the building. Was the exhibition space just an afterthought to the “star” building?
Finally, at the very end of the collection visit the visitor arrives in the central atrium of the building. The tour takes between 1-2 hours, so finally after this interval for the first time the visitor can appreciate the building’s architecture, design and views. Perhaps this was the intent (to create anticipation, for a final reveal moment), but it failed completely and instead felt completely underwhelming.
The metallic ceiling of the Louvre Abu Dhabi was supposedly designed to reflect light into the museum like a natural Palm frond. Yet this focus is only on this open atrium plaza, with no consideration for the experience whilst visiting the exhibition itself.
Within the exhibition hall the designers so many opportunities to create entries, exits, passage ways above and around the water and walkways — all fundamental aspects of the architecture and the experience. One might imagine that each room of the museum opens onto the main atrium or plaza, giving visitors an opportunity to break from the exhibit, to have a coffee between their trips, to breathe some (outside) air. Instead, the exhibition is a closed circuit that forces the visitor through the building until they finally reach the atrium. It is a total anti-climax.
Photo: The Louvre Abu Dhabi, interior view from the Atrium after walking through the permanent exhibition.
2. Disappointing experience, lacking innovation.
Again, my expectations started high. As a museum that has been completely built from scratch I expected to see the newest innovations in museum and visitor experience. This was a chance to showcase the latest hype of visitor engagement and mediation, a companion to the “star” architecture, a consistent core character to brand the cultural district.
So, I was looking forward to a cacophony of effects, lights, colours, digital integration, VR, AR, music , mapping. Or perhaps, new innovation in the visitor participation, workshop and activities, a sensorial experience to hear, touch, feel, smell. I expected an entire creative experience to explode out of the exhibition.
Instead, the techniques were altogether largely bland and traditional – glass displays for objects, limited curation, and a few poorly integrated multi-media screens. From my perspective, there was nothing new and very little that created an engaging experience.
3. One exception – the opening exhibit hall
Perhaps the one exception is the opening gallery entrance for the permanent exhibit. A series of glass displays present an interesting map of world cultures, focused on similarities between different cultural regions. A map on the floor with bridges connecting the regions and pieces at least showed some innovation as a means of presenting a celebration of world cultures and diversity.
Yet, it didn’t make up for the rest. Whilst this room was truly fantastic from a visit perception, it only made the disappointment even more evident as I stepped into the subsequent halls.
Photo: Opening Entrance Gallery.
Photo: Entrance Gallery, image of a visitor in the opening hall.
The final outcome – its worth visiting, but don’t expect to be awed. If you havent seen it, the opening announcement here includes a video tour of the museum. Have a look, and let me know what you think.