France’s Biggest Asian Art Museum is Building a Bridge to Hong Kong

Yannick Lintz has her eye on Hong Kong. “For me, it’s a fascinating city,” she says. That’s especially true if you look at things from Lintz’s perspective as a veteran museum curator.

Zolima CityMag 02 May 2024

With a host of new cultural institutions that have opened in the past few years, including Tai Kwun, M+ and the Palace Museum, the Hong Kong cultural scene is effervescent, despite challenging economic times and political headwinds. 


Lintz was here recently for the Hong Kong International Cultural Summit 2024, and she will be returning later this year for Business of Design Week. She has even more invitations to come to Hong Kong, but if she accepted every one of them, she jokes, she’d need to take up a second home in the city.  


She has her plate full as it is. The last time we spoke with Lintz, she was curator of Islamic arts at the Louvre. But in November 2022, she was appointed by French president Emmanuel Macron to a new role as president of the Musée Guimet, the largest Asian art museum outside Asia. It’s a particularly important position as France aims to build cultural bridges with Asia – and China in particular, which this year is marking the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations with France.  


“Cultural diplomacy is not what will prevent wars from happening,” says Lintz, sitting in the booth of a Tsim Sha Tsui restaurant. “But those cultural exchanges can stay strong even when everything else goes poorly.” 


Jiang Qiong'er’s installation “Initiation" (2024) has taken over part of the Musée Guimet’s façade. (Photo by Frédéric Berthet)


That’s not lost on French leadership. Just two weeks after taking up her new job, Lintz was on a plane with Macron en route to Southeast Asia. The Guimet is planning a major exhibition on Angkor Wat next year, followed by a special focus on Korea in 2026 and India in 2028. But for now, the focus is on China. The museum is currently hosting an exhibition of works by French-Chinese painter T’ang Haywen, a contemporary of Zao Wou-ki. There is also a show by Shanghai designer Jiang Qiong'er, who has covered one of the museum’s buildings with red fabric to serve as a backdrop for sculptures of mythical Chinese creatures. Jiang has also created a vast outdoor installation bearing the poetry of 60 Chinese women and another installation made from 5,000 bricks of pu’erh tea.  


"Sans titre" (1983-84) by French-Chinese artist T'ang Haywen, made with acrylic on Japanese paper


In June, the museum will showcase 250 porcelain objects, from the eighth to 18th centuries, from Hong Kong collector Richard Kan’s Zhuyuetang collection. Among them is a blue and white Meiping vase dating back to the 14th century, during the later years of the Yuan Dynasty (1279–1368). Lintz likes to call the “Mona Lisa of the Musée Guimet” because of its exceptionally deep colour, which was derived from large quantities of cobalt, a highly prized and tightly regulated mineral.  


Though these shows fit neatly within France’s larger geopolitical goals, they also align with Lintz’s vision for the museum. “We aren’t under any orders from the government,” says Lintz. “We respect their diplomatic framework, but I’m free to decide how we do that.” And her plans are ambitious. “My candidacy was based on the acceleration of history,” she says. “Since the start of the war in Ukraine in 2022, there has been a geographic reorganisation that has led Asia to become increasingly important.” Rather than simply being a museum of foreign artefacts, it’s an opportunity for the Guimet to become a vital cultural link between France and Asia. 


A porcelain object from the Qing Dynasty's Kangxi period, from Richard Kan’s Zhuyuetang collection. (Photo by Barry Lui) 


Lintz says her vision can only be accomplished through intensive networking. “It starts with human connections,” she says. She recalls a “pretty magical” dinner inside the Forbidden City with the director of the Palace Museum, Wang Xudong. Earlier this month, Lintz took part in a professional training programme in Beijing that focused on new models of museum exhibitions. In June, she will gather the directors of Chinese and French museums for a discussion in Paris.  


The Guimet occupies a unique position in all of this. Not only is it the largest Asian art museum in Europe, it is one of the largest in the world. Lintz notes that, with the exception of the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore, most equivalent museums in Asia have a national focus, even if some of them contain objects from across Asia.  


One reason for that is rooted in centuries of colonialism and a historic imbalance of power between Europe and Asia. In recent years, there has been a chorus of voices demanding that European and American museums return objects looted from Africa and Asia during colonial exploits. But Lintz insists the Guimet occupies a different position compared to some other Western institutions. Founded by industrialist Émile Étienne Guimet in 1879, many of the museum's first acquisitions were purchased by Guimet during his travels to Asia. Others were acquired by scholars, including objects donated by the King of Cambodia, who was keen to showcase the treasures of ancient Khmer culture at a time when many non-Western civilisations were seen as primitive or backwards.  


A porcelain object from the Ming Dynasty's Wanli period, from Richard Kan’s Zhuyuetang collection. (Photo by Barry Lui) 


Lintz says the museum is concerned about provenance, but she is convinced that the Guimet in particular is not an institution whose collection was derived from stolen materials. When it comes to the conversation over restitutions and repatriation of art, “I have an original position on this,” she explains. Many Western institutions are feeling “worried and guilty,” she says. “We want to avoid the topic. [But] I do not think shame is an appropriate starting point to engage in this debate. At the moment we’re dealing with the caricature of every European museum being a place that pillaged.” Museums need to be transparent about how their collections were acquired, and reckon with those portions that were indeed looted. But, she says pointedly, “not everything was pillaged. At the Guimet, a great part of our collections come from scientific cooperations with the countries of origin.” 


Instead of focusing too much on the past, Lintz says the way forward is to “ignore the buzz on social media” and develop lasting partnerships with institutions across Asia with an attitude of mutual respect. That’s certainly her goal in Hong Kong. Lintz recently invited Maria Mok, director of the Hong Kong Museum of Art (HKMoA), to serve on the Guimet’s advisory committee. The Guimet also signed an agreement with the Hong Kong Palace Museum to organise an exhibition in 2026, and the HKMoA is exploring the possibility of hosting future Guimet exhibitions. Lintz also says the museum is in talks with French May about a project in 2026, and they are “in contact” with M+, although there are not yet any collaborations on the horizon. 


In other words, it’s all going to Lintz’s plan. “We want to create a win-win situation,” she says. “We want to make history.” 


Writer: Christopher DeWolf


This column is produced in partnership with Zolima CityMag, an online magazine that explores Hong Kong’s arts, design, history and culture.