Dr Souraya Noujaim
Scientific, Curatorial & Collections
Management Director at Louvre Abu Dhabi
How has the Louvre Abu Dhabi evolved since its opening three years ago?
The past three years have been very busy. I would say it was a transition between the opening and setting up the new plans for the scientific project and the narrative. To answer your question, it has evolved slightly and this is normal. We’ve been assessing, reviewing and understanding with the return of the visitor experience, of colleagues and the academic community. We’ve worked very hard in order to fill the gap in the narrative and to develop new thematics, which are really interesting for us and needed to be enhanced. We’ve also been working on getting new loans to the collection and obviously developing the Louvre Abu Dhabi collection through a very active acquisition policy.
You say that a museum should aspire to be a critical part of the cultural life of its community. Can you tell us more about this?
A museum should be a museum for its people as well as for tourists. I really think that this sort of institution is anchored in the future if it becomes a forum related to the community. When I was younger, doing my research in Paris, the Louvre Paris was a second home and I used to pop in and out. So, I have seen the development of this institution and would love to see this in the future for the Louvre Abu Dhabi. Regarding loans and acquisitions, our choices, which are historical choices, are related to the universal narrative, how each and every piece is included in this universal story, which tells the story of humanity from prehistoric times until the present day. The great loans we have from the Musée d’Orsay and private collections, mostly from the Impressionist period in the 19th century, are included in a global story of how modernity started and what the impact was on art history. Part of our acquisitions, such as some great manuscripts that we have on exhibition, are here to cover or to replace some loans as part of this universal history.
Is there attention given to a particular type of work, medium or era?
I wouldn’t talk about one particular medium or type of work. It really depends on the period we are showcasing. With this universal narrative we don’t choose according to the medium, we choose our artwork in relation to the story that we are telling and to technological progress and the more general art history movement. In terms of region, I think it is important to note that the Louvre Abu Dhabi story is not intent on privileging one area, one region, one medium. It’s really the story of humankind throughout creation. I would take one example related to the loans. There are two artworks that illustrate the technical progress of the industrial revolution. This is the picture of the boat La Fayette arriving in New York City, as well as the Renoir where you see a railway station in the background. It conveys a whole world of technological progress and machinery that at the time was something completely new. Also, there is this sort of relationship between art and progress, art and history. I would say we can take another example: the Hamdy Bey from our collection and a second one on loan from the Musée d’Orsay. These together show two aspects from the same artist, but also both are related to the inspiration Hamdy Bey got from photography, which was this new medium at the time.
Can you tell us your approach to displaying works; are they in dialogue?
Dialogue is the key idea for the Louvre Abu Dhabi. I think that is an essential point as well in terms of developing the collection or getting new loans. Our intention is always to keep this dialogue open and understandable at first sight by the visitor. We are not here to showcase blockbusters, artists or exhibitions. Impressionism, the art of landscape and all those artworks, such as Renoir and Monet, are set in a dedicated gallery to be in dialogue with the artwork of the Louvre Abu Dhabi collection. We have a beautiful Gustave Courbet landscape that showcases the evolution of this art of landscape that was crucial to the 19th century. Here again, I can take the example of the Hamdy Bey from the Musée d’Orsay and our Hamdy Bey in dialogue together, but also in dialogue with another medium, which is photography, and with other objects of the collection, which are exhibited perhaps further away.
Is it these kinds of works that make the museum worthy of international recognition or is there something else less visible that contributes to the museum’s success?
I think we have a very unique story that’s also a message, where we bring civilisations not only together but in dialogue together. That is a permanent axis of development that creates the success of the museum. Then you have the art itself and a museum without art and a physical encounter with art wouldn’t be as successful as we are. Bringing those exceptional pieces that speak to everyone and in a way to the soul and to the body: this physical experience is absolutely key for us. That’s why in times of Covid and with restrictions on travel, it was important that we are able to present to our audience not only great artworks from immense artists but to present them physically for the first time in the region, at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. That doesn’t mean that the collection or the display is constituted of purely masterpieces. For us, a healthy museum comprises a collection and a story, as the two come together.
How often do you rotate your display?
We have to find the right artwork. What is interesting in our model, which is a new model for the world of museums, is really this question of sharing the collection, renewing the display and proposing something new on a very regular basis and shedding another light on this story. This is how I see things, as next year we will have other works in Gallery 19, but it will bring something different to the visitors’ appreciation.
Are there any particular acquisitions or items you are most proud of?
This is a hard choice. It’s definitely one of my first and this is related to my background as an Islamic art historian: a piece, a very beautiful, humble page of one fantastic manuscript which is known as the Blue Quran from a very early moment of Islamic time, the 9th century, and I would say extraordinary. But this is not a new acquisition.
