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<nettime> Tintin in Bengal, or Musee Guimet Controversy
Naeem Mohaiemen on Sun, 2 Dec 2007 01:56:51 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> Tintin in Bengal, or Musee Guimet Controversy


Tintin in Bengal, or Musee Guimet Controversy
Naeem Mohaiemen


The two month simmering controversy in Bangladesh over the countroversial
loan of priceless, centuries old artifacts to France's Musee Guimet burst
into the open yesterday. In the early dawn hours of Friday, a day when many
of us are sleeping in, relaxing, addafying, or contemplating unfinished art
projects, a convoy of trucks were loaded with crates of artifacts from the
National Museum. Headed to ZIA airport, en route to Paris. Is Paris burning,
what's the rush..?

The French Embassy and some Bangladesh government officials had decided that
matters had dragged on long enough. The show was supposed to open 24th
October, but Bangladesh citizen groups had thrown a chaku in the works. With
a citizens lawsuit blocking the loan, and an investigative committee
deadline 45 days away, the first shipment got underway in defiance of good
manners and international law. Word leaked out, and protesters gathered.
Gates were scaled, human chains formed, a protester was arrested. But the
dawn tactics had worked. By the time more people arrived on the scene, the
trucks were on their way.

Positions hardened further after the truck fiasco.  On the evening news,
angry phone calls. Apparently some ground staff at the airport did all they
could to block the flight. This actually doesn't take much-- just our normal
airport bureacracy (which I was cursing out only a month ago when my video
camera was falling prey to it) raised a few notches. The Air France cargo
plane sat on the tarmac, missing its midnight rendezvous. But finally five
hours later, in dawn hours of Saturday, up up and away.

When the controversy first broke, many of us were too confused to take
sides. On both sides of the fence were cultural producers and activists whom
many of us respected. Even the lawyers representing two parties were
familiar rights activists. One friend said to me "boba r shotru nai (the
deaf-mute has no enemies), best to stay silent bhai. Too many big guns on
both sides." The opposition to the loan initially felt like kneejerk
nationalism to me. In my naivette I dismissed their concerns. The French are
the good guys no, isn't it Americans we are all afraid of now? Surely the
French wouldn't dare do anything to our collection, uhh would they..?

I spent way too much time reading Tintin comics in my wasted youth. But
Tintin in Congo remained untranslated until I found a bootleg copy where
Tintin is teaching the African natives "repeat after me, France is your
mother". Now I imagined myself as a rubber-lipped sambo. Yessa boss.

Did King Leopold collect art as well?

I went down to the Alliance Francaise cafe, 5 blocks from my home, to
investigate. Alliance administers a benevolent patriarch attitude towards
the uninvited unwashed at special events (expats in Dhaka live in splendid
bubbles and green zone fortresses). But in the daytime (and at non-guest
list events) you can just stroll in. Why did the Guimet want this show so
badly? They had already missed the show opening deadline. If there was so
much opposition inside Bangladesh, shouldn't they at least show courtesy and
sensitivity and delay until the issue is resolved? Tish tosh explained the
man at the next table: "the people who oppose the loan just don't want the
world to know that this region has such an incredible pre-Islamic heritage."

Sounds reasonable. Those who oppose this loan are the enemies of
globalization. But then why would Shishir Bhattacharjee, professor at Art
College, be one of those opposing the loan. He's always been on the mullah's
hitlist of progressive professors... A few days later I saw artist Nisar
Hossein's name on the same committee. That's odd I thought, Nisar is no
dum-dum either.

But it's true that the people opposing the loan were initially not good
communicators. Their opposition was often focused on the esoteric edges of
the debate, rather than the hard facts. But in the last few weeks they
started producing more documentation, and more importantly, footnotes.
That's when things changed for many of us, because the facts on the ground
don't make you oppose loans to European museums per se, but they do
highlight that numerous rules have been broken-- all adding up to extreme
lack of safety for the collection.

More facts emerged, by and by...

1. Lack of documentation

a) entire sets of coins catalogued as "coins", with no specifics

b) missing accession numbers

c) mismatch between number of pieces documented by the French photographer
who catalogued the show, the number given in French embassy contract, and
the number in Embassy's press release

d) incomplete descriptions, missing descriptions

e) ridiculously low insurance value of 4 million Euros, for a collection
that dates back to 4th century BC. An international archaeological expert
has since called this appraisal "financial fraud".

