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The Museum as Keeper of Memory – a Conversation with Pierre Baptiste

June 10, 2015

By Julia Chen

Pierre Baptiste, a well-known specialist in ancient Khmer and Cham art, visited San Francisco this spring as The Asia Foundation’s Brayton Wilbur Jr. Fellow in Asian Art. A senior curator at the Musée Guimet in Paris, Mr. Baptiste has also taught at the Faculty of Archaeology of the Royal University of Cambodia in Phnom Penh, and has published widely on the arts of Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand.

Pierre Baptiste (center) examines statues of Shiva and Parvati at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. Photo courtesy Asian Art Museum

Pierre Baptiste (center) examines statues of Shiva and Parvati at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. Photo courtesy Asian Art Museum

Mr. Baptiste spent a week at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, where he was invited to examine the Southeast Asian collection. I accompanied him on one of his consultations with several curators, deep in the museum’s storage. I found his assessments of the period, style, and authenticity of objects in the collection impressive, and I was struck by the museum’s meticulous annotations: every comment by an invited specialist or scholar is recorded and dated throughout an object’s residence at the museum.

The Musée Guimet, located in the 16th Arrondissement in Paris, is internationally known among specialists in Asian art, and boasts one of the largest collections outside of Asia. In an informal presentation at The Asia Foundation, Mr. Baptiste introduced Guimet’s collection of Khmer art, its history, and the personalities who built it. Later he joined me for a conversation about the Guimet, Khmer art, and the importance of museums as keepers of memory.

I was impressed to learn from your presentation that Louis Delaporte, who brought the Khmer artifacts to Guimet, sought to introduce Khmer art and culture to the French public at a time when Western nations were trying to impose their own culture on the colonized territories in Asia. In studying Khmer art and visiting Asia through the years, what do you think is the relationship between culture and the development of a country such as Cambodia? How important is learning about the nation’s past in forging a modern national identity, and what is the role of museums such as Guimet?

The role of museums like Guimet is, for me, a role of memory. It is important to remember the past of these regions to understand how changes have occurred through the centuries – changes in the shape of the boarders of countries, the appearance and disappearance of some countries, the beginnings and endings of religions, cultural habits, traditions, aesthetics. It is important to understand the impermanence of things – a Buddhist thought, as a matter of fact – and to be more tolerant about things looking foreign or unusual. Culture is the best fight against ignorance, barbarism, and tyrants. But in the case of Cambodia, maybe the museum is also a good place to understand how deeply the country suffered from his neighbours, who invaded and tried to destroy the country and divide it.

Repatriation of cultural relics is complex issue. Some say it is important for them to be returned to their places of origin. Others say those art objects should remain outside of war-torn or unstable regions for safekeeping. What is Guimet’s policy regarding repatriation, and what are your personal feelings on the subject?

We feel that there should be balance. It is good that art from all the countries can be seen everywhere. It is a good way to comprehend the beauty, the originality, and the importance of everyone’s culture. We don’t think that a dogmatic policy of sending collections back where they come from is a good thing, for several reasons. The first is that the counties where the objects come from have themselves changed a lot. Sometimes they have nothing left in common with the former country – people, language, culture, religion. And sending back collections to where they belong is often linked to a very strong sense of nationalism that can be dangerous.

For us, it is better and safer that art from everywhere can be seen everywhere. The real injustice, when one looks at the world situation, is that only rich countries can show art from everywhere. For instance, I wish the French colonial government had considered the possibility of creating a museum of French art in the former Indochina – Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia – and in Africa, too, when it was possible. This would have been fair and good for everyone. The Musée Guimet is involved in long-term loans to exchange art objects with museums in Asia, for instance in Cambodia.

During your fellowship as the Brayton Wilbur Fellow you were at the Asian Art Museum for a week, examining their collection of Southeast Asian art. What were your impressions, and what will you take back to Guimet from this experience?

Though I knew of the quality and size of the collection for a long time, really since I was a student, I was deeply impressed by the collection of the Asian Art Museum, particularly in the fields of Chinese bronzes, Chinese Buddhist sculptures, Indian sculptures, and Southeast Asia. My area of focus is Southeast Asia, and I could see how important the recent acquisitions in the domains of Thai and Burmese arts are, for example. Their collection in these domains is much better than ours. I was also able to learn about the organization of the different departments involved in the museum’s life and development, and to study the management of the storage. I saw the way objects are preserved and how they are being taken care of by the conservators, a luxury for someone coming from France, where most conservators are private consultants! I learned a lot in many aspects, in fact, thanks to the constant help of Senior Curator Forrest McGill, but also with the assistance of everybody in the museum. I simply had a wonderful and useful time.

Julia Chen is The Asia Foundation’s senior program officer in Asian American Exchange, which administers the Brayton Wilbur Jr. Fellowship in Asian Art in cooperation with the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. She can be reached at julia.chen@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam
Related programs: Exchanges
Related topics: Brayton Wilbur Jr. Memorial Fellowship in Asian Art

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