Collect call

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 24 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 24 November, 2009, 12:00am

With the mainland and the rest of this region becoming a force to be reckoned with economically and politically, the Musee Guimet in Paris, which houses one of the biggest collections of Asian art in the West, is showcasing the rich heritage of Asia in a 21st-century context. And Hong Kong collectors and museums can play a role in this by loaning out works for exhibitions, says Jacques Gies, president of the 120-year-old institution.

Gies was recently in town seeking to collaborate with top local collectors and museums. He believes they might have items that may offer new insights into the mainland's history and challenge traditional Western ideas of its history and culture.

Gies says the Song and Yuan have long been considered the main dynasties by museums in the West, but this focus has since shifted to the Ming and Qing dynasties, as shown by a large-scale exhibition that opened last month at the National Museum of Taipei exploring the life and times of Qing emperor Yongzheng.

'Yongzheng may be considered a tiny subject because his rule was short when compared with that of Kangxi and Qianlong. But because knowledge continues to develop today, for scientific purposes, we cannot be unaware of this figure any more,' says Gies.

Since Hong Kong collectors have always prized ceramics from both the Ming and Qing dynasties, they might be able to contribute artefacts to facilitate studies of these periods.

'Today, you have collectors who have very tiny and, thus far, invisible subjects - but they are important. It is a duty for a museum like us to know, to have the knowledge of what's [important] today,' says Gies, who has been at the Musee Guimet for three decades.

'Collectors have defined our state of knowledge in some topics. So it is important for us to be aware of this state of knowledge.'

The curator says he is confident local collectors will respond to his call and loan out their pieces because 'many of them are challenging to do better than the great museums'.

The Musee Guimet is, for instance, planning an exhibition with the Min Chiu Society, founded in Hong Kong in 1960, whose members are said to own some of the world's finest Chinese antiques.

'We have to be recognised by collectors and they have to be recognised by us,' says Gies. 'If you are a good collector, you compete with the greatest museums and that is the challenge. They ... [ought to be thinking along the lines of], 'If the Guimet museum doesn't have [a piece], that's great!''

The Musee Guimet was built by Emile Guimet (1836-1918), a Lyons industrialist who visited Egypt, Greece, Japan, the mainland and India and acquired an extensive collection of objects that he put on display in a museum opened in Lyon in 1879. These collections were then moved to a new museum that he built in Paris, which opened a decade later.

During Guimet's lifetime, the museum, while maintaining a section devoted to the religions of ancient Egypt, increasingly focused on Asian civilisations.

Today, the museum has an extensive collection that covers Asia from Afghanistan to Japan and from Mongolia to Indonesia. The mainland remains one of its main focuses and it has hosted exhibitions of calligraphy, ceramics, paintings, works of art and furniture.

The museum is no stranger to Hong Kong: part of its collection was on show at the Hong Kong Museum of Art last year in the exhibition Paris 1730-1930: A Taste for China, which traced the fascination in France with Chinese art and its influence on French culture between the 18th and 20th centuries. The show also celebrated the long-standing cultural ties between the two nations.

When Gies took over as president a year ago, he wanted to refocus the Musee Guimet's role.

'We have to convince Europeans that Asian art is very important for their everyday life,' he says. 'When I say Asian art, I mean Asian art and civilisation ... The arts are an excellent medium to express history, particularly the history of civilisation, which is the best of humankind. We're the conservatory of the best of human civilisation.'

But the Guimet has not been spared the challenges facing other museums: a decline in visitors, poor state funding and pricier artwork. Many must now look to the private sector to sustain development.

'Today the national museums in France are more dependent on private participation,' says Gies. 'It is the case with the Louvre, it's the case with Musee d'Orsay and every great museum, as even large amounts of state funding are not enough. It's good for regular [work] but museums want to develop new ideas and need sponsorship as well as private donations.

'Temporary exhibitions are getting more and more costly ... We want major pieces and their transportation is difficult and, also, to convince great museums and collectors to send the pieces to Paris, we have to have a very dynamic policy. You cannot ask for major pieces from collections in Asia if you cannot prove you are a very dynamic and interesting museum.'

Gies says that museums must be knowledge centres rather than mere keepers of artefacts.

'Our duty is not to make collections,' he says. 'Our duty is the duty of historians.'