Sophie Makariou: a “new impetus” for Guimet

Paris, 1st September 2017

Sophie Makariou, president of the Musée National des Arts Asiatiques, takes the mike. An hour on cultural policy, the transmission of knowledge, redeployment of the collections. Between heritage and contemporaneousness…

Her itinerary is impeccable, her character resilient… Studies in classical Arabic at Langues’O, followed by the École du Louvre, a postgraduate diploma in history, then the École du Patrimoine… Sophie Makariou is a woman in a hurry. She’s said to be “difficult”; above all, she’s a hard worker whose cutting intelligence has led her, in the space of a few years, to hold the reins of one of the finest Parisian museums. A heritage curator who directed the department of Islamic arts at the Louvre from 2009 to 2013, she has been president of the Musée National des Arts Asiatiques for four years now. As the new school year starts, making allusions to a “new impetus”, she outlines for us the major areas of her cultural policy.

  • You were appointed, in August 2013, president of the Musée Guimet. Have the four years gone by quickly?

S.M.: Horribly quickly! I remember saying, when I arrived, that it was necessary “to open the doors and windows”. The museum had survived, you might remember, a fairly difficult crisis period: a visitor-numbers crisis, and in some way, an image crisis. The museum was struggling to get back on its feet, to make itself visible, in a niche that was nonetheless defined: Asia, but without any further specifications. There were of course wishes to open up to contemporary art, for example, but for all sorts of reasons, these came up against a problem of continuity in action. In addition, I succeeded two presidents who had held single mandates, one short, the other cut short, which obviously didn’t allow them to get things done over the long-term. As a result, the establishment’s strategic vision took time to be understood. Ever since, the museum’s new team has managed to introduce some strengths, with truly readable action. In this regard, endurance seems a key to me. It’s not a matter of making a series of hits, but elaborating, as we’ve done in the last four years, a genuine trajectory with points that link from one to the other.

  • How have you gone about “opening doors and windows”?

S.M.: I started off from an observation: the museum of course had a scientific and cultural programme, but it hadn’t been updated. The museum, at that time, had trouble accepting contemporary-art forms. So we offered visitors an Asia that stopped, at the latest, at the threshold of the 20th century. My observation was simple… Asia is an increasingly present continent, which remains fairly little known in its historic dimension, but which is fascinating because it’s a zone of growth where we can travel in safety and where new generations willingly go off to work. And then, fundamentally, for me a museum is not just a conservatory. It’s a place where we conserve objects, but also a place for projections, almost a place of utopias, in any case, a place of propositions.

  • Can you tell us about these new points of entrance, ranging from music to film, from literature to live performance? Is the idea to bring in multidisciplinarity?

S.M.: At the Musée Guimet, there is a genuine desire to open up to the world, internationally, of course, but also, to other artistic forms. Literary creation, dance, film… This is translated by a renewed proposition for our performance and activities offer, with a desire to raise a lever for both visitor numbers and the composition of the publics, namely by encouraging persons relatively distant from the museum to visit. By this I mean distance in social terms, but not exclusively. There are also age brackets that don’t necessarily come to the museum today. This, incidentally, is not an issue that Guimet faces alone. We know that after the age of 20 years, people come less to the museum, then return to it after turning forty or so. So we confront a significant generational hole.

  • Asia is a complex cultural region, an extremely varied one. What profile of visitors comes to the Guimet?

S.M.: The museum is by definition open to everyone, but when we don’t put this into action via a strong policy, then people don’t come, and we end up being a spot where visitors are aged between 45 and 77 years onwards: visitors said to come from higher socio-professional categories, with scientific baggage, etc. There are therefore certain artistic forms that remain completely on the outside, and along with them, a whole generation. Hence, for example, the idea of developing the Guimet [Mix], which consists in bringing electro music into the museum’s Khmer court, by inviting young DJs to work on the museum’s sound archives which have entered the collections since 1932. I believe that the museum has largely anchored itself on the idea that it was aimed at a public of regulars, big connoisseurs of Asia. Looking at the figures, the reality is more complex. Already, in 2013, 55 % of the public was made up of first-time visitors, people who had never come to Guimet. I don’t know what the term “specialised museum” means. For me, all museums are specialised. The Louvre, which I’m very familiar with, is for example specialised in eight different domains! Here, whether you work on oriental antiquities or Asian arts, you develop several levels of discourse. A first extremely specialised discourse, aimed at scholars: the discourse of researchers speaking to researchers, which remains essential. But this research needs to “descend”, to become more accessible. My concern is therefore to maintain a high level of research, if not to increase it. Until now, the museum hasn’t officially been part of any major research programme, which in itself is very problematic. And paradoxically, it was perceived of as elitist, not adapting its discourse to the public. I’m looking to place the cursor at a median level. I wish to keep a tight rope, in a manner of speaking, between excellence in research and great attention to diffusion and adaptation… And here I don’t mean vulgarisation, but the sharing of culture.

