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Afghan Treasures in Paris: Saved from the Taliban, But Not Quite Ready for America

An Interview with Jean-Francois Jarrige,
President of the National Museum of Asian Art "Guimet"

By Harold Hyman in Paris
Page 2 


Globalizing Museums Oui, Museums for Rent Non .

Cauldron grip, decorated with female busts
Afghanistan, Aï Khanoum, Sanctuary of the temple with indented niches
3rd century B.C., Bronze, 13,7 cm
Afghan National Museum– MK 04.1.14
© Thierry Ollivier / musée Guimet

HH: These days, museums are increasing their presence worldwide. Is it a good thing, do you think? Is it the same problem for a museum like yours, where most of the works are not of French origin?

JFJ: You are perfectly right, our problem is totally different. The Louvre, or the Orsay Museum, or the Jeu de Paume, are in very heavy demand in the world, because they are vectors of European culture. Countries that today are very prosperous had, historically, no opportunity or desire to collect European art. These Arab countries among others today remind me of Europe and the United States in the 19th Century who launched universal expositions and created museums for universal themes, like Islamic art, Asian art, and Near Eastern archeology.

I know a controversy is currently raging about these projects. I think that the Louvre of Abu Dhabi, to name but one, was a decision of our minister and the President of the Louvre, Henri Loyrette. I think they know what they are doing, and I will not criticize my fellow museum directors, and they do not criticize me.

I can say this: it is a good thing for other countries to feel the need to have universal museums. We at Guimet have associated ourselves with a Taiwanese project. In Taiwan we were consulted on how to create institutions that would transcend Chinese art by reaching out to neighboring art, from Southeast Asia, and I hope one day Western art as well. Of course, in those countries universal art is primarily contemporary art, beause it is easier to purchase contemporary art than a Madonna by Raphael or a half-dozen Caravaggios.

HH: So do you foresee a Taipei Guimet?

JFJ: In our case, Taipei is not interested in our Chinese collections as they have their own magnificent ones. Of course, there was a French report on the subject, the "Jouyet report" [Rapport de la Commission sur l’économie de l’immatériel 2006 - Report of the Commission on the Immaterial Economy], to explain how many works sleep in storage and that few are exposed. Quantitatively it is true, but qualitatively it is totally incorrect. In other words, at Guimet we have no masterpieces in storage, except for a few paintings and prints (estampes), things we expose by rotation. We can only expose fragile works a few weeks per year, and so we need to have several hundred of them. And of course in a museum you sometimes have a room filled with 10,000 silexes, no one will ever want to borrow them from you, except perhaps for an archeology exhibition and they'd take a dozen at most.

River goddess, Afghanistan, Begram, site II, chamber 10
1st century, Ivory, 45 x 26 cm
Afghan National Museum– MK 04.1.14
© Thierry Ollivier / musée Guimet

HH: Have we entered into an era of museums competing to spread their storage rooms beyond national borders? Is this going to give ideas to the Met, the British?

JFJ: All the better if it does, cultural competition is not a bad thing. When I was appointed 20 years ago to head the museum, the politicians were rejecting the word "museum" as completely passé, and they would say "the word musée is totally has-been". Thereupon the Grand Louvre operation came into being, and other big operations in France and abroad. And now, 20 years later, the situation has come full swing: back then French museums has 4 or 5 million visitors per year, now it's between 18 and 20 million. The regional museums have been renovated, and museums have become a goal in themselves: the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the Guggenheim ... newspapers are reporting these events ceasely.

It is too easy to say today that this evolution is market-driven, commercial Museums used to be sleepy institutions. I think that this newfound importance of museums is a good thing. Works of art only exist through the eyes of the visitor. What matters, at least in France, is that museums remain research centers, if only because our exhibitions require the editing of catalogues, for which we use academics, outside scientists, etc. The level in France is satisfactory, as it is in the United States where the highest level curators are recruited. What one might have feared has not happened: we did not end up with cultural mediators in lieu of curators.

Large painted goblet, depicting hunting and fishing scenes,
Afghanistan, Begram, site II, chamber 13
1st century, Clear glass, H. 24.3 cm ; Ø 13.4 cm
Afghan National Museum – MK 04.1.38
© Thierry Ollivier / Musée Guimet

HH: Is there a danger of transforming artwork into commodities? That loans would go to the highest bidder or that if an institution on the outer reaches of the world would invite only the cheapest offers?

JFJ: All cases exist. Let's not condemn out of hand. That a museum from a country without means, with important collections threatened by water seapage, should send their collections abroad in exchange for a subsidy, that does not bother me. What would really bother me is a system of catalogue rental. I think that using the collections to gather funds is acceptable if it is correctly explained, as in Kabul where evey visitor gives one euro for the creation of a new museum. I would be skeptical if such a system were adopted for a rich museum. If you consider the collections of the Orsay Museum, or the Jeu de Paume, the Japanese are willing to stand in line for hours to see a Van Gogh, and the big media like NHK or the Asahi Shimbun are sponsoring the event, and they make money from it, so the museum should be able to ask for a percentage. After all expediting works is a heavy task.

