Masterpieces from the Ganges Delta

BUST OF VISHNU, TERRACOTTA, 6th/7th century, 47 x 39 x 17 cm, Kichak (Bogra), Bangladesh National Museum, Dacca (E-69.123). One of the pieces stolen at the airport in Bangladesh

FOLLOWING FOUR YEARS of intense preparation, the exhibition Masterpieces from the Ganges Delta: Collections from the Bangladesh Museums was scheduled to open at the Musée Guimet in early January, but now will only reach its audience through its magnificent catalogue. Less than two weeks prior to the opening, the exhibition was cancelled. The events leading to that sad outcome read almost like a thriller.

It is inconceivable and sad that an exhibition could be used by local opponents as a political weapon to threaten the government in Bangladesh.  During the past year, there had been numerous setbacks – there was a growing opposition in Bangladesh to see treasures from five different museums leave the country for the first time in order to be exhibited at the Musée Guimet. Masterpieces from the Ganges Delta was doomed.

The latest ‘coup’ staged by the opponents to the exhibition was to steal a crate containing two statues representing Vishnu from the airport – just minutes before the items were to leave the country. Vincent Lefèvre, curator of the exhibition at the Musée Guimet in Paris has been involved in the preparation of the exhibition from its earliest stages. Here he discusses the various events that led to the cancellation of the exhibition Masterpieces from the Ganges Delta, the motives of the various parties involved, and the heritage of Bangladesh.

Asian Art Newspaper: The exhibition Masterpieces from the Ganges Delta: Collections from the Bangladesh Museums was not only a unique topic, abut also a first in the sense that the pieces had never been shown outside of Bangladesh. Why did it take so long for such an exhibition to be organised in the first place?
Vincent Lefèvre:
In order to answer your question, I need to provide some background information on the relations between France and Bangladesh that led up to the exhibition project. Cultural relations between France and Bangladesh go back 15 years. It was in the beginning of the 1990s, around 1992 or 1993, that the archaeological mission of Mahasthan was created.

Mahasthan was an archaeological site which had been known since the end of the 19th century. It was dug on numerous occasions, but more recently a French archeeological team got authorisation to be associated with their counterparts from Bangladesh in order to conduct a search. In 1999, the National Museum of Bangladesh organised a small exhibition, presenting the results of the most recent excavations. It was the first time that such an exhibition of masterpieces from the Ganges Delta had been shown in Dhaka. The exhibition was quite successful, which triggered the idea to present it abroad. However, in order to do this, the exhibition had to be more thorough, and French archaeologists based in Lyon suggested that Musée Guimet should move the project forward.

Early on, it had been agreed that the French archaeological mission would also include the training of specialists in Bangladesh. Subsequently the French embassy in Bangladesh contacted the Musée Guimet in order to set up the details of a cooperation between both countries, and more specifically between the National Museum in Bangladesh and the Musée Guimet in terms of training of curators, preventive conservancy or restoration. It is in this context that I was invited in 2002 by the our embassy in Bangladesh to visit the country.

I had the opportunity to discuss the details of the cooperation in terms of training, as well as the chance to view Bangladesh’s phenomenal heritage and collection of artefacts, amongst which are many outstanding pieces linked to masterpieces from the Ganges Delta. I knew some of the objects through books, but their quality in reality was extraordinary, and I never expected to find such treasures there. I was immediately convinced that there should be an exhibition and, after discussing it with the Musée Guimet, I returned to Bangladesh in March 2005 with the museum president, Jean-François Jarrige.

In Bangladesh, all the parties involved were very enthusiastic about an exhibition in France, and we began to hold talks with the local authorities. While these talks were going on we had already started with various training seminars, and there was a true spirit of exchange and cooperation between both countries. So by 2005, things had began to move rather quickly to create an exhibition of masterpieces from the Ganges Delta in 2007 for the Musée Guimet.

AAN: With whom did Musée Guimet sign the contract?
VL: We had an agreement of principle with the Ministry of Culture, which was subsequently confirmed in the form of a letter in December of 2005. In addition, we had an oral agreement with the Prime Minister. By the end of 2006, things became more complicated because of the domestic political situation in Bangladesh.

