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     Volume 7 Issue 12 | March 21, 2007 |

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Cover Story

Safeguarding Our History

Terracotta plaque from the 18th century AD (Krishna Lila), Munsiganj.

Our National Museum is the home of a countless number of rare and priceless artefacts from ancient periods. The recent artefact controversy and mysterious theft have drawn attention to the treasures that have received little attention from the public and state. More importantly there are concerns about the efficiency of the security measures taken by the museum to safeguard these invaluable relics of the past.
Shyama Tara, sand stone structure from the 10th century AD, Munsiganj.

Elita Karim
Photos: Zahedul I. Khan

A popular legend that enthusiasts of history and archaeology like to recount is the grand transportation of the Mona Lisa from one country to another as a part of a cultural exchange programme between museums. Transferred by sea, the famous painting was protected from all sides, with submarines and security vessels on all corners. It was packed with special material, in such a way, that if the ship carrying the painting were to sink, the painting enclosed in special packages would float and be rescued by the security team accompanying it; a breach in security would no doubt lead to a major rift in diplomatic relations between the two nations.

The story might seem a little exaggerated but it serves to make the point that art or artefacts as precious as the Mona Lisa have to be treated as national treasures that demand the highest security measures especially when being moved to another country for exhibitions. Of course all this reminds us of the controversial transport of rare and ancient artefacts from Dhaka to Paris. In December, 2007, centuries-old statues, gold and silver coins and other invaluable historical structures belonging to the National Museum, Barendra Research Museum, Mahasthangarh Museum, Mainamati Museum and Paharpur Museum, were suddenly flown off in a rush to the Guimet Museum in Paris. "It was like transporting goods and vegetables from one place to another," says a journalist and one of the many protestors of the transfer. The artefacts were going to be displayed at an exhibition in Guimet Museum in Paris, titled "Masterpieces from Ganges Delta. Collections of the Bangladesh Museums." The big shock came right in the end when, amid more protests, during a second round of transferring artefacts from Dhaka to Paris, two statues, 'Vishnu' and 'Bust of Vishnu', were stolen from the Zia International Airport causing another wave of public uproar. Naturally a lot of the umbrage was directed at the National Museum.

Nagdarwaza, black stone structure from the 10th / 11th century AD, West Dinajpur.

"There has been a lot of misunderstanding in the media regarding this," says Director General of the National Museum, Dr. Samar Paul. "First of all one has to understand that the National Museum was merely a centre point where the selected artefacts from around the country had been gathered by the authorities. There were artefacts from Barendra, Moinamoti, Paharpur and Mahasthangarh along with artefacts from the National Museum in Dhaka, which were selected for the exhibition in Paris. Our job here was to ensure that the artefacts reached the airport safely, which we did."

The decision to display these artefacts in Paris was taken by the government. However, according to artefact connoisseur and former secretary of Cultural Affairs, AKM Zakaria, it is against the constitution to transfer such invaluable artefacts from Bangladesh to other countries. "If necessary, replicas can be made of the originals for a foreign display," he says. "But in no way can the originals be simply shipped off in this manner. Because of such decision and actions on the part of the authorities, we have now lost two of the most precious statues, a significant part of our rich culture and heritage, created centuries ago by craftspersons in this part of the world. This loss can never be replaced."

The Guimet Museum is famous for the display of ancient art forms and artefacts from Asia, Africa and other parts of the world as well. However, the museum has been criticised for not returning artefacts of various regions of the world. According to Dr Vincent Lefèvre, the curator of the Guimet Museum in Paris, there has been a lot of confusion about the return of the artefacts, since people mixed up two different things. "On the one hand, the pieces that were sent to the West during the colonial period; on the other hand those which are lent for international (and temporary) exhibitions after the colonial period, that is now," he writes. "There are official agreements for each exhibition and the return of the original artefacts is, of course, always specified. Some protesters claimed the Guimet Museum (and other French Museums) has not returned some artefacts, but it was based either on lies or on gossips found on the internet, which is not a very reliable source. Strangely enough, nobody asked the protesters to give any proof of their accusations."

Statues that were stolen from the Zia International Airport, Vishnu and the Bust of Vishnu. Photo: Star. Artefact connoisseur AKM Zakaria looks at pictures of Vajrasattva, an idol on display at the National Museum. Photo: Star.

Regarding making replicas of the artefacts, Dr. Vincent says that he would like to see some proof. "Each artefact has been photographed and filmed before packing, during transportation, then at the arrival in Paris, and once again on the way back; representatives from the Bangladeshi museums were present during each step of the process. How could we have made replicas? Secondly, doing faithful copies is very difficult and time and money consuming. Only very naïve and uninformed people can think it is possible to duplicate a 10th century bronze statue in one night. And lastly, these artefacts have been exhibited several times. How could we display them without any problems? There are laws in France, which makes it impossible to sell them, since they would be identified at once. Besides, according to the French law, a national museum cannot sell any artefact."

The National Museum was merely a center point where the selected artefacts from around the country had been gathered by the authorities. The museum is yet to be more popular amongst the general masses.
Silver ornaments from the 19th century, Narayanganj. Stone inscriptions: it records the construction of a Buddhist monastery during the 9th regal year of Gopal IV (1128 - 43 AD) of the Pala dynasty, from the 12th century AD, Rangpur.

Distrust of French museums regarding artefacts not being returned dates back to 1958 when, according to Zakaria a couple of small artefacts were found in Moinamoti during an excavation. "They were sent to Paris for curing," he says. "It has been several decades but they never came back. We brought this up during the recent protests, when the French authorities asked us to give them the appropriate details so that they can investigate."

