Their fear of items being stolen, or not being returned, was considered preposterous. When the Honorable Adviser and his excellency the Charge d’Affaires had themselves, guaranteed the safety of Bangladesh’s most prized artefacts, surely the protesters could have no reason to oppose this arrangement. News of the missing crate, and the priceless statues it contained, had been suppressed, but the information leaked out. Could the guarantors please explain?
Mr. Jean Romnicianu, Charges d’Affaires, Ambassade de France ? Dacca, met with Bangladeshi journalists at the French Embassy in the first week of December 2007. In response to questions about the possibility of goods being damaged, stolen, or not being returned, he stated emphatically, “What I am saying is that for at least 30 years, it has never, not once, happened within the framework of an international exhibition. This is an international exhibition with a signed agreement between governments, there is no scope whatsoever of that kind of thing.” “We will take care of the artefacts, until they are returned to the museum. All the insurance and everything is what is called nail to nail,” elaborating that it implied protection from the moment the artefacts left their original position in the museum, to the time it was returned to their original position.
Today we hear him on television saying “The responsibility of the French Goverment begins from the point where the items are in French cargo.”
“We are not going to put the artefacts at risk by unpacking them,” was also something the Charge d’Affaires had said that day. Today (Dec 24th 2007), the BBC quoted that the remaining crates had all been checked at the airport. So airport officials who have no knowledge of archaeology are permitted to open the crates, while neither members of the expert committee nor the people who are legally required to inspect the artefacts, are allowed to do so. These officials had also signed documents stating they had verified the contents of the crates, which they had obviously not been allowed to do, even though it made the documents presented, technically false.
“The Museee Guimet and our authorities in France have worked rather hard, I must say, even though it resulted in one mistake, in keeping all the controversies outside of the French papers, of the European papers,” the Charge d’Affaires had also said that day. So the cover up was taking place at both the Bangladeshi and the French end. Presumably it continues.
(Audio recordings of these statements are available and will be uploaded as soon as they have been digitised)
The plane that was meant to have taken the artefacts to Paris. ? Munir uz Zaman/DrikNews
From Pukur Churi (stealing a pond) to Pukur Pare Churi (stealing by a pond). Search party looking for stolen artefacts by the pond at Zia International Airport. ? Munir uz Zaman/DrikNews
The empty crate. We had been told these were special crates that could not be opened, as they were very special. A 300 year old French company had been especially commissioned to pack the crates. The government and the French embassy decided to show improper documents rather than risk opening these special crates for proper inspection and documentation. Looks like a pretty ordinary crate to me. ? Munir uz Zaman/DrikNews
This was a story the state owned BTV had chosen to completely ignore. The rest of the media however, despite government efforts continued to report this important story. Despite the widespread protests and the media attention, the shipment was to go ahead. Both the Cultural Adviser and the French Charge d’Affaires, emphatically promised there was no question of items going missing or not being returned. ? Munir uz Zaman/DrikNews
b035.mp3 Interview of police officer after discovery of crate (Bangla). Munir uz Zaman/DrikNews
One of the arrested security officers. What of the big fish that masterminded this theft? Or the people who authorised this shipment despite the proven irregularities? ? Munir uz Zaman/DrikNews
Press conference at Chitrak Gallery, where the incident has been called the most major cultural disaster of the century. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
It was the letter from Shanika, the girl I had found during the Tsunami in Sri Lanka, that reminded me of how we had forgotten all the other things that were going on. It was now Boxing Day. The Day the Tsunami had struck. Bodies are still being discovered after the Sidr cyclone. Demand for the trial of war criminals has moved off the headlines. Bodies of workers remain buried in the Rangs building rubble. It reminds me of how classed our struggles are. While we had united in protest when our archaeological heritage was being threatened, no such protest had taken place in solidarity with the workers.
