December 24, 2007

The Musée Guimet affair

Cross posted in the Global Voices Online

From January 2008 the Musée Guimet of France is holding an exhibition of the masterpieces of Ganges from the collections of the Bangladesh museums for the first time outside of Bangladesh. From the museum catalogue:
“Bangladesh possesses an immensely important cultural heritage, this arising from the fact that the eastern half of Bengal has been one of the cultural richest regions of the Indian world; a vision far from the catastrophic one that the western world often tends to favour. The region is associated with the art of the Pala and Sena dynasties (8th – 13th century)....and goes back to the Maurya and Sunga periods (3rd – 1st century BC)....Bangladesh also harbours the oldest Buddhist monastery of the Indian world, Paharpur, which has now been listed on the UNESCO’s list of protected monuments.”

Sonar Bangla

Black and Grey blog has more on the backgrounds of the archeological artifacts in question. (Images courtesy: Black and Grey)

This exhibition was scheduled to start from October, 2007 but was delayed due to a lot of drama. Bonbibi at Unheard Voices reported on the first of October, 2007:
“The conditional has crept in because the High Court has issued a two-month stay order on the travel of the 189 art pieces following a writ petition by a group of Bangladeshis. They raised concern over the legality of the contract and filed a public litigation case in the High Court that ordered to stop sending the exhibits. The litigants feared that the precious items to be sent to the Paris museum might not be returned to Bangladesh (‘The New Nation’ 27th Sept 2007).”
Unheard Voices later reported of an unholy alliance that stopped the archeological artifacts from sending:
“…a (second) case was filed before the District Court, again by ‘art lovers’ including former DGs of Archaeology etc. Interestingly, the case was filed (according to newspaper report) against the French Ambassador and others. The Court issued a show cause order, but did not stop the artifacts from going.

At this point, with no more puppets to join the dance, the DGFI’s (Military Intelligence) fist finally came out from beneath the glove. It directly intervened at the airport to stop the artifacts from going on the ground that an ‘inquiry’ is to be held.”
Unheard Voices blog also posted the protests in detail which raised concerns over the security of the artifacts during shipping and the financial discrepancies (The total value of insurance is Euro 400,000 whereas only a major artifact is said to be worth more than Euro 800,000).

The Bangladeshi Blogosphere was divided right from the start on the issue. Rumi of In The Middle Of No Where answered the allegations of the skeptics with a question and answer style and commented if a solution is reached sooner than later then:
“The Exhibition will go ahead. And thousands of people will be able to learn about Bangladeshi art architecture and our heritage and to understand the depth and diversity of our culture – in a contrast to the negative images portrayed through the news every day.”


On 1st of December 2007 the first assignment of the archeological artifacts was flown out of Bangladesh to France rather controversially – in the middle of the night in suspicious crates under police guards evading protesters and journalists. In order to camouflage the mission, the authorities utilised vehicles bearing 'Save The Children Cyclone' and 'USAID Sidr Emergency Relief' signs.

Renowned photo journalist Shahidul Alam did an excellent piece of investigative citizen journalism. In this post he reports with photos portraying the first consignment being sent to France. He also points to the fact that the Musée Guimet in Paris incidentally had been alleged to hold previous stolen artifacts from Bangladesh and there are similar allegations that stolen objects from China and the rest of Asia are held by the Guimet.

He recently visited the Musée Guimet in Paris but had been denied access to both the director of Guimet Jean-Francois Jarriage and the curator of the show Vincent Lefevre, for the answers to his questions.

Unheard Voices Blog has a brilliant post called “Tintin in Bengal or Musée Guimet controversy” detailing the whole episode with a lots of links to other blogs, pro-contra views, protests, collected media reports, explanations from the French embassy and the organizers and a lot of debate on this issue.

Shahidul Alam also tried to find the missing piece of the jigsaw:
“Guimet is a respected museum, and there has been natural interest in a show that should be very special. Why then such resistance from art lovers of Bangladesh? Surely art is to be appreciated?

Why on the other hand, the secrecy? The organisers should be taking credit for arranging such an event and not trying to sneak away under police protection. If there is nothing to cover up, why the covert operation?

The emotions are high. I’ve seen people weeping because something very special to them has been taken away. I have seen people angry because they feel violated. I have seen people frustrated, because they feel helpless against the power of the establishment.”
And at last the inevitable had happened. Unheard Voices Blog reports:
“At approximately 2 am on Dec 22, one of the 13 crates in the 2nd shipment of artifacts to Musée Guimet in Paris vanished from the tarmac of ZIA International Airport, Dhaka.

Crate 5 contained Statue of Visnu (terracota, black) & Bust of (Hindu Lord) Visnu. High resale value on international underground art market as they are unique pieces.”
Shahidul Alam, who reported about the protests to stop the second shipment is furious:
Their fear of items being stolen, or not being returned, was considered preposterous. News of the missing crate, and the priceless statues it contained, had been suppressed, but the information leaked out. Could the guarantors please explain?
Please stay tuned for the next episode of this thriller.


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