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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 15 August 2018

Guarding the Arabian Gulf: The lifeguards at Louvre Abu Dhabi

Their chief job seems to be playing goalie to youngsters trying to run off into the ocean, but on Mondays they're the ones taking a dip

Eddie Molion has been living and working as a lifeguard at the UAE for the past four years and is from the province of Bicol, Philippines. He's on duty to ensure no one finds themselves in trouble in and around the water at the gallery. Victor Besa / The National
Eddie Molion has been living and working as a lifeguard at the UAE for the past four years and is from the province of Bicol, Philippines. He's on duty to ensure no one finds themselves in trouble in and around the water at the gallery. Victor Besa / The National

One of Jean Nouvel’s core architectural ideas for Louvre Abu Dhabi was to open the museum to the elements – the light, water and sand – around it.

“The museum belongs to the sea and the port facing it,” the Frenchman said in September, when he led a press tour of the newly-built structure. “It’s in accord with life – otherwise it is a pastiche; an assemblage of rocks.”

Sight lines stretch out from underneath the starry-domed plaza into the sea beyond, sun streams through the roof, and white steps lead down into the water itself.

Now that it’s a fully-functioning museum, however, these lofty architectural ideals are stumbling upon the workaday facts of reality, and Nouvel’s openness towards the sea could pose questions about safety – which is why museum management has enlisted the services of lifeguards.

Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan, the chairman of Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority, right, speaks with Jean Nouvel, the architect of the new Louvre Abu Dhabi. Galen Clarke / The National
Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan, the chairman of Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority, right, speaks with Jean Nouvel, the architect of Louvre Abu Dhabi. Galen Clarke / The National

Kitted out in high-visibility safety colours of yellow and red, six guards are positioned around the museum daily, looking out for the visitors who might stray into the bright blue water surrounding

The lifeguards have been on site since before the museum opened to adhere with health and safety regulations, although their presence might have unintended effects.

“I was really surprised to see lifeguards [there],” says Joy Hernon, who visited Abu Dhabi recently from New York City. “I noticed there was boat access as well.”

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - February 15th 2018: Lifeguards at the Louvre. Thursday, February 15th, 2018. The Louvre, Abu Dhabi. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Lifeguards at the Louvre. Chris Whiteoak / The National

There are no shortage of lifeguards at venues across the Emirates, but the current cohort at the Louvre mostly hail from the Philippines and Nepal. Nepali Krishna Ale Magar, 26, says he learned to swim while at school. He recalls that he and his friends would head to the Trishuli River during the breaks between their classes, rafting on its fast currents.

He was a lifeguard at the Muneera compound near Yas Island before getting his position at the capital’s pre-eminent art museum.

Only one close call so far

So far, Magar says, there has been only one close call: a 9-year-old child who tried to dive into the water near the entrance. The museum assures us that in this instance the lifeguard scheme worked, and the child was quickly caught before anything could happen. Indeed, errant children are the main occupation of the Louvre’s lifeguards. According to those we spoke to on a recent trip to Saadiyat Island, their chief job seems to be playing goalie to youngsters trying to run off into the Arabian Gulf.

“I say ‘you are not allowed to run in the museum’,” Magar tells me. “The parents also say this, but some kids don’t listen.”

And on the day the museum is closed...

On Mondays, when the museum is closed, Louvre Abu Dhabi holds training sessions for the guards, who get to taste the experience that visitors’ children do not. This is part-training and part-maintenance: some of the guards’ Monday swimming jaunts include piloting the boats for the cleaners, who also dive into the sea to scrub the steps and walls free from barnacles and algae.

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The workers are, in some way, an embodiment of Nouvel’s original plan for the museum.

The French architect originally had proposed canals of water running through the gallery section under the dome, separating the rooms in the way that Venice’s palazzos are separated by water.

This part of the design changed for a variety of reasons – among them, reportedly, insurance: companies were worried about the humidity – but the idea of Louvre Abu Dhabi as a site traversed by swimmers, even in off-days, seems a nod back to this earlier integration of museum and sea.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, November 11, 2017:    A traditional dhow sails during the past the Louvre Abu Dhabi during the opening day on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi on November 11, 2017. Christopher Pike / The National

Reporter: James Langton, John Dennehy
Section: News
A traditional dhow sails past Louvre Abu Dhabi during the opening day on Saadiyat Island. Christopher Pike / The National
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