Accepted Paper:

Saving Asia: The Past and Present of Asian Art Objects in Western Museums  


Harnoor Bhangu (University of Winnipeg)

Paper short abstract:

This paper takes up the case study of Musée Guimet to analyze histories of colonial travel, appropriation, and dissemination. Moving from the museum's history of accumulation to its present curatorial practices, it argues for a decolonial turn to Asian art objects circulating in Western museums.

Paper long abstract:

This paper examines the collection of Asian art in colonial and post-colonial contexts. Taking Musée Guimet in Paris as a case study for this analysis, it unpacks histories of colonial travel, appropriation, and dissemination. It begins with an introduction to the collection of industrialist-cum-connoisseur, Émile Étienne Guimet (1836-1918) through studying his affiliations with Société de Asiatique and Société de Géographie, both of which were implicated in enforced modernizations across colonial Asia under the umbrella of "knowledge production." Then, follows a detour into Guimet's "scientific mission" into the heart of Asia - Japan, China, and India - for the purposes of building his self-funded museum of world religions. In introducing hegemonic and specialized understandings of self/other that fuelled Guimet's travel into and out of the Asian "Orient," the discussion advances emergent discourse on the problematics of continuing to hold such collections in European public museums. Finally, this paper encounters contemporary curatorial practices, in particular the juxtaposition of historical objects from the Asian collection alongside objects of contemporary art inspired by the collection and produced by non-Asian makers, to explore the ways in which art from post-colonial cultures continues to be divorced of its context for the purposes of Western aesthetic fulfillment. This paper attempts to complicate the neutralized histories of collection and dissemination of Asian art in decidedly post-colonial nations, such as France, to argue for a reconsideration and decolonization of Asian art objects circulating in Western museums.

Panel P006
Museums of Asian Arts outside Asia: Questioning Artefacts, Cultures and Identities