AAN: Had there not been a change of government, could the exhibition at Musée Guimet have taken place as originally planned?
VL: Yes, I think so. Had there been a political change (even with a different majority) with an elected government, I do not think we would have encountered any difficulties – the exhibition was a great asset in respect to the international image of Bangladesh. One of the problems was that the Constitution of Bangladesh states that at the end of a term, the ruling government steps down in order to be replaced by a provisional government that is supposed to expedite daily operations and organise new elections.

The elections were planned for January 2007, but the provisional government was largely contested by the opposition because of a lack of objectivity in the organisation of the elections. There was a lot of agitation, which led to the resignation of the provisional government and to the constitution of a new transitional government. This transitional government cancelled the elections scheduled for January 2007 and reported them sine die. The transitional government is presently still in power with new elections scheduled for December 2008. We are now in presence of a government that is trying to handle daily operations, fight corruption, but that is not based on a legitimate majority as it has not been brought to power through elections.

It is in this difficult context that the latest events regarding the exhibition at Musée Guimet took place –  the contesting of the agreement we had signed in July 2007 with the government of Bangladesh was a way for many people to question the legitimacy of the present government. We found ourselves in a very strange situation indeed: considering the growing opposition, the government of Bangladesh was not willing to pursue the project at any cost, or to be seen acting in a ‘dictatorial’ way. Had we been dealing with a legitimately elected party – be this the Bangladesh National Party (with whom we originally negotiated) or the Awami League, I do not think that the continuation of  the project would have been questioned.

AAN: When did the difficulties begin for Masterpieces for the Ganges Delta?
VL: In 2006. Actually, the complications began with one of the lenders, the University of Rajshahi. The museum itself was more than enthusiastic about the project at the Guimet, but the museum depended upon the city university. The council of the university was not in favour of the exhibition, which was a way to show its opposition to the central government in Dhaka.

AAN: Why did people disagree upon the exhibition project at the Guimet?
VL: There were disagreements on many different levels. Starting September 2007, some legal action was taken not against the Musée Guimet, but against the agreement that had been signed with the government. So far, no court has given a verdict or ruled in any way. One of the museums in Bangladesh was blamed because before signing the agreement it should have received the approval of its board.

However, as it turned out the board of the museum was a virtual one as it had no members. I think from a legal point of view, we could argue indefinitely, but it remains that on two occasions the Supreme Court – the highest jurisdiction in Bangladesh – approved the pieces leaving the country for the exhibition at the Guimet. In addition, there was a campaign that started early on raising some legitimate questions since these pieces had never left Bangladesh. People were wondering what was going to happen to the pieces – this is quite natural.

Perhaps there had also been some difficulties because we had invited some scholars to contribute an essay to the catalogue, and presumably some intellectuals were cross that they were not included. As opposition to this exhibition of masterpieces from the Ganges Delta was growing, it was clear that it was not the project per se that was attacked, but the Musée Guimet as an institution, and France as a country. I believe the same criticisms would have been voiced had the organising country been Germany or Italy. We were told that the Guimet was well known for stealing pieces, or for not returning them.

Also, people claimed we were going to produce copies, send the fakes back and keep the originals. Another concern was that certain Western museums had built their collections during the colonial period. Indeed, one could argue endlessly about the constitution of these collections during colonial times, but these elements should be kept separate from the loan procedure for international exhibitions. Unfortunately for us, there were many elements that came together creating a very difficult situation in Bangladesh.

AAN: During the controversy between Bangladesh and France, Bangladesh claimed, on numerous occasions, that in the 1950s it had lent pieces to France which were never returned. To what specifically were they referring?
VL: It is a quite peculiar claim. They were referring to a reliquary found on the site of Mainamati that would have been sent to France in 1958 in order to be restored, but was never returned. From what I understand, a reliquary from the site of Mainamati has indeed disappeared. Where the piece actually is, nobody knows. It may have been destroyed, lost, or stolen. It could be in France or  anywhere else in the world.

Moreover, in 1958, Bangladesh was still part of Oriental Pakistan. At the time, the department of archaeology was in Karachi, and consequently the situation is quite complicated. So far, no document has been presented stating that the piece had left for France, nor have we been presented with any original letter requesting the return of the piece. Currently, we have no trace of the piece and Bangladesh has not produced any evidence referring to it. It is quite easy to voice accusations without producing any evidence supporting these claims. In addition, Musée Guimet has been accused of being a private gallery and not a national museum, a claim that has been widely discussed in the local newspapers in Bangladesh.

