ABU DHABI // If the world's great civilisations had to come up with a list of objects to represent 2 million years of human ingenuity, a vast new exhibition that opens today would probably come close.
Treasures of the World's Cultures is a collection of more than 250 artefacts and artworks that span the entirety of human civilisation, from a Stone-Age axe carved in East Africa, through to Renaissance drawing and contemporary artwork by artists from Saudi Arabia.
The exhibition is an initiative of the Abu Dhabi Tourism and Culture Authority (ADTCA) to build awareness and excitement for the Zayed National Museum that is being built on Saadiyat Island and is due to open in 2016.
"This exhibition does not claim to offer a holistic history of the world," said Salama Al Shamsi, the project manager for the Zayed National Museum.
"Instead, it seeks to present works of art from different cultures and different times to explore the themes involved and shared between them."
Ms Al Shamsi said those themes would be present in the final iteration of the museum, which will set the achievements of Sheikh Zayed, the founding President, and of the UAE in the context of world history.
Treasures of the World's Cultures was developed by the British Museum in 2002 and has been touring internationally since.
The exhibition has been tailored specifically for Abu Dhabi, in cooperation with ADTCA, and incorporates a number of local artefacts drawn from the Sharjah Archaeology Museum and Al Ain National Museum.
It also features a number of exceptional pieces from the British Museum's collections that were not included for the other venues.
Brendan Moore, the curator of the exhibition, says his personal highlight is a bronze head made in Turkey in the third century, which shows clear Greek influence.
"This masterpiece of Hellenistic art hasn't left the British Museum for a long time," Moore said. "It's taken a lot of work to get it out here."
There are also selections from the Oxus Treasure, recovered in 1880, showing gold metalwork from the furthest extent of the Persian Achaemenid empire, on the banks of the Oxus River.
Michelangelo's Ideal Head of a Woman black chalk drawing shows the development of notions of beauty in Renaissance Italy, while Under the Wave, off Kanagawa by the master Japanese woodblock printer Katsushika Hokusai, depicts his famous scene of a tumultous sea dwarfing a boat.
Themes of death and divergent conceptions of god resonate through the objects.
Included is a mummified woman from 21st dynasty Egypt, Buddhist statues from Burma, and sacred sculpture from the civilisations of the Americas before European invasion.
"I hope that we can bring to our audience some understanding of how things that we've made in the past can inform us about the great themes of life and connect with us today," said Moore.
Opening with personal items that belonged to Sheikh Zayed, including a set of prayer beads from the collection of Abdulrahem Al Sayed Al Hashimi, the historical reach of the show progresses through Ancient Egyptian funerary art to the great civilisations of Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Europe, the Americas and eventually to Pacific Island cultures.
It continues in a run of exhibitions that started with last year's Splendours of Mesopotamia, which focused on artefacts that were recovered from the cradle of civilisation in modern-day Iraq. "When you visit this exhibition, I hope that you're going to walk around the world," said Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum.
"It gets to the heart of what museums are about - that it is a global, connected world that we live in.
"Treasures of the World's Cultures shows that it is because we were able to shape objects that has enabled societies to grow."
The exhibition is at Manarat Al Saadiyat on Saadiyat Island, open 10am to 8pm, until July 17.
Entry is free.
For a video of the exhibition, visit www.thenational.ae/ multimedia