It was Christmas day, and it is the wedding season in Bangladesh. People had gathered outside the musuem, as word had spread that the remaining artefacts were being returned. It was a very different mood, and the local flower shop was using the wide road to decorate a wedding car. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Media professionals outside museum gate watching the return of remaining 12 crates. ? Munir uz Zaman/DrikNews
Homebound heading home. The crates are now back in the museum. The demand for reinstating them in their original location continues. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
It was the vigilance of Nisar Hossain (teacher at the college of fine arts, affectionately dubbed, ‘Sector Commander’ by fellow campaigners) and his friends that led to many of the irregularities being unearthed. Nisar being interviewed on the ATN channel. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
The media played an important role in keeping the issue in the public eye. Munni Saha interviewing Nisar Hossain for a programme in the ATN channel. The discussions included a clear condemnation of the French Charge d’Affaires’ statement blaming the protestors for the theft. The programme will air at 11:00 am Dhaka time on the 26th December 2007. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Letter from Shanika, received earlier in the month.
During an assignment for Help The Aged in Sri Lanka last month, I had sneaked a visit to Totagumuwa, in Hikkaduwa to see Shanika. The Tsunami had taken away her mother and her three sisters (including her twin sister). Photo: ? Priantha (Shanika’s dad).
27th December 2007
Sylvie Rebbot, the picture editor of Geo Magazine in France, just sent me this press release last night. It was issued yesterday (the 26th December 2007) by the French Ministry of Culture. While it talks about the theft of the two statues, from Zia International Airport, there is no mention of the 10 crates that are already in Paris at the Guimet Museum.
Press Release by French Ministry of Culture (26th Dec 2007)
It was a bad day for cows
Korbani meat being distributed outside National Museum during Eid. 21st December 2007. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
But the Bangladesh government had a supreme sacrifice in mind. When the most prized of your possessions needed to be sacrificed, and when the gods have changed to western powers, the four-legged creatures simply wouldn't do. The nation's most prized archaeological possessions were therefore bundled away in Homebound chariots to distant museums. The door to heaven's gate might not have opened, but a Schengen visa and perhaps a few trips to Paris for some, had surely been assured.
It was well timed. The Eid holidays meant there would be no newspapers for two days. Most reporters would be away. The streets of Dhaka would be empty. Holidays meant there was no rush. No pesky public to worry about at opening hours. Still one needed to be sure. Bus no Dhaka Jo 11 1767, was on standby with riot police. The police jeep Dhaka Jo 11 4364 followed behind. Then the media that got in the way. With so many Eid events to cover, why had they gathered round the national museum? The sanctity of sacrifice should surely have been respected. Reinforcements in the form of another busload of riot police came in via bus number Dhaka Jo 14 1799.
Balloon man outside National Museum. Friday 21st December 2007. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Family out on Eid. Friday 21st December 2007. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Aisha outside National Museum. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Sign says the museum is closed from the 20th till the 22nd on account of Eid. Friday 21st December 2007. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Aisha had come with her parents to visit the museum. Like many others they were turned away. The museum was closed, at least to the public. The Eid holidays of museum officials had however been cancelled. The shippers were working overtime.
Police returning to station, after staging the 'escape'. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Police and plainclothes intelligence officials were present in abundance, their riot gear jarring with the bright new clothes of Dhakaites. Then it took another turn. Spitting and booing had failed to stop the Homebound trucks earlier. This time the protesters changed tack. Chains were put on the gate of the national museum. Visions of the Chipko Resistance
Protester chaining front gate of National Museum. Friday 21st December 2007. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Police breaking padlock at front gate of National Museum. Friday 21st December 2007. ? Gazi Nafis Ahmed/DrikNews
Burning shirt in protest outside National Musuem. Friday 21st December 2007. ? Munir uz Zaman/DrikNews
Despite emergency rule and government efforts to bury the story, media continued to give the event full coverage. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
sprang to mind. In place of burglars breaking in, the comic view of government officials breaking their way out of the national museum to escape with museum valuables would have brought laughter in a trirotno drama (popular Bangladeshi sitcom). In the theatre of Bangladeshi governance, it was yet another tragedy.