2. The French role

There's no doubt that some of the items in #1 were caused by sheer
incompetence and possible mal-intentions of the Bangladesh side. But if
Bangladesh officials are incapable of protecting their own national heritage
(Bangladesh has been identified as one of 3 countries most vulnerable to
cultural looting) should the French government, French Embassy and Musee
Guimet take advantage of that weakness?

a) Musee Guimet is one of 18 museums that have signed a Declaration on
Importance and Value of Universal Museums, which opposes returning art
works, especially ancient ones, to their original owners. This is in direct
opposition to the UNESCO Convention on Stolen and Illegally Exported
Cultural Objects (1995).

b) Kwame Opoku has said: "Mus?e Guimet in Paris which incidentally also
holds thousands of stolen/illegal objects from China and the rest of Asia"
has increased citizen debate about the lending.

c) Guimet director Jean-Francois Jarriage in the late 50's had worked in the
department of archeology in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan). During this
period, one of the most prized artefacts, a relic casket was taken to France
for restoration. Mr. Zakaria, former secretary of the ministry of culture
has been unsuccessfully campaigning for the return of the casket for the
last 49 years.

3. What next?

Now the action moves to France.  One shipment of 10 crates is already in
Paris. Another shipment of 13 crates may leave very soon as well (another
midnight haul?). Bangladeshi activists are starting to petition European
media to start building up pressure on Guimet and the French government.
Paris-based Bangladeshi artist Shahabuddin and others are planning human
chains in front of the Guimet. How far is Guimet willing to go to keep this
show. How far are we willing to go?

Positions have hardened into stone after Friday's confrontation.

An initial draft of the Experts' Letter to the French Government (full
letter  {AT}  end of this email) included this conciliatory paragraph:

"We urge the French government and citizens, museum professionals,
preservationists and all global cultural practitioners to demand that Musee
Guimet immediately cease plans for the "Masterpieces of the Ganges Delta"
show until each archaeological artifact in the Bangladesh collection has
been examined, photographed, catalogued, appraised and insurance value set
by an international panel of experts. Guimet must also take all due
diligence steps to resolve the discrepancy between documents, number of
items, accession numbers and all other issues that have given rise to
questions about lack of transparency in the entire process."

But Friday's surprise shipment, and police action against protesters, have
hardened suspicion of the Guimet. The concluding paragraph now reads:

"While we were originally open to the idea of showing the work at Musee
Guimet provided the transparency issues were addressed, the recent actions
of the museum has removed any semblance of trust in the organisation, and we
are no longer willing to loan our prized possessions to an organisation with
such standards of behaviour. The incident, originally restricted to the
issue of an exhibition now appears to have created a general distrust in the
French government amongst the Bangladeshi public."

Bangladesh gets such a small share of international cultural attention, the
prevailing attitude is that any positive global attention is good.
Especially after being hit by both flood and cyclone (two months apart) this
year, some people may be yearning for some positive international image
building. This has historically led to a broken-spine approach to European
and Northern cultural institutions. The face-off with Musee Guimet shows
that things are changing.

Fine Arts Professor Lalarukh Selim said on ETV:

"Governments will come and go, but the objects that have left the country,
we may never get them back. And we couldn't do anything, or what we did was
not enough. All of us who spoke up, the French embassy gave that no value.
We're a poor country, so people could do whatever they wanted."

Could they? Will they? Guimet, this is not over.

- Naeem Mohaiemen

###################
Further Reading:
###################

1. Protesters Battle Police As Musee Guimet Trucks Roll Out
http://www.drishtipat.org/blog/2007/11/30/guimet-protests/

2. Shahidul Alam: Price of Priceless Objects
http://shahidul.wordpress.com/2007/11/29/the-price-of-priceless-objects/

3. Letter To The French Government & Citizens

Subject: Musee Guimet's Non-Transparent Borrowing of Priceless Artifacts
from Bangladesh

We the undersigned artists, archeologists, anthropologists, academics &
other concerned citizens of Bangladesh are writing to express our strong
objection to the manner in which Musee Guimet of Paris is taking invaluable
artifacts from the national museum and four other leading museums of
Bangladesh for a planned show entitled "Masterpieces of the Ganges delta".
The Musee Guimet transported the artifacts even after widespread protests
and a pending citizens' lawsuit in the Bangladesh court. The manner in which
the artifacts were transported, in a secret crating during early morning
hours under police guard, added to the controversy. As news of the secret
shipment leaked out, protesters gathered to form a human chain, and one
protester was arrested. Finally, the first shipment of 10 crates of rare
archaeological treasures was taken away, despite resistance, to be flown to
Paris on December 1st on an Air France cargo plane. There is also a second
shipment of 13 crates which is still pending.

While the exhibition, which has been billed as being of outstanding quality,
and consists of the most prized objects from all the major museums of
Bangladesh, it is not part of an exchange programme. The only items that the
Bangladeshi people will receive in return are 20 exhibition catalogues.

