Louvre Abu Dhabi may be an international cultural institution, but for the time being, it is very much Abu Dhabi's own local treasure.
A stream of Abu Dhabi residents, myself included, visited the Saadiyat Island museum after it opened to the public on Wednesday, having closed on March 14 because of the Covid-19 outbreak.
With the emirate’s borders closed at the moment, the capital's residents have the stunning venue all to themselves.
“It feels like it’s ours and if you live in Abu Dhabi this is definitely an opportunity we won’t have again,” Carole Montias told me. She, along with her 2-year-old daughter and husband, were the first visitors of the day on Thursday.
“So I wanted to come here and I will be back again until the country opens up again and things go back to some sense of normality. Until then, believe me, I plan to savour these moments.”
Meet your digital usher
And what kind of museum are we coming back to? Fortunately, not too much has changed.
The pandemic accelerated Louvre Abu Dhabi’s digital expansion: visitors arrive in the venue, having already booked their three-hour slot online. Payments are contactless and maps, brochures and commentary by a “digital usher” are freely available upon downloading the museum's app.
A lot of these advancements will be here to stay, says museum director Manuel Rabate.
“This pandemic has made a lot of us make that digital jump. I mean, even my grandmother is now using Zoom,” he tells me.
“So this kind of jump, we cannot take back. So the question is what are we going to do with it? With museums, it’s all about curating a specific experience. So with the digital usher we can use the core of the museum, which is the [physical] connection with real art work, but do it with an extra layer of digital technology that will help make [people] understand and enjoy the experience.”
With Louvre Abu Dhabi presently functioning at 40 per cent capacity, each reservation grants you three hours in the museum to ensure everyone gets a chance to have a comfortable visit.
All galleries are available, except for the Children's Museum and the maze-like structure of Fur Die Luft (For the Air) by Susanna Fritscher
Like the enriching art works on offer, the safety measures in place seem almost curated, so as not to interfere with the visitor experience.
Outside the sliding entry gates, a masked security guard welcomes visitors and gently ensures they are standing two metres apart upon walking in.
Face masks and gloves are on offer, once belongings are scanned. After that, visitors undergo a thermal check to ensure body temperature is below 37.5C.
In addition to masked museum and security staff, the two-metre social distancing rules are also reiterated via bright floor signage indicating where to stand in line.
A surprisingly emotional experience
Once inside the galleries, it is a revelation.
We often don’t realise what we have until it is gone, even if it is a temporary loss.
A sudden and deep wave of assurance washes over me as I walk around The Grand Vestibule.
With the world turning on its head in the space of a frenetic three months, this first physical encounter with art provides a link to a vibrant past I was beginning to forget.
“Oh yes, I also feel that, too,” Laetitia Nobili tells me, as we stroll through a section of The First Great Powers. An 11-year resident of the capital, she explains that the reopening of Louvre Abu Dhabi is as much a personal milestone as a national one.
This was Nobili’s first real outing since March.
“Before this, it was just the weekly shopping trip,” she says. “So it feels amazing to be back and be inspired. I am a member of this museum and I normally come here once a month. I need to. It’s good for me. It’s healthy.”
To maintain an intimate vibe, the galleries all carry noticeable, yet discreet, yellow signs informing how many people can enter, to maintain social distancing measures.
A section of the A New Art of Living gallery, home to the magnificent oil painting Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David, now accommodates a maximum of 70 people.
Meanwhile, only up to seven people can gather around the glass panel to peer at historical pieces of Quranic calligraphy as part of the Universal Religions gallery.
A good way to use your time
In the Universal Religions wing I spot British couple Eddie and Ellie Fray listening to the digital usher explain the significance of the Architectural Frieze Carved with Quranic Verses, a piece linked to 12th-century Rajasthan and Northern India.
“It almost looks like terracotta doesn’t it?” Eddie remarks, upon removing his headphones.
Their trip to the museum is part of an Abu Dhabi staycation for the residents of the capital. They are spending three days in a nearby Saadiyat Island resort.
“Normally, when I take visitors and family here, the place has a lot of people,” Ellie says. “So it is a good to come back, have it to ourselves, and really take in some of the works here. It is also a chance to escape the heat for the day.”
Eddie adds: “I do look at the museum opening as a small sign that things are slowly getting back to normal. Normally, this time of year, we would be travelling, going back home to see the family. With travel restrictions a lot of us still need to use our annual leave, and it gives us a chance to do things like having the staycation and visiting the museum. It is nice and a different way to use your time.”
It is also an opportunity that won’t last long. The internal and international borders will eventually open and both local and foreign tourists will make their way to this Abu Dhabi jewel.
Until then, Rabate is pleased the current restrictions will allow the museum to build an even stronger bond with its city.
“This is your museum,” he says. “This is the best opportunity for people to have a direct connection with the art work.”
Louvre Abu Dhabi is on Saadiyat Island. Doors open from 10am to 6.30pm, Tuesday to Sunday. The museum is closed on Mondays. Book a visit at the museum website. Last entry is 5.30pm.