AAN: In your opinion, was the theft of one of the crates during the last shipment specifically intended to jeopardise the exhibition in Paris or was it stolen in order to be sold on the black market?
VL: I think it was clearly stolen with the intent to jeopardise the exhibition since the people that were against the exhibition at the Guimet – I met some of them – assured me that they would do everything in their power to avoid the exhibition taking place. As all legal recourses had been pursued, stealing some of the pieces was the ultimate attempt to get the exhibition to fail, and to discredit the Guimet.

Had there not been a delay of the plane because of weather conditions, perhaps there would not have been an ultimate check-up of the crates before they were to be loaded onto the plane, with the result that the theft of the crate would only have been discovered in Paris. After the vigorous campaign against France claiming that the Guimet was not going to return the pieces, this would only have given more weight to support these views.

AAN: Were the thieves deliberately targeting a specific crate or did they pick one at random?
VL: I do not think they randomly picked one crate, they simply chose the smallest and least heavy one. Also, it was probably the crate that could best be taken without anyone noticing. Regarding the possible resale of the objects, I think it is highly improbable that they will appear on the market as both pieces have already been published, and are also reproduced in the catalogue of the Musée Guimet of Masterpieces from the Ganges Delta  that is available, although the exhibition is not going to take place. At least on the official market, these pieces cannot be sold. I personally do not think that these pieces were stolen with the intent to be sold.

AAN: The crate was stolen once the pieces had gone through customs and were ready to be loaded on board the plane?
It was stolen while in the international customs area, an area that is usually under the responsibility of the Bangladesh Biman Airline and the civil aviation of Bangladesh.

AAN: Amongst the people opposed to the exhibition of masterpieces from the Ganges Delta there were archaeologists, and scholars. Was it not quite naive to imagine that jeopardising such an exhibition was going to be enough to discredit the government? Moreover, one would believe that archaeologists and scholars would know better than to destroy an exhibition that was going to promote their heritage?
For the scholars and archaeologists it was also a means to discredit the people presently ruling the various institutions (museums, archaeology departments, etc.). Using this sad episode with the Guimet as an excuse, people were clearly getting back at one another. Nevertheless, their actions were successful since the Minister of Culture and Education has since stepped down.

AAN: With regards to the exhibition of Masterpieces from the Ganges Delta, the Guimet was accused of having drawn up a contract that lacked transparency and there was also an issue dealing with missing accession numbers of the pieces. Were these allegations justified?
Regarding the transparency of the contract, it is a rather curious allegation. We negotiated with the ruling authorities, and it is not customary that such documents are disclosed in the open. If the government of Bangladesh felt it was necessary to provide the local media with additional information regarding the contract, it was their task to do so. I do not think it was our duty as a foreign country to provide the media in Bangladesh with additional information.

As to the missing accession numbers of the pieces, there were several drafts that for an unknown reason got into the wrong hands. In the initial stages of the preparation of the exhibition and while setting up the loan requests, I did not always have the inventory numbers. You know how it works, you walk through a museum, and write down the pieces that would be of interest without having any inventory number. I compiled several such lists as a working tool. Clearly, while progressing with the exhibition these lists were subsequently completed, and at a later stage we had all the required information on every item. The documents that were taken were working documents and not official ones that did not reflect in any way the final stages of the exhibition.

AAN: At some point, it was mentioned that the opponents to the project drew up a new contract. How was that contract different from the one initially signed by the Guimet?
VL: There was no mention of a new contract. At some point however, the government asked the opponents to the exhibition to set up a commission with the goal to reflect on these issues. At that stage, we were not involved. The commission blamed the government for not providing enough information, and ultimately, nothing new emerged from that commission.

AAN: Why did a first shipment of the pieces reach you and not the second one? And why did the opponents to the exhibition not immediately take action and prevent the first shipment from reaching France?
Actually, the difficulties started long before the first shipment left Bangladesh. The first recourse to a jurisdiction is dated 16 September 2007. Between 16 September and 1 December, the first freight arrived in Paris, but several freights that had been scheduled after that were cancelled. As the first freight reached Paris, we thought the second and last one would follow within a week.

