Mecanoo’s geology-inspired Natural History Museum Abu Dhabi takes shape on Saadiyat Island

Mecanoo, the Dutch firm that recently dazzled New Yorkers with its $200 million transformation of the Mid-Manhattan Library (alongside Beyer Blinder Belle), is now set to wow future museum-goers in Abu Dhabi with its design for the emirate’s forthcoming Natural History Museum Abu Dhabi. Although the 377,000-square-foot new destination was just formally unveiled by the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi (DCT Abu Dhabi), construction on the project is already underway at a waterfront site on the island-bound Saadiyat Cultural District. The new museum is slated for completion at the end of 2025.

Set to showcase some of the “rarest wonders of natural history ever found” while offering visitors the chance to “travel on a 13.8-billion-year journey through time and space,” Natural History Museum Abu Dhabi will be flanked by at least one international tourism-bolstering neighbor when it opens its doors: Jean Nouvel’s domed Louvre Abu Dhabi, which debuted in 2017. Other in-progress—or, in some cases, currently stalled—institutions planned for the Saadiyat Cultural District include the Foster + Partners–designed Zayed National Museum, Adjaye Associates’ Abrahamic Family House, Zaha Hadid Architects’ Abu Dhabi Performing Arts Center, Tadao Ando’s Maritime Museum, and, last but not least, the Frank Gehry’ delay-plagued Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, which, as of last year, is also set to be completed in 2025 alongside the new natural history museum.

View of Saadiyat Cultural District, including Mecanoo’s Museum of Natural History Abu Dhabi and museums by Jean Nouvel and Frank Gehry, both completed and uncompleted, in the distance. (Mecanoo/Courtesy Abu Dhabi Natural History Museum)

As for the starchitecture-stuffed district’s newly revealed natural history museum, Mecanoo has envisioned a sprawling complex that will rise along the shoreline of Saadiyat Island like a colossal rock formation, “reflecting the museum’s goal of improving understanding of and engagement with the natural world” per the Delft-headquartered firm. “Every element of the design uses geometry as an overriding theme, with pentagonal shapes resembling cellular structures.” Water and vegetation—“potent symbols of life in the desert”—are also key elements of Mecanoo’s geologic design for the granitic white edifice cloaked in splashes of greenery.

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In an addition to myriad gallery areas featuring immersive displays that showcase the museum’s formidable trove of natural wonders, the complex is set to include temporary exhibition space, a theater, classrooms, and special event venues. Joining the museum’s public-facing facilities will also be a scientific research hub dedicated to zoology, paleontology, marine biology, molecular research, and earth sciences.

entrance to a rock-like museum
Softened by trees and lush vegetation, the heavy, outcrop-like structure is inspired by natural geologic formations. (Mecanoo/Courtesy Abu Dhabi Natural History Museum)

A crowd-drawing highlight touted by DCT Abu Dhabi will be “Stan” (aka BHI 3033), a 39-foot-long Tyrannosaurus rex discovered in South Dakota in 1987 that ranks as one of the world’s most well-preserved and studied T. rex fossils. In addition to the 67 million-year-old predator, another major draw will be the Murchison meteorite that crash-landed in Australia in the late 1969. While the scope of Natural History Museum Abu Dhabi will be global in nature, it will also present “the history of life on Earth through an Arabian lens, where local natural assets of fauna, flora and the geological history of the region will be part of the visitor journey.” This, per DCT Abu Dhabi, is a first for a natural history museum.

“Natural history has a new home in Abu Dhabi,” said DCT Abu Dhabi chairman HE Mohamed Khalifa Al Mubarak in a statement. “A new museum which tells the story of our universe through some of the most incredible natural wonders known to mankind. These are awe-inspiring gifts from nature that we are proud to share with the world — unlocking millions of years of knowledge to not only advance scientific discovery but to inspire our children to protect our planet’s future.”

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