A truly universal museum? Inside the Louvre Abu Dhabi's groundbreaking collection

Published 13th November 2017
A truly universal museum? Inside the Louvre Abu Dhabi's groundbreaking collection
Written by Anna Seaman, CNNAbu Dhabi
Exquisitely painted with a porcelain smooth complexion and dressed in red with her shoulders turned to the side, Leonardo da Vinci's "La Belle Ferroniere" has the kind of gaze that made her creator one of history's most celebrated artists. And yet she has always played second fiddle to its much more famous sister: "Mona Lisa."
But now the lady in red has come out of the shadows. "La Belle Ferroniere," one of a handful of artworks loaned to the Louvre Abu Dhabi by its Parisian counterpart, took the spotlight at the museum's grand opening last weekend. The da Vinci features along such other headline-grabbing artworks as Claude Monet's "La Gare Saint-Lazare," a self-portrait by Vincent van Gogh, and Pablo Picasso's "Portrait of a Lady."
"La Belle Ferroniere" (1495-1499) by Leonardo da Vinci
"La Belle Ferroniere" (1495-1499) by Leonardo da Vinci Credit: © Musée du Louvre, C2RMF / T. Clot
However, the Louvre Abu Dhabi has billed itself as the Arab world's first universal museum, a term that suggests it will host works that span centuries and continents. And to truly achieve this, the institution will have to take audiences far beyond da Vinci.
"After more than one century of colonization, it is not possible to use the classical museum model to discuss history anymore," said Jean-Francois Charnier, the scientific director of Agence France-Museums, the agency set up to manage the Louvre Abu Dhabi when the Emirati and French governments signed the first agreements in 2007.
Charnier saw the new institution as a chance to retell the history of civilization, and decided to dissolve traditional curatorial departments. Instead, he's gathered objects from the same period across different geographies to find a common narrative.
"(We moved away from) the vision of European values and Western values that diffuse around the world ... and set out to find a solution to talk about universality and what that means in our time of globalization," he said.

'A symbol of equality'

With this aim in mind, the Louvre Abu Dhabi intentionally sought out objects from outside French institutions. Pieces on show include a prehistoric stone tool and a funerary stele from first-century Mecca, loaned from the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage; a collection more than 400 silver dirham coins from the Abbasid Caliphate of Iraq, on loan from the National Museum in Oman; and an 8000-year-old, two-headed figure, courtesy of Jordan's Department of Antiquities. 
A Chinese head of Buddha (534-550)
A Chinese head of Buddha (534-550) Credit: © Louvre Abu Dhabi / Thierry Ollivier
Charnier is also creating new narratives by pairing objects that may not have been placed in dialogue with one other before. One example is a second-century Standing Bodhisattva from the kingdom of Gandhara in Pakistan that is displayed with a statue of a Roman orator from the same century. In both statues, a Grecian influence can be seen in the folds of the clothes. Elsewhere, imagery and objects from different faiths are displayed together, underlining common gestures of humanity.
"It is these kinds of gestures that will make the museum a symbol of equality," said Rose Balston, an art historian based in the United Arab Emirates. "We can no longer put Europe and America at the center of the map, and it is about time there is a museum that reflects a greater equality between different countries and continents.
"This is a bold ambition, as everyone has their own ideas about what it means to be universal. The pieces I have seen in the collection so far reflect a great start."
Funeral set of the Egyptian Princess Henuttawy from the second half of the 10th century BC.
Funeral set of the Egyptian Princess Henuttawy from the second half of the 10th century BC. Credit: © Louvre Abu Dhabi / Thierry Ollivier
Other artifacts in the permanent collection include an eight-century gold lion bracelet from Iranian Azerbaijan, and a mother-of-pearl ewer from Gujarat in India from the 1600s. Audiences can also see a Nigerian salt cellar carved from elephant ivory at the beginning of 16th century, as well as a Cambodian Meditating Buddha being protected by Muchalinda, king of the snakes, dated between 1100 and 1150.
"Every object we are dealing with in this museum has a really important story to tell," said Balston. "Some of the pieces may have been overshadowed in another museum full of more famous objects, but here they all have their own space and their own narrative. They have critical histories and, when seen together, it will be clear that they are part of this universal story that the Louvre Abu Dhabi is trying to tell."
This story forms part of an extended series exploring the new Louvre Abu Dhabi.