Musée National des beaux-arts d’Alger
A Tale of Art and History: Musée National des beaux-arts d'Alger
The National Museum of Fine Arts of Algiers (Musée National des beaux-arts d'Alger) is an esteemed art institution in Algeria. It is a story of a cultural legacy intertwined with political upheaval and the quest for national identity, as seen through the prism of art.
A Divisive Moment in History
In an event that sparked controversy, over 300 works of art from the museum, including pieces by Monet, Delacroix, and Courbet, were transported to the Louvre in Paris on May 14th, 1962. This move sparked intense debates in France over whether the artwork should be returned to Algeria. In Algeria, the removal of these works was met with outrage.
Under the Evian accords of March 1962, all institutions and infrastructure financed by the autonomous colonial administration in Algeria during colonial rule were to remain under Algerian control. The Algerian negotiators argued that these institutions, including museums, were funded by the resources and labor of the Algerian people.
The Struggle for Control
The head of the Louvre and the curator of the Museum of Fine Arts, who remained the same post-French administration, advocated for the return of these African owned art pieces to Algeria. Meanwhile, Henri Seyrig, the Director of France's museums, believed that the return of these works would remind Algerians of their historical ties to France. He saw this as an opportunity to extend France's cultural influence, aligning with a foreign policy directive aimed at "fostering the most extensive audience for our culture."
However, Michel Debre, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, perceived these works as France’s cultural property that had to be reclaimed.
Threats and Fears
The museum faced multiple threats during the approach of independence. On November 26th, 1961, the Organisation Armée Secrète (OAS) bombed a statue by Antoine Bourdelle in the museum's courtyard, causing damage to the museum's first floor and the statue. French authorities also feared that strict Islamists might take offense to nude art pieces in the museum or that post-independence rioting and looting could affect the institution.
The immediate danger posed by the OAS and the potential risk of anarchy prompted French authorities to secretly move the artworks under military escort first to Marseille and then to the Louvre in Paris. The artworks, worth an estimated $50 million in today's dollars, were moved without notifying any cultural representatives of the FLN or the museum's staff.
Repatriation and Reconciliation
After the missing artworks were discovered, negotiations between France and Algeria began in May 1967. By 1970, despite protests from France’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Michel Debre, the artworks were repatriated to Algeria. This cooperative effort between museum officials on both sides was one of the few examples of goodwill during these challenging times.
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