As mysteriously as they had disappeared the stolen pieces reappeared right after the

Dr. Samar Paul, Director General of the National Museum.

theft, when the RAB officials found pieces of the stolen artefacts. "How do we know that the pieces belong to the original statues?" Zakaria asks. "I think that the pieces could have been put together so that we could all have a clearer picture. And I believe that there are craftspeople in this country who can do this very easily. I remember back in 1972, when I was the District Commissioner of Dinajpur, I found broken pieces of several beautiful statues and artefacts, which were destroyed by the Pakistani army. I had found a gentleman who had restored the pieces together. The statues looked as good as new." Regarding the artefacts that were returned from Paris last month, Zakaria thinks that there is a huge possibility that they have been replicated. "There is no way to understand, especially in the case of the coins," he explains. "Even if we argue that it might take a lot of time and resources to build the replicas of the statues, it is extremely easy on the part of the French to duplicate the ancient gold and silver coins."

Visnu (black stone) from the 12th century AD, Naogaon.

The incident has brought to the forefront the question of security measures at the museums and the preservation of such invaluable creations and art forms that house at the national museum. According to Dr. Paul, the museum had always had a well-planned security system. "I cannot reveal to you the security plans for obvious reasons," he says. "In a nutshell, I can say that we provide the highest security possible to all the articles and artefacts within the museum. We have security cameras installed in all the galleries. All the rooms are always under surveillance. During visiting hours, we have plain clothed members of our security team who are always on the watch. We have a different kind of security teams outside the premises of the museum, where the entry and exit of all visitors are monitored closely. The security is so strong that after office hours, even I as a director general cannot simply take a stroll on the restricted areas within and outside the museum. The doors and the gates to the galleries are always locked up in the evenings. For security reasons, there are several different locks to the gates, whose keys are kept with different keepers and not just entrusted to a single person."

A visit to the galleries showed quite a different picture. Surveillance cameras had indeed been put up in every gallery. Some of them, however, were not in working condition. According to a museum staff, these cameras were put up a long time ago as a part of the security improvement programme, however, they had stopped working after a while. While looking at the ancient wonders built centuries ago in the gallery belonging to the history department, visitors were seen feeling the texture of the Vishnu statues and other structures as well, disregarding the prohibition on touching the exhibits. Information on the exhibits is also very sketchy. One of the most intriguing pieces for instance, is a piece of a life-size statue called 'Yakshini' which shows a part of the female form. Besides being an outstanding creation of art, this was probably one of the very few granite pieces that the gallery boasted. But besides the title and the date there was no information on the statue or the person that it depicted. Guides were also not available and an attendant at the museum said that the only way to know more about the exhibit was to use the museum library.

Wooden Pillar from the 11th century AD, Munsiganj. Racing boat from the late 20th century, Manikganj.

There are more mysteries at the museum. One of them surrounds the existence of a basement storage area where valuable artefacts are stored to be used for future displays, a common practice in museums all over the world. But whether the National Museum has such a storage area is hard to fathom because of conflicting statements within the museum. The Director General, Dr. Samar Paul denies having such storage inside the basement, while another museum official openly admits to having a storage area in the basement. "In fact, the basement happens to be one of our major storage areas," he says.

Visitors look at the ancient wooden bedstead, from the 19th century, Tangail, Jessore, Faridpur.

Secondly, preservation and conservation of artefacts and centuries-old fossils happen to be a major part of the museum. According to the Deputy Keeper of the History and Classical Art department, Dr. Swapan Kumar Das, the national museum has a well-kept conservation department where the laboratories used for preserving the articles are improved and updated on a regular basis. However, Dr. Khatibul Huda, the head of the Conservation Department, who is said to be highly trained in this field, refused to speak to the reporters or show the laboratories where preservation takes place.

Dr. Neeru Shamsun Nahar, Deputy Keeper in-charge, Education Department. Dr. Swapan Kumar Das, Deputy Keeper, History and Classical Art Department.

Even though the museum has a rich education programme, which is extremely popular mostly amongst government school children, it is still not very well liked amongst the general mass. "I disagree," says Deputy Keeper in-charge of the education department, Neeru Shamsun Nahar. "I have been working here for over 18 years and I have seen an increase in the number of visitors who come to the museum to pass their time and also to educate their children. People are becoming more and more aware of their culture and the rich heritage that the museum houses."

Visitors seen relaxing in the lobby of the National Museum

"We have a bus that provides transport facilities to the school students for visits," she explains. "This system was begun for the first time in Asia in the year 1975 as a part of the outreach programme, and is still very popular amongst schools even today. Prior to the visit, we sit with the teachers and discuss how to guide the children around the galleries. This is done according to their age brackets. There was also a mini-museum programme, where a bus would go to the village areas and educate the school children. However, it stopped after a while."

Other basic facilities at the museum are far from satisfactory. For one thing, the toilets are always dirty and have a foul smell inside them. In fact, visitors entering the galleries are welcomed by this smell since the toilets are located right next to the galleries.

Dhyani Buddha in Terracotta Plaque in different postures from the
9th century AD, Savar, Dhaka.
Visnu; Matsya Avatara, black stone from the 11th century AD, Dhaka.

The National Museum houses some of the most invaluable artefacts created by craftspeople of lost civilisations belonging to this part of the world. However, we fail to recognise their excellence because of our ignorance and unwillingness to educate ourselves about our national wealth. The artefacts controversy has only brought home the undeniable fact that greater attention has to be given to our national treasures both in terms of being educated about them as well as protecting them from theft and forgery.


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