"The benefits, for both countries, are cultural: it is a win-win situation where France gains a better knowledge of Bangladeshi heritage and Bangladesh gains a better image on the international cultural scene," the French embassy handout had clarified.
The partially demolished Rangs building continues to be a grave for the buried Bangladeshi workers far down the priority chain. Presumably, that is a 'Bangladeshi heritage' the Parisians will not get to see.
The last time round, they had been playing one of my favourite Bhupen Hajarika songs. This time there was no music, and no one was smiling. Even the Bangladeshi flag failed to flutter on this Eid day. Video of trucks carrying artefacs out of museum. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
embed> Bangladeshi flag refuses to flutter as prized Bangladeshi objects are taken out of museum. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Video of trucks carrying artefacs out of museum.
He was charming, witty, and took blame upon himself. Adviser Ayub Quadri, was the Minister of Education, Minister of Primary and Mass Education and Minister of Cultural Affairs, Government of the People?s Republic of Bangladesh. He was the perfect guy to rely upon for damage control. The public school background showed, as did the many years as a top bureaucrat. He had been a member of the elite Civil Service of Pakistan (CSP). An old boys network that still holds clout in the subcontinent.
The Press Information Department (PID) auditorium on the 3rd floor of Building 9, in the Bangladesh Secretariat was packed. Unlike many other Bangladeshi events this press conference started on time. Squeezing through the footpaths, crossing fences, lifting my bicycle over rickshaws stuck in traffic, I had panted my way to the secretariat. The police at gate 2 had been too perplexed by a bicycle going through the gate to even stop me for papers. I arrived just as the first question was raised. It was a packed hall, and while I thought I would stay at the back, I realised that I needed to get up there to stand any chance of getting a question in. I sat on the floor in between the video tripods.
The journalists had done their homework. And while there were a few questions that were repetitive, by and large, they knew what they wanted. In response to a question about the alleged corruption charges against one of the government officials involved in the transaction, the adviser joked. “Well I am the person in overall charge. The police don’t seem to be after me for corruption.” Pretty answer. Pity it didn’t answer the question.
The large table with the adviser in the middle was imposing. The Secretary of Culture on the left and another officer on the right played a largely ornamental role. So did the entire row of officials in the back. They did however lean forward to whisper in the adviser’s ear from time to time. The question came up of the alleged transportation of the bronze casket in 1959 to France, which Mr. Zakaria, the ex Secretary of Culture had mentioned in a press conference on the 1st December. The adviser let the question slip, saying he’d heard of such accusations and was looking into it. A member of the back row broke ranks and retorted, “There is no such record.” Mr. Zakaria, also an ex director of the department of archaeology, had mentioned a 49 year fight to get back this prized possession, without success. A journalist mentioned the case of the 30 paintings of Mohammad Younus. They had been sent to Yugoslavia, on a government to government exchange. None had ever come back. Quadri again said he didn’t know. “Don’t know” was quite a common response to questions. Candid perhaps, but not particularly useful.
In answer to the questions about the irregularities regarding the loan inventory, the adviser did provide figures, but no documents he could back them up with. Questions from the floor pointed to the disjoint between the figures he quoted and the ones given in the government documents submitted to the court. That they didn’t correspond to the inventory produced by the French themselves. He promised to provide updated documents this very evening. Tomorrow morning at the latest. Why the government had provided documents to the court which did not tally with the shipment, was a question that never got asked, and was certainly not clarified. The mystery of calling a press conference, but not having these documents at hand was never solved by the guests.
“I have full confidence that the items will come back.” He said, taking the weight of the world on his shoulders. As to why Bangladeshis should have confidence in him, was one that was never clarified.
“The company that had packed the crates have been doing so for 300 years,” he mentioned. The doubters have been asking for the packers to be named ever since the beginning, but have not been given an answer. Those who had thought the press conference would enlighten them were disappointed.
