Once, when their three children were little, Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller dressed them in real samurai armor so they could understand its weight and feel. Talk about a great photo opp.
The ornate Japanese hardware was a daily sight for Alexis, Nina, and Oliver, whose parents’ collection has drawn samurai buffs from across the globe to visit the Preston Hollow family.
Because art often changes hands over time, scholars can’t always keep tabs on their favorite items, Gabriel explained. “It’s fun to have these specialists come through the house,” he said, “and say, ‘Oh, I see so many of my old friends here. I was wondering where they were!”
Now, with the opening of the Barbier-Muellers’ namesake museum on Harwood Street, anyone who’s curious can marvel at the eerily delicate tools and armor of Japan’s elite, bygone military class. An on-site library will soon hold books and archives, and even film screenings are in the works.
The family hopes the space will attract students and researchers, and that the little museum above Saint Ann Restaurant & Bar proves a relaxing escape for everyone else, Gabriel said. After all, contemplating the revered warriors’ lifestyle, which included meditative crafts such as poetry and calligraphy, has always brought him a sense of peace.
“Real estate — that’s the sad and difficult part of my life,” he admitted. “The one that gives me high blood pressure.”
The affable, Swiss-born founder and CEO of Harwood International bought his first suit of armor more than 20 years ago in Paris, after a profitable real-estate sale. The Ann and Gabriel Barbier-Mueller Collection is now the largest-known haul of samurai art this side of Japan, and dates back to the Kamakura Period of the 12th and 13th centuries.
The new space won’t hold the entire lot, in part because it’s a traveling exhibition. But the Dallas lineup will change regularly.
“A lot of people buy one armor because it’s something to have,” Gabriel said. “It’s cool; it’s impressive. But when you start looking at two or three or four, all of a sudden, every one is different.”
Swords aren’t the focus, he added. “I’m not interested in martial arts. I can’t kill you with a finger.”
John Stich, Dallas’ honorary consul-general of Japan, calls the family’s museum “awesome,” and “a step up from what we’ve had.”
“As Japanese, we don’t pay much attention to [samurai studies],” said Akemi Yamashita Edwards, one of several women from a tea group who wore pink kimonos to a press preview last week. “Now we’re learning so much.”
The museum is actually No. 4 for the Barbier-Muellers, who also own art facilities in Europe and South Africa. Their daughter, Nina (pronounced Niña), works alongside curator Jessica Beasley, traveling with the elaborate armor on dedicated jumbo jets and displaying it around the world.
The ESD alumna’s father likes to tell the story of John Anderson, a collector with a rare knack for armor restoration. The aging Englishman often arrived at the Barbier-Mueller’s house with a toolbox full of gadgets and chemicals only he understood, and he never shared his tricks with Gabriel. He did, however, take a shine to Nina and Beasley.
He began teaching them the trade. Then one day he gave the young women his precious toolbox.
“They are the last people who really know how to do the special bows in the back of the arms,” for instance, when installing a piece, Gabriel said. “They know how to do all that. I’m the gatherer, and this is the next generation.”