Naeem — The French Response (Guimet Controversy)

Topic(s): Bangladesh | Comments Off on Naeem — The French Response (Guimet Controversy)

After I wrote “Tintin in Bengal“, I was put in touch with staff at the Musee Guimet. I sent a list of questions to Guimet show organizers, and received over e-mail the following replies. [I’ll comment on the replies in the comments area of the blog.]
Responses to Question (received by email from Musee Guimet show organizer)
1. There is a lot of debate over expenses. Many press reports said the budget is inadequate to ensure security, etc (the Insurance debate intersects with this). There are conflicting reports about what the budget actually is.
A: All the expenses related to the exhibition (packing, transportation, insurance, couriers, photographs, catalogue, advertisement, etc.) were paid for by the Musee Guimet. This is as per the signed contract with the Bangladesh government. France has spent 400,000 Euros on the Bangladesh exhibition to date, and will most likely spend another 200,000 Euros for the sending of the next batch.
In general, in international or national exhibitions, most of the expenses are paid for by the borrower (in this case the Guimet). In some cases, the lender can wish to participate in paying expenses if the exhibition. What countries can get back in return is an enhancement of international image. This kind of publicity may be good for tourism and even to attract the attention of potential investors. In the case of the Gupta exhibition, India paid for expenses as part of a project to improve its image in France, linked to trade and business. The Gupta exhibition was also linked to a Picasso exhibition organized by France in India. In this case, Bangladesh has no financial burden
2. There was also the question as to why Bangladesh did not receive a loan fee (Chinese Terracota lending to UK was cited as an example where a fee was received). The concern is that Bangladesh, as the weaker negotiating party, had not received a fair deal. The press reported that the Bangladesh museums would get 20 copies of the catalogue, which seemed a farcically miserly number. (Note: The Guimet has announced this week that the number has been revised to 150)
A: Bangladesh agreed to give a free loan of the artefacts. The free loan of the artefacts is Bangladesh’s contribution to the exhibition.
Here two quotes from “Code of Ethics for Museums” are relevant. This is written by the International Council of Museums (ICOM), which is part of UNESCO:
2.3 Finance: “The collections are held in public trust and may not be treated as a realisable asset”
3.6. Loans to and from Museum: “Objects from a museum collection should be loaned only for scientific, research or educational purposes”
For a long time, it has been the custom to lend collections freely between national museums. Most of the time the borrowing museum has to cover the expenses of transportation, insurance, etc, which is seen as fair. Recently, because of the increase of loans everywhere in the world, many museums have started to charge “loan fees”, which can be considered administrative charges. For the moment, there are no “loan fees” at the Guimet Museum. Some countries, like China or Egypt, have begun to lend their collections for fees. From the viewpoint of ethics, this can have dangerous consequences, because heritage can then be considered as a commercial good, which can have unforeseen consequences. For example, some objects may be lent only for making money, regardless of their conservation. However, this is a separate discussion.
3. Insurance Valuation is another debated issue. Critics say that the 2.6 million Euro (4 million Euro in other reports, reportedly raised by another 30% in response to the protests) is many multiples lower than what it should be. One international expert called it “financial fraud.”
A: Insurance valuations are always the responsibility of the lender; the borrower has to pay the insurance company. According to the French law, once the values were fixed, the insurance company was chosen through a call for tender. If the Bangladesh government wishes to communicate about the exact sum, they are absolutely entitled to do so, because they are the owner. Being the borrower, Guimet museum cannot do so, unless asked by Bangladesh government. It should be mentioned that insurance is set to cover the expenses in case of damage; this is not the “price” of the objects”. Insurance values are not the “rent” for the artifacts
4. Inconsistent list of Artefacts, discrepancy in number of objects, and missing Accession Numbers have been repeatedly cited by concerned citizens. The fear here is that theft will occur after shipment, or in fact theft may already have occurred.
A: When Guimet first submitted a list of desired loans to the Bangladeshi museums, the French side did not have all the accession numbers—this does not mean that these numbers didn’t exist, just that we did not have them. The final list, attached to the official agreement, comprises all the accession numbers. There is therefore a complete list with all the accession numbers. This was of course a necessary precondition to insure the artefacts. It is also necessary for the airline transporting the crates, French customs, and also of course the catalogue.
Confusion over number of objects has come from the different ways one can count. For example, consider the punch-marked coins from Mahasthan. It is a hoard of 93 coins found recently during the excavations. Initially, Guimet requested the whole hoard (hence the 93 coins in some documents) but finally the Department of Archaeology agreed to 50. In the catalogue, it is only one entry, but on the list of loaned artefacts, it is listed as 50. Therefore, there are 120 entries in the catalogue but the total amount of artefacts, with regard to the accession number, is 188.