Since only government members of the committee were present, there was no one to question the claim that everything had been done to please the committee. That the committee had been fully satisfied with the proceedings. The fact that the official letter by the committee, in the hands of the press, said something entirely different was a mere technicality.
The inconsistencies were the problem. We still don’t know exactly how many items are being sent. Neither do we know exactly what is being sent. The few specifics the advisor provided, that there were “50 silver coins, and 8 gold coins,” might have helped in purchasing supplies for an Everest expedition, but didn’t help much in evaluating either the value, or the specifics of a museum item. Especially when the court record states “50 punchmarked coins” in one entry and an unspecified number of “gold and silver coins” in another. Assuming the number of silver coins in the latter entry is non-zero, and that the punchmarked coins are all silver, we still have a problem. The French inventory specifies “93 punch marked coins.” Are the “gold and silver coins” non-punchmarked? Do they add up to the “8 gold coins” the adviser was referring to? 50 + non-zero number = 50 and 50 + 8 = 93 in Ayub Quadri’s arithmetic.
There are bigger issues. He generally accepted that the insurance value was low, but claimed that it was an academic issue in the case of priceless items. Especially since he was confident that they were all coming back. However the French press release, issued on the 25th September 2007, stated that the insurance value was 4 million euro. The adviser today clearly stated 2.6 million euro. So who are we to believe? We are after all talking of the most prized possessions of a nation. Consistent statements help remove doubt. The adviser’s “confidence” might work on a poker table, but does little to put a worried population at ease.
He brushed off the accusation about whisking off the items in a hurry, or that there was any question of impropriety or stealth in terms of going against court directives. When asked why such an important event, which was covered by all major independent media, was completely unreported on state television, he smiled. The gentleman on the right did speak up this time. He pointed out that the question was “irrelevant.”
Other questions remain. Gold and silver coins is one thing. In the documents presented to the court by the government, even one of the most valued items, the large (and extremely rare) bronze statue the Vajrasattva does include an insurance value (not always the case for other items listed) of 200,000 euro. This item too does not have an accession number.
Quadri was unruffled throughout, never losing cool. Always extremely pleasant. His only admission to some concern was in answer to a question about when the items would come back. He said in no uncertain terms, “April.” He added, “Until then, I will stay worried, and looking at the mood in the room, I can tell that you too will not rest.” I hope he meant 2007.
As a child, we would watch the candy floss man take a tiny spoonful of sugar, a dollop of colouring and would watch with amazement as the machine spun out a pink web, which he would twirl around a stick. One portion was only dui poisha (two paisa). A figure which we could realistically save up. The large pink fluff, folded on contact, and melted in the mouth, but did give a sense of attainment. We called it hawai mithai, sweet made of air. This candy floss press conference too, had little substance but plenty of form.
Whether the media kids will feel they got value for their dui poisha is something we’ll see in tomorrow’s headlines.
3rd December 2007. Dhaka.
Previous governments have killed farmers when they demanded fertilisers and seeds. Villagers have been killed when they had the audacity to demand electricity, resist open pit mining. Yesterday 14 cyclone affected people were detained for trying to present a memorandum demanding relief. We wonder what demands for saving our heritage will bring.
The battle lines appear to have been drawn. 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? It is part of our identity and an important part of the image we portray. 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.
As a journalist I need to be wary. It is important to separate the emotions from the facts. To not let friendships sway one’s judgement. To apply journalistic rigour in one’s analysis regardless of whether one agrees with the outcome of one’s research.
So let’s separate the facts from the opinions.
The Guimet is a respected museum known and admired. The protesters are respected citizens with a high level of credibility. Questions have been raised about both entities, which we need to address further, but there appears to be a gap in the puzzle, which no one so far has discussed. The answer could perhaps provide a vital clue.
What was the motive behind the exhibition and who initiated it? Who are the stakeholders? The interest of Guimet is understandable. Leaving aside the accusations for the moment, an important museum specialising in non western art would surely have an interest in such a prized exhibit. But would a museum, knowing there is so much resistance, and bad press, insist upon such an exhibit coming, when so many other options are available? Major museums are usually booked way in advance. The opening dates for this one is also well past. We have Christmas and New Year coming up. Setting up the show, once the entire shipment has arrived, will take another three weeks by the director’s own admission.
