December 01, 2007

The Musee Guimet Controversy

Shahidul News has a touching story on the protest to halt sending Bangladeshi artifacts to Musee Guimet, France.

The reasons:

* Some media in Bangladesh started the conspiracy theory raising doubts on the transparency of the process.

* Allegations that “Musée Guimet in Paris incidentally also holds thousands of stolen/illegal objects from China and the rest of Asia,” and it may steal the artifacts replacing with carbon copies especially when the Bangladeshi ones were not individually and clearly marked rather listed with homogeneous counts.

However there are other sides of the story:

Rumi Ahmed answers the sceptics with a question answer style:
What is the ‘Sonar Bangla’ Exhibition?

This exhibition is scheduled to showcase 189 pieces of Bangladeshi ancient art, over four months from October 2007 to March 2008 at the National Museum of Asiatic Art, the Musee Guimet, Paris.
It has been planned for several years, and has involved extensive negotiations between the Governments of France and Bangladesh.
It is being held at one of the most prestigious venues for Asian Art in the whole of Europe, a major national museum which holds an important permanent collection of South Asian Art. It recently held very well reviewed exhibitions of Afghan gold and Cambodian ancient art.
It is the first major international exhibition of Bangladeshi ancient art – the first opportunity the world will have to see our national heritage, and to see it in all its diversity and richness. It will show a face of Bangladesh which is little known in the west. It is likely to generate not only new interest in Bangladesh, but to catalyse further research and perhaps also future cultural exchanges and engagement.

Why are some people objecting to the exhibition?

As each objection has been met and responded to, new ones have been generated. It seems that the real objection of many of the ‘experts’ is that they were not involved/consulted)

1. The Musee Guimet is not a state museum.
[stated by the writ petitioners’ lawyer]
The Museum is a national museum, and regulated, like all other national museums by the Director Museums, an official of the Ministry of Culture. It’s not very difficult to find this out, just go on the website of the French Government.

2. The Musee Guimet is not well known and has a dubious past.

The Museum is internationally renowned as one of the leading European museums of Asian Art.

3. The artefacts listed for exhibition include unique pieces and these are too valuable too travel, so only replicas should be taken. [stated by ‘experts’ eg Prof. Shafi]

International exhibitions do not show replicas, but only originals. Visitors to art exhibitions are interested in seeing original, unique pieces.

Please check the details of the Tutankhamun exhibition, the Pompeii Exhibition, the Arts of Persia Exhibition etc etc all held in major international venues, and more recently the Gupta sculptures exhibition held in Paris.

The artefacts if sent in the original will be copied while abroad, and the French Government will keep the originals and return the copies and no-one in Bangladesh will know the difference. [Dr. Yuree, and also Prof. Shafi] In addition to a clause in the agreement that the artifacts will be returned within four weeks, the French Government has passed an order – as is usual– clearly stating that under no circumstances could the artefacts be retained in France on conclusion of the exhibition. It should be noted that while many artefacts have been and continue to be smuggled out of Bangladesh, this is invariably by individuals and is hardly likely in the context of a government to government agreement.

6. The French would never allow the Mona Lisa or Picassos to travel. . [prof. Nizamuddin, an ‘expert’ and petitioner seeking injunction]

Of course the Mona Lisa has travelled abroad as have many Picasso artworks (including to India).

7. The removal of the artefacts will hamper research. [prof. Shafi of Jahangirnagar Univ.]

Quite the contrary. It will enable new interest in the artefacts to be generated. Physical examination of individual items is not always necessary for research.

Concerns for Clarification
One of the Government officials who is supposed to travel with the exhibit has earlier been accused of theft of artefacts. [raised by writ petitioners and their lawyer]

There is an absolute prohibition of any unique antiquities being taken abroad.
This is a misreading of the law. Antiquities may be sent on ‘temporary export’ ‘for purposes of exhibition etc…’ (See Rule 22 (1) (a) Antiquities Act).In this case the artefacts are obviously going abroad for temporary export as exhibits.
More about the artifacts from Ahmede Hussain:
Bangladesh's rich and colourful heritage caught the attention of the western eye last summer, when Bangladeshi and French archaeologists, in a joint excavation, unearthed a temple that dates back to the 800AD. This, however, did not come as news to veteran archaeologists as the country's civilisation is believed to be as old as the Aryan conquest of the South Asian sub-continent. In fact, the ancient city of Pundranagar, now situated in the village of Mahasthan (The Sacred Site) in Bogra, has been mentioned in the Vedas, and has remained one of the oldest urban settlements discovered in the eastern part of the sub-continent.
Talking about unholy alliance in Drishtipat:
“The past few weeks have seen tempers run high in some part of the artistic and heritage community over the supposed ‘theft’ of our artifacts by a foreign government, their ‘threatened destruction’ and the ‘anti-state’ activity constituted by their exhibition abroad. Quieter voices within both communities have talked about the importance of culture being part of a “universal heritage, which cannot be confined within geographical borders and boundaries but must be shared across communities and countries. But our press has done little to give space to these voices, reporting only the shrill and frankly ignorant (’the Mona Lisa has not been shown outside France’ says one eminent former DG Archaeology – now involved in litigation to stop the artefacts being taken abroad).”
And how it was denied travel previously:
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). This concern was surprisingly raised only at the last minute – when the statues were already on their way to the airport!
You be the judge.

Update: The Musée Guimet affair


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