4. Vajrasattva is one of the largest scale, and most valuable pieces, in the collection (it is on the cover of the catalogue). But inside the catalogue, it does not have an Accession Number, which causes a lot of anxiety among protesters.
A: It is true that Vajrasattva’s accession number is not in the catalogue. Explanation is simple: such kind of book takes time and the text was ready before the final list was made for the signature of the agreement. However, its accession number is 1165.
5. The other debated item in the collection is the two sets of manuscripts Prajnaparamita. The two sets of manuscripts have multiple pages (aka folios), but the number of folios in each set is not listed in the catalogue, in the list handed out to journalists by French Embassy on Dec 4th, or the Bangladesh government’s list. Given the value of individual folios (three similar folios from “Eastern India” sold at Sotheby’s on March 27, 2007 for $36,000), there is anxiety due to official number of folios not being public. If there are a few hundred folios in the two sets, the total value could be as high as $8 million or more, which would also help resolve the Insurance/valuation issue. There is concern as to whether folios can be stolen in the absence of proper numbering.
A: The number of folios is specified in the text of the catalogue, but it is written in full letters and in French—which is the only version that has been made available to date (the English version will be ready later). Counting the folios is a delicate matter as they are extremely fragile. Information came from S.N. Siddhanta, A Descriptive Catalogue of Sankrit Manuscripts in the Varendra Research Museum Library, Rajshahi, 1979. The first manuscript (n° 79 in the French catalogue) has 191 folios but only 6 are painted. The second one (n° 80), of a later date, had initially 531, but twelve are missing (they have probably been missing for centuries!), with 49 paintings. It is important to remember that such manuscripts were real books. That is why it is necessary to display them as such to the visitors, and not as separate folios. Contrary to what has been written in some papers some time ago, they do not date from the 5th century (which would be really exceptional), but rather from the 12th.
6. Given the ongoing controversy, and citizens lawsuit, why did the Guimet not postpone the show? Did the Guimet interface with the citizen groups?
A: If the legal issues had surface earlier in the process, we could have decided to postpone the show. Unfortunately, the concerns of a group of citizens were made public only in the last few months. At that point, the bulk of the financial investment had already been made, galleries had been prepared, schedules set, catalogues printed, posters made ready for the press, etc. Since there is another exhibition planned for next spring, and Guimet museum schedule is set until 2011, it was not possible to postpone the show. In order to allow the viewing public enough time to see the collection, it was necessary to open the show before the end of the year. The original scheduled date was October 24th
The Guimet Museum being a national institution can legally deal only with a country’s national museum or government. The museum is of course sensitive to the opinions of cultural personalities and citizens. However, its dealings have to be with the government and national museums who are officially in charge of the artefacts.
7. During the last press conference, journalists kept asking for the name of the packing company, as they wanted to know if the packing had been done by an internationally renowned company.
A: For the packing, after a call for tender, Guimet museum hired a very famous French society, called André Chenue S.A. We are not clear why the name was not made public before– it is by no means a secret. André Chenue himself was the packer of the collections of King Louis XV and of Queen Marie-Antoinette, at the end of the 18th century. The society is still in existence and, as you can imagine, has a huge experience for packing and transportation. It has participated in innumerable exhibitions worldwide and among the masterpieces they have been in charge of rank the Mona Lisa and Tutankhamen treasure. To know more, please check: www.chenue.com.
During packing, a lot of digital pictures were taken: front, back, sides, details, etc. At the same time, condition reports were written about each artefact and were signed by representatives from the two sides. When unpacking, these reports are again cross-checked and new pictures are taken in order to make comparison, if necessary. The same process will be followed at the end of the exhibition.
8. The confrontation on Friday, when protesters surrounded the trucks leaving the museum, human chains were formed, and one protester was arrested, had a major influence on public opinion. Why was the shipment handled in this fashion, in the face of protests?
A: The cargo flight leaves weekly early on Saturday morning; so the goods have to be at the airport the previous afternoon (Friday) for customs formalities and palletisation. In order to make this deadline, the normal procedure is that the trucks leave the museum by the beginning of the afternoon– which is what happened last Friday afternoon. The transportation was never intended to be a secret transportation. However, obviously because they are carrying very valuable objects, you do not wish to make big public announcements because that invites robbery en route. The police guard was there to ensure security of the objects.