We have been repeatedly told that the event is in the interest of promoting the image of Bangladesh abroad. Having put in the huge amount of work and expense that has gone into the curatorial process, does it really make sense for the French Government and Musee Guimet to take on such flak? Does it make sense for the French Government and the Museum officials to demonstrate their love for Bangladesh, when Bangladeshis themselves are opposing the event so vociferously?
While exploring these options I have come across several opinions. One states “The truth is that that some quarters in Bangladesh are upset that the items to be shown are Hindu art artifacts and that this exhibition is going to send the wrong image of Bangladesh to the French public: that Bangladesh, a majority Muslim country, has a strong Hindu culture and art history. This is the real story not the bullshit that has been published. How come knowledgeable sources in Dhaka write to me to tell me what they know for sure and not to you?”
Another friend said “The majority of the works are fakes, and taking the show to the Guimet would reveal this fact, exposing the perpetrators. Hence the resistance.” This too is attributed to knowledgeable sources. None of the people who tell me these stories will reveal who these knowledgeable people are.
Sitting in the comfort of the French Ambassador’s residence we heard him say, “Some people who wanted a good image of Bangladesh had promoted the exhibition.” By implication, this was something the protesters were not inclined towards. So the love of the nation, or lack of it was his criterion for determining which side of the divide one would stay. And who are they? He too was reluctant to reveal who these good people were. I suppose good people are by nature modest, and unwilling to take credit for their virtue.
It doesn’t take deep analysis to see that none of the accusations hold. So we are still grappling with the motive. Not of Guimet itself, but of the ‘some’ people that the French Ambassador has repeatedly alluded to.
There was another event “Sonar Bangla Fair” which was planned as a conjunct to the Guimet exhibition. While both the government and the French embassy have denied direct ties to this event, it is clear from the many circulars and press releases that have gone out, that the Guimet exhibition was part of a package. The extensive lobbying, the pressure applied to media houses, and the behind the scenes manoeuvres through which people have been told to ‘drop’ the case, has come not so much from the French, but from highly placed Bangladeshis. Is it their love of Bangladesh that is the driving force? Is love for their country something they should be so secretive about?
The protesters have been very open about their position and have stated so through their physical actions and their statements. Independent bloggers from both sides of the camp have expressed their opinions openly. Why have the promoters of this exhibition, with access to both the government and the embassy, chosen to work strictly under cover? The planning for this exhibition has been going on for a long time. As in many a Bangla romance, the promoters’ unrequited love has been a well kept secret, but it has survived a change of government.
The recent statement by prominent citizens to the French Government, shows a disturbing turn in the position taken by the protesters. “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.”
How come these well wishers of Bangladesh risk alienating the very public that they love so dearly, but are still shy about declaring the love for their country?
I believe one important word that has so far not been uttered is ‘money’. What is the ‘package’ that the Guimet exhibition falls under? How much money is involved? Who are the beneficiaries, and how were they chosen? Who are they affiliated to?
The government in power has made corruption their number one target. Business people, prominent politicians and even ordinary citizens have been asked to declare their assets and their links to financial ventures. Perhaps it is time for the government to ask all the people who are linked with Masterpieces of the Ganges Delta exhibition, the Sonar Bangla Fair and all the ancillary events to declare the extent of their association and the monetary value that such association brings. Citizens have been asked to help the government by reporting any suspected cases of corruption. With activities of the Ministry of Culture itself in question. With the government appointed committee complaining of non-cooperation by Culture ministry officials. With people chanting chor chor (thief, thief) in the streets outside a public institution, why has the government suddenly gone blind? Have the sniffer dogs of corruption, who bark at the slightest whiff of a nexus, suddenly lost their sense of smell? Or would that be a same side (own goal)?
