Sophie Makariou, Director of the Guimet Museum in Paris, wants to carve out a niche for Asian art.

Sophie Makariou has recently been named Director of the Guimet Museum of Asian Art in Paris. In her new role, Makariou, who has served as Curator of Islamic Arts at the Louvre and was Director of its Oriental Department, will be expected to focus on the management of the museum’s collections and acquisitions. She will also attempt to increase the institution’s international visibility with the accent on the relationship between France and Asia. At present the Indian collection, despite boasting a few remarkable early pieces, is rather limited. In this exclusive interview, Sophie Makariou talks about her plans for the Museum's future.

The current exhibition on Angkor at the Musée Guimet is truly stunning. But the museum itself is more than that. It encourages live performances and cinema screenings with a festival of Indian cinema each year. What is this curious mix that makes the Guimet so unique?

I have always felt that this unusual mix should become the museum’s strength and statement. We are rooted in ancient Asian Art, which remains a significant part of the museum. But we are also rooted in the present. If you go back to the origins of the museum, the founder Emile Guimet, was concerned not with dead cultures but with understanding what he called “living” Asia through its art, religions and culture. We still concentrate on that, but we are also very concerned by modernity in Asia, a very active continent. How we understand the past is also a way of understanding the present and shaping the future. Which is why I say museums are very important “diplomatic” places. They are places of exchanges, and my work is to make that understanding possible, to make it clearer.

You say there has to be a connection between the past, present and the future. Would you also consider acquiring contemporary Indian art or hosting an exhibition of modern Indian painting?

I think the Guimet should hold such an exhibition as a dialogue. Modern Indian design and textiles fascinate me. We are not buying anything in this field and I think that must change. If you want to prepare a collection for the future, we must buy things that are being made now, during the time of transformation.

So what have you got in the pipeline?

Many secret subjects, some very exciting ones. There are certain dates on the “diplomatic” calendar that must be commemorated. Next year we shall be marking the Great War of 1914 with an exhibition on the great French politician Clemenceau called “The Tiger and Asia”. Tiger was one of his nicknames and there is a famous picture of him at a tiger shoot with the Maharaja of Bikaner. He was convinced Asia had produced great men, great works of art, philosophical and theological thought. There is modernity in his message and we shall display some of his collections next spring. In autumn we have an exhibition dedicated to Vietnam. Sponsorship is proving difficult. The scientific work has been done but the money is lacking.

What are your plans for India?

India is the mother country. Indian Art along with Chinese Art has influenced all the arts of Asia. Here at the Guimet we talk of “Indianised” countries in Asia as against the art of those that came under Chinese influence. At the Guimet the Indian traveller can discover other cultures and art from his own continent. The current exhibition on Angkor traces how Hinduism has influenced other parts of Asia. Going through the various wings of the Guimet gives you a larger perspective on Indian Art and Asian Art as a whole. We will work on a transversal project putting into perspective different collections in the museum. I plan to have four small exhibitions per year in one of our spaces. It is important to offer new exhibits in order to ensure more visitors. There is so much on offer in Paris that one has to fight really hard to carve out a special niche for Asian Art. Another challenge is to develop a new public and it has to be people from all walks of life, including tourists from Asia.

How do you plan to build on the increased fascination with Asia?

European and American publics are more open-minded in aesthetic terms than they were. Given the current economic climate, Asia has become a very attractive destination. Asia is recapturing its place in the world’s cultural hierarchy and we are dealing with art produced by half of humanity. People come here because they want to have a broader view of the world and we, as curators, have to feed that curiosity. The public wants to understand Asian culture and we must be able to give them the tools to do that. One of the most frequent comments in our visitors’ book is: “The pieces are beautiful, but I do not understand anything.” So, one of the museum’s tasks is mediation. How do you make people understand what they see? What information do you give? How do you help make the connections? Do you explain geography and if so how? You don’t have to judge visitors, you have to help them. You will be happy to know that we shall be beginning with India. It will be the first section that will be redone with fresh captions, texts, maps to help the visitor enter another world and another civilisation. I see us as a go-between, a line of transmission. That is why museums are so important. Museums are not temples. They are active vibrant places that transmit something.

How do you see your appointment at the Musée Guimet? Is it novel to find a woman heading the world’s largest museum dedicated solely to Asian Art?

I do think that being a woman is a great quality! But that’s not my only quality! The art world is very male-dominated– incredibly so. Women make up 50 per cent of humanity and it should be normal to have a woman heading a large museum. But there are in fact very few women heading art institutions and that is amazing considering that many extremely knowledgeable and competent women have been working in these institutions for years. At the top management they are nowhere. I combine two “defects.” I’m a woman and I’m still relatively young - I’m 47- and recently at a dinner a very respected art curator told one of our sponsors “we have to help the gamine” (the kid). So that’s the kind of attitude there is. One cannot imagine comments like that being uttered about a 47-year-old man.

Do you think as the Guimet’s first female director you bring a specific vision to your work?

I’m sure. I think women are much more courageous and pragmatic. Like many women I am a matter-of-fact person. Women tend to go straight to the point, try to find pragmatic and workable solutions. We are not content with giving directions from above. We involve ourselves in how the work is carried out and I think women are more sensitive to relationships. I really think there is something different that women bring to the job and which I hope I shall bring too.