  • Is this a response to Émile Guimet, who wished to create, in 1889, “a museum that thinks, a museum that speaks, a museum that lives”?

S.M.: I think that I can say that we’re completely loyal to his example. Émile Guimet was a profoundly modern man. When he left for Japan, he bought contemporary sculpture, ceramics from the Meiji period, art that was being done. Guimet liked invention. He would have bought Hitomi Hosono, who is entering our collections today; he would have been passionate about Shouchiku Tanabe’s art of contemporary basketwork…

  • What are the current visitor rates of this museum, long said to be a “sleeping beauty”?

S.M.: We had 340,000 visitors in 2016, up compared to the previous year. We are getting close to the figures from strong years, around fifteen years ago, when in 2002, the museum reopened and we recorded 440,000 admissions. Visitor rates were very high during the recent exhibitions, “Araki” in 2016, and “Jade, des empereurs à l’Art deco”, in 2017. With “Kimono, au bonheur des dames”, from February to May this year, we for example totalled up to 1,100 visitors per day.

  • What is a “living museum” today? Is this a new paradigm in terms of the transmission of knowledge?

S.M.: We, namely those at the ministry of culture, often see an opposition between living culture and the rest. Which implies that a “dead culture” exists! My view is that there is no dead culture except when it comes to culture that we don’t look at, that we don’t query. It’s as if we said that “dead history” exists… Here, I work on a time period that is not my own, and my team and I ask the collections questions that weren’t formulated 50 or 100 years ago. Because we are protagonists in something called art history, which has not always been practised. And also because all gazes are anachronistic, anchored in a specific time. Questions of attribution or the history of styles are the things that interest us curators – all very technical stuff. This is of course essential, but at the risk of shocking you, it’s like running an engine. It’s not about driving! A museum’s mission, I think, is not just to be a Mozart of attribution, it’s more than this. It’s about knowing how to make collections resonate, how to make them topical…

  • And how do we go about this in practical terms?

S.M.: Perhaps by casting an anthropological, philosophical, critical gaze… Inviting Prune Nourry, a contemporary artist, to work with curators to invent these resonances, to find in the museum’s collections works that could be singled out in relation to her work, her own interrogations, all imbibed with reflections on society, the evolution of the species… This is a case of operating within this process. When the artist sets up a monumental mutilated Buddha in a museum that conserves works, namely from Afghanistan, including pieces from Bamiyan Valley, this makes sense.

  • What relationship do you have with contemporary creation? Is it something imposed, something in keeping with the times, or a real commitment?

S.M.: It’s a commitment because it means working on the collections on tomorrow. When a very fine artist like Liu Dan produces a sublime work, Hommage à Théo, a sunflower created at the start of the 21st century, I say to myself why not integrate it to my demonstration on the history of Chinese painting? None of us lives in a fixed interior today; we all live in a total mix of eras. So this purism that argues that we should keep to an absolutely impeccable chronological thread, which views the introduction of a 21st century piece as an error in taste, is an aberrant idea. Because our visitors are asking for something completely different. Through this mix, visitors will perceive assonances, links. Introducing a contemporary object into an old art collection is not a pure pretext. Everything makes sense.

