Located in the Louvre’s Pavilion de l’Horologe, the Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan Centre is a multi-storey interpretation facility dedicated to explaining the 800-year-long history of the museum and its collections. Nick Leech takes a tour with Neguine Mathieux, the curator and art historian responsible for overseeing the pavilion’s redevelopment.
When it comes to finding the Mona Lisa among the Musee du Louvre's 70,000 square metres of galleries and 38,000 works of art, visitors are presented with two options.
The impatient go straight to the first floor of the museum’s southern Denon wing, which flanks the River Seine, where Leonardo da Vinci’s 514-year-old masterpiece is displayed alone, on an enormous screen, in a gallery dedicated to the Renaissance.
But those who take the advice of the museum's guides follow a more circuitous route that takes in one of the Louvre's other great ladies, the Venus de Milo, and passes through the grand 17th- century Pavilion de l'Horologe (Clock Pavilion).
Standing midway between the Cour Napoleon, which houses the modern museum’s pyramid-shaped main entrance, and the Cour Carree, its older internal courtyard, the pavilion takes up three floors of the Louvre’s central Sully wing.
Designed and built by the French architect and engineer Jacques Lemercier during the reign of King Louis XIII, the Pavilion de L’Horologe has had many functions since it was completed at the end of the 1620s.
It held royal apartments, was a studio and home for artists in the service of Louis XIV after he moved to Versailles, and hosted early versions of the Salon, the annual exhibition that determined the success or failure of French artistic careers from 1667 to the time of the Impressionists.
After an 18-month remodelling and renovation that was finished last year, the pavilion was relaunched as the Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan Centre, a new, multi-storey unit in the 800-year-old museum.
“The Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan Centre, dedicated to the history and the collections of the Louvre Palace, pays tribute to the late Founding Father of the UAE,” a sober, trilingual black and white sign reads in the pavilion’s crypt-like entrance.
A focal point within a wider reorganisation of the Parisian institution devised by its current president-director, Jean-Luc Martinez, the centre is one of the products of the 2007 intergovernment agreement between the UAE and France that established the Louvre Abu Dhabi.
It was inaugurated by Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, Minister for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, and the French president, Francois Hollande, on July 6 last year.
The pavilion’s conversion into a visitor centre made perfect sense as it represents the architectural and historical heart of the entire complex.
The building contains elements from every stage of the Louvre’s history and its basement holds the very oldest parts of the original palace – the outer walls, inner keep and dungeon of a castle built in 1190 by Philip II, the first monarch to call himself King of France.
Forgotten until they were rediscovered in the late 1980s when building began on I M Pei’s Pyramid du Louvre, these remains now greet visitors as they make their way from the museum’s main entrance to the galleries dedicated to the art of Egypt and ancient Greece.
“The visitors come here to see a museum but it’s a royal palace too, with its own very important story and even though that’s difficult to explain and to understand sometimes, that adds a richness to the museum,” says Neguine Mathieux, the museum’s head of Louvre history.
“It’s not so easy to understand when you are inside, but this building is important because it was built on a medieval base, which was followed by a Renaissance palace.
“It’s a story that explains how the Louvre went from being a home to the kings of France to a universal museum and we want to explain that.”
Ms Mathieux was also the project manager in charge of the Pavilion de l’Horologe’s redevelopment, responsible for coordinating the project and delivering it on time.
Her task included rethinking how the museum connects with its many audiences through the use of 3-D films, animations and interactive models, and tactile displays for the visually impaired.
“For us the Sheikh Zayed Centre is important, not only because it explains the building’s history, but because it also allows us to think about and develop new forms of interpretation that are not so present elsewhere in the Louvre,” Ms Mathieux says.
In the pavilion’s basement these include the Salle de la Maquette, which houses an interactive model outlining the Louvre’s architectural history.
On its first floor, the former private chapel of Louis XIII and Louis XIV – the Salle de la Chapelle – contains a distillation of the museum’s core collections and combines objects and paintings in ways that illustrate art’s historical traditions, such as the depiction of the human form.
The room, which contains a detailed model of the museum’s galleries, is particularly popular with tour guides who easily locate the masterpieces in the Louvre’s collection while identifying trails that help to guide visitors from one art highlight to the next.
The third and final floor of the Zayed Centre, the Salle d’Actualite, deals with the Louvre as it is today and its plans for the future.
It includes displays dedicated to the museum's research and conservation projects, including a 1,700-year-old pair of sandals from Egypt, and loans and new acquisitions such as Reading the Bible, a painting by the French 18th-century artist Jean-Baptiste Greuze.
A large-scale model of the Saadiyat Island museum sits behind a map of the world, showing the location of the Louvres in Paris, Lens and Abu Dhabi.
“After the new museum is open we will update these displays, but this is a place where we can explain in more detail what we have done, what we are doing and what we would like to do in the future,” Ms Mathieuxsays.
“Of course, we have the whole collection around us but this place introduces everything in one place and we want it to be for everybody.”