Perhaps this piece of the jigsaw will help us see the full picture.
12:40 am 3rd Dec. The Government has finally responded. Press conference called by the Ministry of Culture at 12:00 pm. Building 9. Bangladesh Secretariat.
letter-to-the-french-government.docStop Press: Ten crates containing rare archaeological treasures of Bangladesh have been bundled out of the national museum and are said to be bound for Guimet Museum in Paris, via flight AF 6731 (dep: 1205 Saturday 1st Dec 2007). Preparations had been made to secretly remove the items through a shipment order by the French Embassy made to Homebound Packers and Shippers. Trucks and forklift arrive secretly in museum in early hours of morning. But the news leaked and media professionals and protesters gathered outside the museum. Under heavy police presence Homebound vehicles (Dhaka Metro Umo 11-0814, pho 11 3634, U 14 0187) and fork lift trucks all bearing “Save The Children and USAID Cyclone Sidr Emergency Relief ” signs were used to remove the priceless items. Predictably, and as in the case of all previous authoritarian governments, while the story was the lead news in all major newspapers and independent television channels. BTV the state run television channel which is the only terrestrial channel in Bangladesh, failed to report the incident altogether.
Protesters and media professionals watching as crates get loaded onto Homebound trucks. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majorityworld
Homebound trucks preparing to leave National Museum. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majorityworld
Trucks being escorted out of National Museum by police. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majorityworld
Homebound convoy heading to airport. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majorityworld
Police arrest Shekhar Shaswata. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majorityworld
Shekhar being taken into custody. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majorityworld
Media professionals demanding to be let in. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majorityworld
Further clashes with police. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majorityworld
Media storm into Shahbagh police station. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majorityworld
Media in officer Morshed’s office. Morshed claims he knew nothing of what was going on all day across the road. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majorityworld
Shekhar being released upon signed undertaking by those demanding his release. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majorityworld
Protesters clashed with police. Shekhar Shashwata was arrested, and some media professionals roughed up. Eventually protesters were able to get Shekhar released. Police officer Morshed who made the arrest, claimed he “knew nothing about what was happening across the road.”
The lack of transparency surrounding the exhibition has led to huge controversies where leading citizens have demanded that the government and the French Museum allow experts to inspect the items being taken away. Past allegations of art objects having been taken to France and never returned have increased the suspicion.
While the government has appointed a committee to investigate the matter, in an unprecedented move, government and French Embassy officials have, without informing either the committee or the media, taken the items out of the museum in what resembled a police protected museum robbery.
Protesters are asking international media to disseminate the news, and prevent the artefacts from being taken away in this manner. Bangladesh is under emergency rule where protests and gatherings of any form are illegal, and police have wide ranging powers. After a recent unrest at the universities arrest warrants were issued against 8,300 largely unnamed people. Teachers, students and university employees arrested after the event are yet to be released. There have been accusations of torture in custody.
Earlier on in the day:
Above: Tearful protester outside museum at 10:15 AM 30th November 2007. Below: Homebound truck with Cyclone Relief sign outside museum.
? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majorityworld
Forklift on standby
Forklift in front of Museum
Homebound in line of fire
Protesters outside museum
Video of protests. ? Rabeya Sarkar Rima/DrikAV
The background to the story by Anisur Rahman
Letter to the French Government by prominent citizens
1st Video Clip of Protest Press Conference. ? Naeem Mohaiemen
2nd Video Clip of Protest Press Conference. ? Naeem Mohaiemen
The Price of Priceless Objects by Shahidul Alam
This was breaking news. Shishir Bhattacharjee, Nisar Ahmed and Rahnuma were racing against the clock. The pukur churi (daylight robbery, lit: pond stealing) had to be stopped. Bangladesh is awash with conspiracy theories and I needed to be convinced that something irregular was really taking place. A major exhibition of Bangladeshi heritage in a well-known western museum seemed a good thing. I wanted hard facts. Facts emerged, and eventually tumbled out.