The lack of transparency surrounding the planned exhibition at Musee Guimet
includes allegations of under-valuation of artifacts to the scale of
hundreds of millions of dollars, lack of accession numbers on numerous
objects, improper and incomplete cataloguing (e.g., referring to a set of
coins as merely "coins", with no numbers given), inconsistency between
documents, missing descriptions, and descriptions that do not conform to
international standards. The official insurance value of the entire
collection (stated to be "189 pieces" by the French Embassy) has been set at
4 million Euros for the purposes of this exhibition loan. Such a low
insurance value for such a large collection, which dates back to the 4th
century BC, has been described by an international archaeological expert as
"financial fraud". Even if this incorrect valuation had been completed by
the Bangladesh authorities, one questions why an international museum would
accept such a patently incorrect valuation. Most worrying of all, the number
of pieces identified in documentation created by the French photographer who
catalogued the exhibit does not match with the contract signed by the French
Ambassador. The number of artifacts in the contract in turn does not match
with the official press releases from the Dhaka French Embassy.

The controversy over the improper handling of the loan escalated over the
last two months, resulting in a citizens' lawsuit (still pending in court)
and Bangladesh citizens' group's demanded that the Bangladesh government and
French authorities allowed experts to inspect the items as per international
standards. The Bangladesh government asked the expert committee that is
investigating the matter for time until January 15th, 2008 to respond to the
committee's queries. Astonishingly, the Musee Guimet began shipment of the
artifacts on 30th November, 2007 -- a full 45 days before the expiry of the
Bangladesh government's self-imposed deadline. The Bangladesh government and
French Embassy officials have, without informing either the committee or the
media, taken the items out of the museum in the surprise shipment described
earlier.

Musee Guimet is one of 18 museums that have jointly signed a separate
Declaration on Importance and Value of Universal Museums, which opposes
returning art works, especially ancient ones, to their original owners. This
is in direct opposition to the UNESCO Convention on Stolen and Illegally
Exported Cultural Objects (1995). This is particularly relevant since the
convention was based on the high incidence of theft that was prevailing.
Bangladesh was identified as one of the three most vulnerable countries to
such threats. Kwame Opoku's recent statement "Mus?e Guimet in Paris which
incidentally also holds thousands of stolen/illegal objects from China and
the rest of Asia" has increased citizen debate about the lending.

The French embassy in Bangladesh has dismissed the protesters' concern and
said "local procedure in connection with the lending is an internal matter
of the Bangladesh government" and there is "no risk in lending artifacts".
The embassy also dismissed the protests as "eminent citizens with mixed
qualifications, many far outside the field of archaeology, or with little
experience of international exhibitions." Guimet director Jean-Francois
Jarriage and curator of the show Vincent Lefevre refused to meet with
Shahidul Alam, a delegate from the protesters, who traveled to Paris for the
purposes of securing an explanation. In his own statement, Jean-Francois
Jarriage mentions that in the late 50's he had worked in the department of
archeology here. Incidentally, it was during that period that one of the
most prized artefacts, a relic casket, of our country, was taken to France
for restoration. Mr. Zakaria, former secretary of the ministry of culture,
who was then working in the archeology department has since campaigned for
the return of the casket, but has failed to get a response from the French
government over the last 49 years.

The original show at Mus?e National des Arts Asiatiques - Guimet was billed
as "Masterpieces of the Ganges delta. Collections from the Bangladesh
Museums." The original scheduled dates for the show were 24th October 2007
to 3rd May 2008. The controversy has pushed back the date of the show, but
as of today Musee Guimet remains adamant about showing the work without
satisfying the demands of the concerned Bangladeshi citizens.

While we were originally open to the idea of showing the work at Musee
Guimet provided the transparency issues were addressed, the recent actions
of the museum has removed any semblance of trust in the organisation, and we
are no longer willing to loan our prized possessions to an organisation with
such standards of behaviour. The incident, originally restricted to the
issue of an exhibition now appears to have created a general distrust in the
French government amongst the Bangladeshi public.

Signed

A. K. M. Zakaria, archeologist and former secretary, ministry of cultural
affairs, GOB (Government Of Bangladesh).

Nazimuddin Ahmed, archeologist, former director, department of archeology,
GOB.

Shamsuzzaman Khan, museologist, former director general, Bangladesh National
Museum.

Bulbon Osman, art historian, former director institute of fine arts, Dhaka
University.

Syed Jahangir, painter, former director, department of fine arts, Shilpakala
Academy (Academy of Fine and Performing Arts), GOB.

Borhanuddin Khan Jahangir, art historian, former pro Vice Chancellor,
National University of Bangladesh.

A. K. M. Shahnawaz, professor, department of archeology, Jahangirnagar
University.


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