The thing to prevent above all: the paying loan. For example, we organized an exhibition on Khmer Treasures in Washington for the National Gallery, but without a fee, not a centime did we earn because it was an important event with a purpose: promoting knowledge of Cambodia after that country's long torment. I am talking about a political purpose. But conversely, were the Met to ask us to pay for some important work of theirs we wished to exhibit, I would find this improper.

All this must be spelled out openly. What we must oppose is the rental of the art work. These pieces were given to us by major collectors, and we are the representatives of French tax payers, they do not belong to us, therefore we should not turn them into objects of crude negotiation.

Fish Bottle
Afghanistan, Begram, site II, chambre 10
1st century AD, blown glass, blue fins
8,7 x 10,7 x 20 cm
Afghan National Museum – MK 04.1.45
© Thierry Ollivier / musée Guimet

The Web: High on Pixels, low on Euros

HH: Web sites are becoming necessary complements of museums, what are the functions of a site? Education? Practical information? Games? What's the best site in your opinion?

JFJ: I wouldn't know. Of course, a site has many functions. It is a practical tool for our local public, a public of habitués, who need references and information on what is going on. But it is also something else: we realize that millions of people will never come to Paris, I'm thinking of the Chinese. They can see the virtual artwork. What we have is a museum accessible worldwide. Everybody should know what's in the Guimet Museum, and what is our history and structure.

Morever, we've added games, to attract young people, to elicit impressions, and to encourage the children to influence their parents. The games are never pure amusement, they have to show things and explain those things. The puzzle is a good example. Of course, the Web also helps people see what's in the museum: the idea is to look things up on our site, then visit the museum. You do not really see when you stroll through a museum, so by going on the website beforehand, you really see what you already recognize. What you don't know you don't see, as in the 18th Century nobody knew because nobody saw gothic art.

At the same time, the website is a great instrument for researchers, because the collections are on-line. Take the Grandidier collection, for example: it's very innovative and I hope we do the same to other collections. Moreover, the site gives an outlet to those of us who make museums live. The main thing is to have a web director and a team and editorial committees, so the site doesn't get scattered.

HH: Your site cost you a mere 60,000 euros! How did you do it?

JFJ: Because we are one of the least budget hungry museums on the world. We put on a great many of our exhibitions with no budget. The staff is very small and motivated. The fact that we are few can be limiting at times, but we've noticed that when there are too many people, much activity is wasted in overlapping efforts. Involuntarily, of course.

And of course we're also very show-off, if we feel something wouldn't be excellent we wouldn't do it. That's why when we saw the demo for this new site, with the desired image definition, we committed ourselves. In 3 or 4 years we'll have to start all over again!

Indian coin,
Afghanistan, Tillia tepe, tomb IV 1st cent. Gold
Ø 1.6 cm
Afghan National Museum– MK 04.40.392
© Thierry Ollivier / Musée Guimet

HH: Now that you have entire collections on-line, will this have an impact on the black market? If every known object is on-line, objects that aren't on-line are by elimination fishy. You're created a instant worldwide catalogue.

JFJ: There's looting, with airplanes entirely packed with objects. But I know the Pakistanis who say "it is the foreigners who are looting us". Well, there isn't a foreign mission involved in this, and on the other hand I could reveal the names of all the traffickers, say Mister Bagha in Islamabad, with his contacts, etc, and there's not one foreigner. Even though foreigners do purchase at the end of the process. A good comparison is drugs: condemning the user is one thing, but that doesn't mean the producers and traffickers who convey them are totally innocent. That would be like saying "it is the consumer who is to blame".

The fact that things go on-line is a good thing for better documentation, because there's a very sizeable market for counterfeit works. And the availability on-line of works can help someone who's sincerely interested in purchasing at an antique dealer's to look at the works on-line in the museums. He can look at objects from the Gandhara, compare what's at the Met, at the British, at the Guimet. He can train his eye. 

Afghanistan, Rediscovered Treasures
Collections from the National Museum of Kabul
Until 30 April 2007
Musée Guimet
6, place d’Iéna
75116 Paris
Tel: (33) 1 56 52 53 00


After Paris, Afghanistan, Rediscovered Treasures will be on view at  the Museo di Antichità in Turin, Italy from 25 May 2007 to 23 September 2007.


Harold Hyman is a Franco-American journalist, based in Paris, specializing in foreign affairs and cultural diplomacy. He has worked for Radio France Internationale, Courrier International, and Radio Classique (news section), and now works for BFM TV.  He last wrote on Days of Glory: Valor, Racism and the Ingratitude of the French Republic for .

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