I would also mention, as something very interesting which resonates with my background, an incense burner from the central Asian workshops dating from the 11th century. It is an extremely modern shape and a powerful composite of a lion whose tail ends in many sorts of birds. So, you have this world of what they call in Arabic “Ajeeb wal Ghareeb”, the fantastic and the marvellous. We displayed it in dialogue with an acquisition made prior to the opening, a German aquamanile probably dating from the 12th century and related to a more religious usage. I like the idea of working on completing this collection and finding artworks which resonate with one another and take their complete sense in this sort of dialogue and sometimes confrontation with one another.
From the loans this year, it’s fantastic that we’ve got Monet’s Haystack from the Musée d’Orsay, and his Charing Cross Bridge from a private collection, as well as a Renoir, so there is a little gem of a corner that is extremely pleasant to see. Especially in this time of the pandemic, where we are all fed up with Zoom meetings and so on, getting to see and feel the vibrations of these artworks in our museum was a major achievement and I am proud of feeling this joy from people when they are able to come and see for themselves.
Has censorship ever been an issue at the Louvre Abu Dhabi?
The Louvre Abu Dhabi is telling the universal history of humankind. We have to make choices, but any curator would have to make choices and at the end of the day I think that in the story of humanity that we are telling here we try to embrace the diversities, communities and different beliefs. I feel personally very lucky to be able to present this story. The Universal Religions gallery has become part of the DNA of our institution. I think it is a great symbol and achievement.
What has been the impact of the pandemic and travel restrictions?
I am proud of what we did on the digital side and I think digital is part of the future of museums. As a chief curator, I would like to develop a sort of combination between the art institute and digital. But I would like also to invite people so that they feel this joy when they are nourished by art. I think that’s why our reopening was a success. I think of all the museums around the world that are struggling with closing and opening. We’ve been open since July and I am proud of this.
This is a message that I would like to convey as the essence of this institution is the rotations, the loans, and the constant movement. In a world where things are slowing down and people are a bit lost, we are really proving internally, and I hope externally also, that we have the right pace and we are still in motion. Even in terms of our collection management, we have released new methodology that I am sure will be the normal framework in the future. It is incredible what we can achieve here through the two mediums of the institute and technology. Also, education has always been a key axis of development for the Louvre Abu Dhabi and I know that my colleagues in the education department have plenty of initiatives in response to this pandemic.
Museums seem to be acquiring a lot of art recently. Why is this?
I wouldn’t go into the art market area, which is really for the art market people, but indeed we had a quite active acquisition year and have been increasing the collection. I would say that from our side this really depends on opportunities. When you have good opportunities, good expertise, excellent due diligence and the mandate, you go for it.
Souraya Noujaim began her career at Musée du Louvre and has since worked for major cultural institutions. As part of the “Grand Louvre” project, she took part in the opening of the first Islamic Art Department rooms of Musée du Louvre and in landmark exhibitions at Musée du Louvre and Grand Palais. She later worked for the British Museum to participate in the study of the collection of weights and measures in the Arabic section of the Department of Coins and Medals. She has taught for several years at the École du Louvre, where in 2013 she held the Islamic Art History chair. Dr. Noujaim has organised numerous educational and cultural outreach programmes at Musée du Louvre and Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA). She is notably the author of the Catalogue raisonné de la collection d’estampilles, poids forts et autres disques en verre du Musée du Louvre (RMN) and she regularly speaks in colloquia and symposia.
Dr. Noujaim holds a PhD in Islamic Art History and Archaeology, with a degree in Museum Studies and postgraduate research diplomas from École du Louvre and Paris-Sorbonne University. She has also studied Arab Islamic civilisation at the INALCO. She wrote her doctoral thesis on the poems of the Nasrid palaces of the Alhambra.
At Louvre Abu Dhabi, Dr. Noujaim coordinated the Scientific and Cultural Programme under the direction of Jean-François Charnier for the section of the museum exploring medieval times and was the lead curator specialising in Islamic art for the entire narrative and the mediation tools. Her expertise was fundamental to major Islamic acquisitions for Louvre Abu Dhabi’s collection, including the Page of the Blue Quran made of gold on parchment from North Africa in about 900 CE, the bronze Mari-Cha lion from Spain or Southern Italy dating to 1000–1200 CE, the Turban helmet dating to 1450–1500 CE, and the Turkish Ushak carpet with medallions from 1480. She also oversaw the restoration of the Ottoman octagonal fountain and its flooring from the Louvre Abu Dhabi collection.
A VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN PRINT IN SELECTIONS #55