The issue in question was a proposed exhibition at the Mus?e National des Arts Asiatiques – Guimet, in Paris, where some of the most prized archaeological objects collected from the five major museums would be on display in an exhibition announced on the Museum website as “Masterpieces of the Ganges delta. Collections from the Bangladesh Museums.” The only suggestion that things might not be going entirely as planned came from the notice “dates to be confirmed.” The France Guide still lists the original dates: 24/10/2007 to 03/05/2008.
Doubts had been raised about the transparency of the process through which the exhibition had been arranged. With leading national experts calling for a stay order and the court requiring the government to demonstrate that due process had been maintained,
things were getting murky. A hastily called press conference by the French Embassy landed them in further trouble. The Ambassador was promptly withdrawn. Unconnected some say, but unusual in a country where the departure of western ambassadors is generally accompanied by considerable fanfare.
“Some Bangladeshis who want to improve the image of Bangladesh abroad have been supporting the exhibition”, the new ambassador stressed. The suggestion that the Bangladeshi experts who had questioned the intentions of this prestigious museum and the French government itself, and even had the audacity to suggest that the French might possibly have intentions not entirely in keeping with Bangladeshi interests, were unpatriotic, was perhaps unintentional.
Not a hair on Sita’s head was singed as she had walked through the flames. But she had been doubted, and she felt only the test of fire could prove her innocence and her loyalty. Who is loyal to Bangladesh is now the question. Protagonists of the proposed exhibition at Guimet promptly dismissed the ones who demanded transparency, as Talibans and enemies of the state. My beard didn’t help.
The fact that these very experts had over the years been the mainstay of collecting, creating and nurturing these collections, didn’t appear to affect the French argument. Given 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,” one would have expected the French to be more concerned with damage control.
Extract from “The Museums in Bangladesh” by Firoz Mahmud and Habibur Rahman from the chapter initiated by the “Ad Hoc Committee on the Return and Restitution of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin” set up by the International Council of Museums ICOM. Page 487.
Extract from list of organisations and locations where stolen Bangladeshi cultural property have been illegally taken. Page 488
Or was this an attempt to gain what they could before the cat got out of the bag? Els Van Der Plas, the director of the Prince Claus Fund in the Netherlands, held Guimet in high regard and had respect for the director. June Rollinson of the British Council in Dhaka, also spoke highly of the Guimet. Mark Haworth-Booth, former senior curator of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, was an old friend and had been a guest teacher at Pathshala. He fully supported museums lending work to each other but felt a shared copyright of the photographs (the contract gave Bangladesh no rights over the images of the artefacts) would have been the normal practice.
However it was Mark’s comment “I do not think that professionally-run museums would lend an object if it had no accession number” that got me going. The appendix listing the items, obtained by court order, was a farce. The number of items varied in different reports. We managed to obtain the French internal listing which had 20 more items than the Bangladeshi list. These had been obtained in a joint excavation (France and Bangladesh) in Mahasthangar, and were all marked ‘reserved’. Items had been clumped together without individual listing (e.g. ’93 punch-marked coins’). Insurance value was sometimes missing. The basic documentation of a normal museum inventory, like period, condition and markings were missing. A large number of items had no accession numbers. And this was a listing of the most precious items belonging to Bangladesh, many of which Bangladeshis themselves had never had the opportunity of seeing! Not even the nation’s leading scholars, researchers historians or archaeologists. Certainly, it was the Bangladeshi side that should have provided these details, but with UNESCO stressing ‘due diligence’ on the part of the borrower, to accept such a precious consignment on the basis of such flimsy documentation, was fishy. More importantly, there was no way in which even the most diligent officials could verify that the objects lent, were indeed what had been returned.
This was what the French press release had insisted was ‘complete documentation’.
When Jos van Beurden sent me his soon to be published article “Diplomats and smuggling of art” providing extensive and well documented instances of how majority world countries had their art objects stolen by wealthier ones via diplomats, it appeared as if it is the image of France and not of Bangladesh that needs rescuing.