  • Even if, at first glance, we can sometimes be a bit disarmed…

S.M.: Things need to occupy ground, to have roots. When we planned the “Araki” exhibition, the question of legitimacy came up. Why Nobuyoshi Araki, here? An exhibition needs to be rooted in the space, to talk to the collections. For this event, we worked from the museum’s old collections, 18,000 Japanese photographs, revisited by the artist, allowing the photographer – who creates works around bondage exclusively – the freedom to choose images with a relationship to his own creations. His gaze, his own reading of the images – I’m thinking in particular of the hand-coloured flower photos, which are very fine expressions of photography from the Meiji period – led to such a persuasive exhibition that it went on to travel to Japan.

  • On this note, international renown is one of today’s keys. Where do you stand with foreign institutions, namely Chinese and Japanese ones, in terms of agreements?

S.M.: We have embarked on several agreements, consisting in the coproduction of exhibitions or joint research projects. We are namely working with Art Exhibitions China, we are developing a project with the National Museum of China in Beijing, for which we are producing a major publication. The Musée Guimet is publishing, in 2018, a very important work on our Chinese collections in all domains, from archaeology to textiles. This is an original, ambitious project, which will allow us to touch a very erudite public and continue to normalise our relationships with China. Our collections are by definition public, they are open to Chinese enthusiasts. With the Shanghai Museum, we are on the verge of signing a study agreement regarding an archaeological dig for works mainly conserved at the Guimet: Liyu bronzes, a set of archaic bronzes from the Shang to Zhou periods, discovered in the 1930s. In Hong Kong, we’ve embarked on, in conjunction with a private foundation, an exhibition project on Buddhism. We are present in Singapore with a proposition on Khmer collections, the idea being to initiate a series of exhibitions with the Asian Civilisations Museum. A partnership with the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia has also been signed, on the links between China and Islam. In Japan, the agreement with the Kyoto National Museum will namely help us for the “Meiji” exhibition, scheduled for 2018. I could also mention Tajikistan, in relation to an exhibition planned for spring 2019, or Pakistan, with which we are in the midst of a diplomatic adjustment phase today.

  • When we speak about acquisition policy to museum authorities, we often get a doleful response…

S.M.: Do you think I look down? I think that we need to be smart today. We may grieve but then we should stop crying. First of all, the idea is not to add for adding’s sake. At the Musée Guimet, we have a little more than €500,000 in acquisition credit, which may not seem very high, but we can already manage to do a lot with it. This sum is doubled when we add donations to it, namely those from the Société des Amis (Friends’ Society), which carries out a very active policy. Add to this donations from artists to whom we’ve accorded carte blanche, who give a piece to the museum every time. We are thus building up the 21st century collection, also bringing in contemporary Japanese ceramics, photography… And then the modus operandi has changed. I’m thinking about this 17th century samurai armour, acquired in 2016 thanks to participatory financing.

  • It’s still a fairly small budget…

S.M.: You know, there are now things for which it’s no longer possible to take action in terms of acquisition policy. When we come across the difficulties relating to provenances and costs, certain purchases are entirely out of bounds. Buying Asian sculpture, Chinese ceramics with a good pedigree, is no longer possible. Not to mention that we already conserve 7,000 Chinese ceramics with magnificent provenances. In this domain, our last acquisition was at the end of 2015, a “poppy” ewer from the reign of Emperor Yongle, classified as a national treasure, banned from leaving the territory and pre-empted at a public auction. This was the oldest Chinese porcelain to arrive in France, in 1547, and is perfectly documented. You can see, one piece in the space of two years!

  • Are certain collections incomplete?

S.M.: There are still “holes” in the collections. Take the example of a field in which we can still act and where we’re still weak: Japanese prints. I’m talking about prints from after the classical period, prints from the Meiji era, from the end of the 19th century and the start of the following period. What we call the Shin–hanga, the “new engravings”. A few years ago, there was still nothing in our collections. A single print by Hasui, the great master of Shin–hanga. In a short space of time, we acquired a certain number of them – presented at the “Paysages japonais” exhibition – by bringing key prints into the collection each time, works by Hasui produced prior to 1923, the year of the Tokyo fire, in which all wood disappeared.

  • After the new Chinese decorative-arts hanging in 2015 and the Japanese and Korean rooms in 2016, is the redeployment of the Guimet collections complete?

S.M.: We are currently working on Buddhist China and we are continuing with Central Asia. Archaic China is also scheduled, then the Himalayan region will come, with Nepal and Tibet, also in 2017. Japanese sculpture will be redeployed in autumn 2018, the Khmer room in 2019 or 2020.

