‘It’s not revenge’: how Europe’s largest museum of Asian art sees return and repatriation and the importance of East-West dialogue

“You don’t immediately enter India or China: first, you are in Cambodia.”

A courtyard of Khmer sculptures from Angkor, Cambodia, at the entrance to Guimet. Photo: Guimet National Museum of Asian Arts

This entry is partly a result of the fact that Cambodia was a protectorate of France from 1863 to 1953, but also a reflection of how Guimet houses operate not only from the major Asian nations, but across the continent, from Afghanistan to in Japan.

“When you’re in China, you have Chinese art museums, when you’re in India, you have Indian art museums,” says Lintz. “When you go to Southeast Asia, of course you always have the national art museum. The idea of ​​Asian art, at most, is a European or Western vision.”

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Lintz is traveling from Paris to Hong Kong this month to speak at the first International Cultural Summit of Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, where she will be part of a panel discussion titled “Rethinking Museum Interpretation in a global context”.

And as such, Lintz, who took up the Guimet mantle in 2022 after years as director of the Islamic arts department at the Louvre Museum, does not shy away from issues of return and repatriation.

“For me it’s an important question,” she says. “I have often seen museums that did not want to talk about this question, saying: “There is no problem. Everything is alright.’

“It’s a real, important challenge nowadays in Western museums, not only for Asian art, but for African art, and all of whose collections were developed during the 19th and 20th centuries.”

Part of the Musée Guimet Asian art collection at the museum. Photo: Guimet National Museum of Asian Arts

The president of the museum believes that if a cultural object is stolen or bought by illegal means, it should be repatriated accordingly: “It should be returned if it is proven to be stolen.”

But, as with Guimet, the answers are never black and white. Provenance is key to determining and understanding whether objects have a place in museums outside of their country of origin.

“What’s important is not to refuse to talk, but rather to talk a lot about how our collection arrived at our museums,” says Lintz. “Because when you talk exactly about the history of the collections, how they got to the museum, for example at the Musée Guimet, you can see that the story is more complex than just the idea that everything was stolen and brought to the West by illegal trafficking.

“Musée Guimet is a special situation in this context because we were lucky enough to have a scientific collaboration with Cambodia that started at the end of the 19th century,” she says.

“The discussion I have, for example, with the minister of culture in Cambodia, is to say, ‘Let’s promote your heritage together. We have millions of visitors coming to Paris'”.

Guimet in Paris. Photo: Guimet National Museum of Asian Arts

Guimet is planning an exhibition in 2025 of more than 100 sculptures from the National Museum of Cambodia, in Phnom Penh. “We have to be smart together,” says Lintz. “It is not revenge. The solution is not to return everything.”

Guimet has also worked with institutions in mainland China for major exhibitions.

In 2021, he teamed up with the Shanghai Museum, which exhibited West Meets East: A Cultural Conversation between Chinese and European Ceramics.

This year, Guimet is organizing an exhibition dedicated to the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), to celebrate the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between France and China.

My opportunity is that my brand is Asia. I am convinced that I need to develop this philanthropy network in Asia

Yannick Lintz, president, Musée Guimet

Lintz recently asked Maria Mok Kar-wing, director of the Hong Kong Museum of Art, to be part of her Guimet advisory committee, and Mok will also be a moderator at the Hong Kong International Cultural Summit “New Ways of cooperation and sharing”. in The Post-Pandemic Era Panel: International Perspectives”.

“When I arrived as head of the Musée Guimet,” says Lintz, “I felt it was also important in this context of tension to prove that museums can create dialogues, not just conflicts. Museums are a wonderful diplomatic tool to develop dialogue between cultures.”

A Hong Kong collector named Richard Kan, for example, two years ago donated a blue and white Meiping vase dating from the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368). Lintz calls her the “Mona Lisa of the Musée Guimet.” High praise indeed, as the museum has an extensive collection of imperial furniture, terracotta objects, bronze vessels and Dunhuang paintings.

Its collection is easily one of the largest collections of Asian art in Europe, with the only notable competitors in size being the British Museum and the Victoria & Albert Museum, both in London.

The museum houses works from all over Asia, from Afghanistan to Japan. Photo: Guimet National Museum of Asian Arts

Most European collectors in the 19th century were upper middle class, meaning they had space in their homes for decorative art. Interest in Asia arose after many saw Asian art at exhibitions in Paris, or traveled to Asia themselves.

“They weren’t fascinated by things they couldn’t see otherwise,” says Lintz. “But as soon as they saw, in the Paris market, in a merchant’s shop, very beautiful objects, such as terracotta jars or porcelain vases that they could imagine in their homes, they started buying.

“So here, when you see the Chinese collection, you will certainly see small objects of decorative art or porcelain. It’s one of the most important collections here because this was usually what you could find on the market and what you could imagine in your apartment.”

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Although public institutions in France have been entirely funded by the government in the past, funding has dwindled in recent years, which is why Lintz has also sought to reach out to clients from Asia.

“Of course, like any country, France is in a weak situation from an economic point of view,” she says. “You can imagine that the Musée Guimet is not going to convince someone who just gave a lot of money to the Louvre to give the Guimet as well. But my luck is that my brand is Asia. I am convinced that I need to develop this philanthropy network in Asia.

“Whenever I come to Hong Kong, when I visit museums – Hong Kong Art Museum, Hong Kong Palace Museum or M+ – first of all, I admire what is being done. We share with the different directors of those museums the same vision, the same kind of questions about educational projects, about how to develop the story.

“For me, coming as the head of this museum today, in a world of tension and conflict, it is very important to tell the story of the dialogue between Asia and the West.”

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