With some juggling of schedules, I was able to combine a trip to Paris to show a newly made film, with the possibility of a trip to the Guimet.
Mus?e du quai Branly, the museum inviting me, was also on the ‘wanted’ list put together by Opoku and others. I needed no further convincing. I was off to Paris.
Quai Branly had sent a car to pick me up from Charles de Gaulle airport, and it was with considerable curiosity that I asked the driver what he thought of the Guimet Museum. Xavier had never heard of the place. I must have been unlucky with my driver, for Michel Philpott of Le Monde du, who had invited me, did indeed know the Guimet. It was perhaps not amongst the finest in the world, but still an important museum. It was also within walking distance.
The following morning, my Armenian photographer friend Ruben and I decided to pay the Guimet a visit. I had my HDV video camera with me. I had done a few other things in preparation too, like writing to the press officer Helene Lefevre, asking for an appointment. She did respond to my mail, but no appointment had been granted. I had been concerned that the Bangladeshi government had no rights over the photographs taken by the French photographer, but a mail to him also failed to elicit a reply. So Ruben and I were taking our chances. With my own work having been shown at the Centre Georges Pompidou fifteen years ago, I thought I had the credentials as an artist. I also had my press pass.
Crossing the Seine on a sunny Paris day, looking back at the Eiffel Tower, walking through the manicured pathways with Parisians striding by in their haute couture, I could picture Doisneau photographing the famous kiss.
The Kiss. ? Robert Doisneau/Magnum
Finding the museum in the busy Paris map was not easy. Tucked away in the edge of a roundabout in Avenue D’Iena, was our famous Mus?e Guimet. Two homeless people had camped outside on the footpath, and children were having lunch on the short staircase. This represented the reality in all our countries but is distant from the image the establishment generally tries to provide.
Map of Paris. Guimet Museum shown as small dot in centre of red circle.
Left: Homebound truck loading outside Bangladesh National Museum 11:15 AM 30th November 2007. Right: Homeless people outside Guimet Museum. Paris. France. 31st October 2007. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majorityworld
I felt at home as I walked through the small entrance. This was far less pretentious than our own national museum. The informality of the place was comforting. The elderly gentleman beside us as we stood at reception overheard me asking about the Bangladeshi exhibition. Speaking with an American accent he remarked on what a fine show it would be. “It was taking time, but it would definitely be there.”
I was in journalist mode, and having discovered that he was Ambassador Dean and a board member of Guimet, gently led him on to the sort of work the museum was known for. He pointed out that the museum had just restored the head of a Cambodian statue to its body after 500 years. “Where was this statue?” I asked in as innocent a tone as I could muster. “Right here in this museum” was the proud board member’s reply. The head that was France’s gain, was presumably Cambodia’s loss.
I was lucky. Both the director of Guimet Jean-Francois Jarriage and the curator of the show Vincent Lefevre, were available that day, and didn’t appear to have any appointments at that time. I handed over my card, and spoke to Anna the director’s secretary, over the phone. She hadn’t seen my card then, but when I explained over the phone that I was from Bangladesh, I could sense a chill. Suddenly everyone clammed up. Neither the director nor the curator was able to see me, and no one in the museum would make any comment. Perhaps it was years of colonialism that had shaped our behaviour, or our rustic mannerisms of hospitality. I couldn’t help wondering how a visiting journalist who had arrived at the doorstep of any of our museums, would have been drowned with cups of sweet tea laced with condensed milk by the time the director had come over.
It was only a month ago when I had walked through the national museum at Siem Reap, aghast at the rows of ancient Cambodian statues whose heads were missing. One wonders where the heads have landed up. Ambassador Dean’s quest for restoration might just result in Guimet’s acquisition of the remainder of the bodies.
“Masterpieces of the Ganges delta.” France’s gain, Bangladesh’s loss?
Some of the rare sculptures being taken to Guimet Museum
Article by Kwame Opoku