We owe the creation of the Parisian Guimet museum, otherwise known as the National Museum of Asian Arts, to the initiative of a Lyon industrialist from the second half of the 19th century, Emile Guimet. A great traveler, he traveled through Egypt, Greece, Japan, China and India and brought back important art collections, which he presented in Lyon in 1879. He then transferred his collections to the museum which he had built in Paris and which was inaugurated in 1889.
This is the largest collection of Asian art objects outside of Asia, bringing together pieces from Southeast Asia (Khmer Empire, Indonesia, Siam, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam) and Central Asia (most of the pieces from Central Asia come from the mission carried out in 1906 by Paul Pelliot, archaeologist, sinologist and French historian). Pieces of contemporary art are excluded, in favor of archaeological objects or ancient works.
I will be honest, I am always a bit embarrassed when I visit Parisian museums dedicated to foreign arts. This is the case with the Guimet museum, but also the Cernuschi museum – which is also dedicated to Asian arts – and the Quai Branly museum, which brings together African, Asian and Oceanic arts.
This embarrassment is only the mirror of a moment of deep unease felt a long time ago, during a visit made this time as a tourist in the US, to the museum of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. I was 24 years old, and I had stumbled across a room on the portal of the abbey of Saint-Laurent, a town in our very French Pouillysois region, which was only a few kilometers from a country house that I loved.
Saint-Laurent abbey, which had previously been the most important in the region had collapsed and natural and human disasters had left the abbey gutted – but it was still possible to admire its ruins on the road to this country house which always promised, with its old beams, its beautiful floor tiles, its large sunny rooms and its fruit garden, beautiful bucolic weekends. As a good reader of French writer Colette, I had fallen in love with this Burgundian house and countryside, which I had adopted as my chosen land.
Finding across the Atlantic the portal of an abbey that I knew and which was inextricably linked to my personal elections felt like a robbery. A cultural theft perhaps (the debate around the restitution of works did not yet exist at the dawn of the 21st century), but above all a sentimental theft.
However, its installation in Philadelphia was not the result of a theft. Honestly acquired by George Gray Bernard, an American sculptor who admired what remained of an abbey which had suffered badly and which had been sold as national property during the Revolution, the portal was dismantled and each stone was numbered and sent to the US in 1927-1928.
However, its installation within the Philadelphia museum allowed a conservation that would never have been possible in its French village and its enhancement was obvious.
A private owner had the right to do what he wanted with his old historic stones, especially if his wish allowed them to be better preserved. Besides, why refuse visitors to American museums the right to admire and learn – activities that I practiced then and still do every time I visit a museum?
My intellectual debate with myself never really calmed the sentimental sadness felt that day in Philadelphia but led me to ask myself the ultimate question of who owns the art. Since then, the many requests made in recent years for the restitution of artworks kept in European museums have fueled public debate (and mine with it).
First, it appears necessary to determine the origin of the displacement of the works of art. The circulation of artworks has existed at all times and under all circumstances – we find traces of it in Antiquity – but it is indeed the reasons and the context of the movement that must be examined, when it comes to the question of restitution.
The displacement of legally acquired and legally transferred private artworks or the donation from one public institution to another in order to allow a more fluid circulation of culture are obviously not comparable to looting and spoliation in times of war.
The debate becomes more complex when it comes to the displacement of works of art, born with colonialism. The displacement of the art pieces towards the imperialist country allowed the materialization of the colonial conquest in the eyes of the metropolitans. It also made it possible to strip the colonized country of its history, its art and its cultural identity and establish the domination of the conquering country.
But this displacement, in a current context of an increased recognition of the colonialist past, obliges each depositary State and each museum visitor to look into a national history that is sometimes not very glorious.
Second, it is necessary to take into account the cultural importance of the artworks towards their country of origin. Egypt demands the return of the bust of Queen Nefertiti to Germany and five pharaonic steles to France. Greece demands the return of the Parthenon friezes to the UK. Two philosophies can be opposed here: that which wishes a national cultural policy thanks to which the significant artworks of a country are in the original country and that which envisages the world as an open-air museum in which works of art are constantly displaced.
Third, the question of the conservation of works of art is just as crucial. To evoke again my dear portal of the Saint-Laurent abbey, it is obviously much better preserved in Philadelphia than in its village of origin, where the whole religious building is collapsing. In the same vein of ideas, the Cairo museum visited more than fifteen years ago left me bewildered by the lack of light, ventilation and protection of the artworks presented (a new museum has since emerged).
The question of the return of works of art is in the hands of the public authorities, because the question is eminently political and the average visitor will always find it difficult to form a precise opinion on a subject which touches so much on culture, history, politics and morals.
But the current context of social deconstruction and recognition of inglorious colonial pasts forces museum visitors to ask themselves a few questions. As always, it’s about fully understanding what one sees, what ones looks at.
September 30, 2022