AAN: The pieces planned for the exhibition of Masterpieces from the Ganges Delta at the Guimet come from five different museums in Bangladesh. Were these pieces on view in Bangladesh or were they – due to their unique character –  placed in storage?
Most of the pieces were on view to the public. Of course, we had asked for some very important pieces for the exhibition in Paris otherwise the exhibition would not have made sense. However, that does not mean that these five museums in Bangladesh were left empty during the time the exhibition took place in Paris.

AAN: Was the selection of the pieces based on a cooperation between curators from Paris and Bangladesh, or were you quite free to establish your ‘wish list’?
Originally, I established a wish list and submitted it to the various museums for their agreement. Overall, they agreed to most of the loan requests.

AAN: The exhibition of Masterpieces from the Ganges Delta was cancelled just before it was scheduled to open. By this stage, the Guimet had spent more than E600,000. Were the various difficulties you encountered covered by your insurance?
This sum is not covered by the insurance, which mainly deals with aspects ranging from packing to shipping, etc. For us, the money is basically lost.

AAN: Is it the first time that you or any other museum have encountered such difficulties with a similar outcome?
At the Guimet, we have never encountered such a situation, and to my knowledge internationally it is a ‘premiere’.

AAN: Who ultimately took the decision to cancel the exhibition of Masterpieces from the Ganges Delta at the Guimet?
The decision was taken by the government of Bangladesh.

AAN: Should there be a change with the elections scheduled for 2008, could the project at the Guimet be revived?
In my opinion, the project is cancelled once and for all. For the upcoming years, we have scheduled other major exhibitions, and as you know, museums have a long-term exhibition schedule. For these upcoming exhibitions, we are working with important partners in Japan, or in Thailand. There is no reason why we should change our plans in favour of a partner that is not reliable.

AAN: Are there many more sites to be discovered in Bangladesh?
There is a vast archaeological heritage in Bangladesh. There are numerous monasteries and sites that have been identified, but not properly researched. There is a lot of work that remains to be done. As Bangladesh is a rather flat country, as soon as you encounter a hill, it is most probable that you are in the presence of an archaeological site – an old temple or a monastery, for example. It has frequently been the case that peasants have found bricks, and helped themselves with additional pieces, and thieves have stolen pieces with the intention of selling them on the black market.

AAN: So far, the French archaeological teams have been very much involved in the excavation process in Bangladesh. Has the present episode regarding the exhibition of Masterpieces from the Ganges Delta at Guimet threatened the ongoing work of these archeological teams?
Generally, the excavations take place between January and March. As for 2008, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has asked the French archaeological team not to come back to pursue its work. So far, only the French teams were authorised to go to Bangladesh for excavations.

AAN: Are antiquities from Bangladesh presently appreciated at the right value on the market?
No. However, there are more and more pieces that are illegally leaving the country. One of the ‘problems’ with the exhibition we were preparing was that by staging such a large scale project, we drew attention to an unknown heritage which was not welcomed by people involved in black market activities. The theft of these two statues at the airport was an organised crime, showing that there was an organised ‘mafia’ network within the airport.

AAN: What was going to be the focus of the exhibition of Masterpieces from the Ganges Delta?
We wanted to emphasise two aspects: the archaeological specificity of the country by showing the latest excavations with some spectacular pieces, and to provide a different image of the country, highlighting the fact that Bangladesh which we always associate with natural disasters was actually in possession of a very rich and diverse heritage.

AAN: Following the cancellation of the exhibition of Masterpieces from the Ganges Delta, what is your main regret?
My regret is that for us at Guimet, all the work was more or less completed. An exhibition is prepared to be shared with an audience, and here we have to stop shortly before opening the exhibition to the public. My enthusiasm towards the pieces remains intact, and I would have enjoyed discussing these with the media, with the audience. I am nevertheless satisfied that the catalogue was published, and I hope that it will also be published in English as I am not sure if another museum is willing to take up the challenge and try to stage the exhibition we had planned at the Guimet.


The exhibition was to be held at Musée Guimet in Paris but was cancelled  – however, the catalogue is available.