  • The Musée Guimet’s yearly operational budget is around 10 million euros. How do you see the deficiency, but also the distribution of public grants? I’d like to go back to your exasperation regarding the preference accorded to certain museums…

S.M.: We have a budget of a little over 7 million euros for our operations. The State grant comes to 3.7 million euros, and the museum’s own resources, 3.8 million euros, from ticket sales, patrons, space rental, various fees. You can see that the museum finances itself to a large extent. But – and I say this today with the same vigour, because the remark is well grounded – disparities exist. I’m not speaking about equality but equity. I’m speaking about differences in budgetary volumes, inequity in the distribution of staff, about which questions should be asked… Budgets are real strategic instruments. We’ve already come against the situation of finishing the year with 6,000 euros. When we say that the budget is too tight, it’s not just talk! I’m not throwing stones at administrative supervision. Another factor is that the museum’s own forecasts weren’t accurate. When the Guimet took on the French “public establishment status” [editorial note: in December 2003], it didn’t have the means to clearly formulate what it needed. We are therefore still operating at this low level, which already was too low at the time, and which, after being eroded during the crisis period, makes things more difficult. We will obviously not be making any more productivity gains. But we’re proactive, we support imagination taking power! Restriction is creative. The average cost per visitor here is incidentally very good compared that at other museums.

  • The name Jean-François Jarrige remains associated with the radical transformation of the museum’s spaces around fifteen years ago. When we speak about the “Makariou years” in 20 years’ time, what would you like people to remember?

S.M.: Architectural transformation has conferred the site with a very rare quality for a museum: it’s not a cenotaph. Light crosses through the Musée Guimet, it offers an extremely pleasant relationship to space. Of course, the museum is evolving, but we’re more into alternative medicine, we carry out architectural osteopathy, we make corrections when it strikes us that the building has poor feng shui, in order to stay Asian through and through. There’s a balance that we seek to find, between museography and scenography. So if we are to retain anything from my stint, I’d like to extend the metaphor of open doors and windows. I’d like people to remember a circulation of energy, openness and generosity.


The Hôtel d’Heidelbach reopens

No less than three Parisian buildings shelter the collections of the Musée National des Arts Asiatiques – Guimet. One of them, the Hôtel d’Heidelbach, is located at number 19 on Avenue d’Iéna, less than 200 metres from the main museum building. Constructed between 1912 and 1915 for a couple of rich American bankers, it is the work of René Sergent, to whom we also owe the hôtel in Parc Monceau intended for the Camondo family. With its volumes and partially conserved décor, the edifice on Avenue d’Iéna is a rare example of the last generation of big Parisian hôtels particuliers from the start of the 20th century, a product of neoclassical architecture. The Hôtel d’Heidelbach reopened in June this year after fifteen months of renovations, and now hosts the museum’s Chinese furniture collection, including monumental wardrobes alongside Coromandel-lacquer folding screens. In the future, the building’s ground floor will hold the museum’s textiles collection while the Japanese garden is scheduled to open in spring 2018.


Jayashree Chakravarty gets carte blanche

Nature as a subject and as a creative medium… For its fifth contemporary carte blanche, the Musée Guimet has asked Indian artist Jayashree Chakravarty to create a vegetal installation. This was an opportunity to present, in the fourth-floor rotunda, an organic work. “Life will never be the same” is a monumental proposition. It is also a way to probe the fragility of living things. A sensitive testimony on the attacks on natural environments, victims of the expansion of Indian cities. Here, light plays with strips of Nepalese paper, traverses branches, illuminates clay, dresses up weeds… Naturalist and ephemeral, the work of Jayashree Chakravarty raises a universal question: “how do we live and let live?”

“Life will never be the same”, works by Jayashree Chakravarty, from 18 October 2017 to 15 January 2018. Musée National des Arts Asiatiques – Guimet. 6 place d’Iéna, Paris 75116.


Musée National des Arts Asiatiques – Guimet. 6 place d’Iéna, Paris 75116.

Hôtel d’Heidelbach, 19 avenue d’Iéna, Paris 75116.

Musée d’Ennery, 59 avenue Foch, Paris 75116.