Musee du Palais du Premier Ministre Andafiavaratra on the occasion of the opening of the exhibit “Lamba: Unwrapping Identity” Supported by the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation
Son Excellence M. le Ministre de la Culture et du Tourisme
Son Excellence M. le Ministre de l’Education Nationale et de la Recherche Scientifique
Staff of the Musee d’Andafiavaratra
Staff of the Musee d’Art et d’Archaeologie
Representatives of the Mozea Akiba and the Musee Faniahy
Ladies and Gentlemen:
It gives me great pleasure to join representatives of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and the Ministry of Education and National Scientific Research in opening this important new exhibit, “Lamba: Unwrapping Identity.”
This is not just another museum exhibit. This is the culmination of a long project and it represents elements of U.S.-Malagasy relations that are perhaps not well known to everyone here.
Following the first American-Malagasy treaty of 1867, the Malagasy queen sent gifts of cloth to the U.S. president. At the time, the U.S. Government reciprocated with the gift of a Singer sewing machine, a symbol of the new technological innovations of America at that time.
My diplomatic predecessor, William Robinson, America’s first Consul in Madagascar, received many gifts of cloth during his presence here from 1871 to 1886. During his tenure as America’s chief diplomatic representative in Madagascar, commerce between our two countries flourished. The U.S. exported manufactured cloth to Madagascar while importing goods of all types. Today, it is Madagascar that is exporting manufactured cloth to America.
Perhaps we should keep in mind the Malagasy proverb:
“Do not liken your friendship to a stone: if it breaks, you cannot put it together again; but liken your friendship to silk, for if it frays, you can stitch it and mend it.”
The relations between our two countries are certainly like silk. There have been frayed times in the past, but like the newly restored textiles in this exhibit, our friendship has been stitched and mended to a point where it is today as strong as ever.
I was struck when I recently read a portion of a letter written by Queen Ranavalona III to U.S. President Chester Arthur.
She wrote to our president:
“We understand that the policy of the American Republic is the extension of commerce, the increase of learning, the fostering of those manufactures that are of benefit to man and the upholding of laws that protect and make happy their citizens. We wish to benefit ourselves by these things.”
This sounds remarkably similar to the policies of my government today. We continue to search for ways through which Madagascar can benefit from these policies. For instance, through AGOA legislation, Madagascar gained access to the American textile market. Today the new USAID-funded BAMEX project is expanding Malagasy access to various markets. We know that Madagascar will soon benefit through the Millennium Challenge Account funding. Through numerous projects of USAID, the Peace Corps, and our Public Affairs Section, the increase of learning is a cornerstone of US-Malagasy cooperation. This project “Lamba: Unwrapping Identity” also has its educational components, first through the exhibit itself. But, also through arranged visits of classes of young people from their schools and through the school kits that have been created by the Museum of Art and Archaeology. At the time that Queen Ranavalona wrote her letter, preservation of the environment was not yet a major issue. Today of course preservation of the environment is an important area of cooperation between Madagascar and the US. You will see in this exhibit that the unique nature of these lamba was only possible because of the unique natural environment of Madagascar. The wild silk, the raffia palm, the tree bark and even the natural dyes used in some of the textiles: all these things were possible only because of the abundance provided by nature in the 19th century when these objects were created. The preservation and revival of these cultural traditions will only be possible if the natural environment is safeguarded.
Let me take a few moments to tell you a little bit of background information about the project that accompanied this exhibit.
This exhibit enjoys the prestige of being funded through the United States’ Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation. Since its establishment in 2001, this fund has given grants to over 200 projects around the world.
The fund was established by the U.S. Congress as a means for the American people to express their respect for other cultures. We seek to help developing countries in the process of preserving or restoring their cultural heritage. These grants are awarded through an extremely competitive process, and this is the first such project to be funded in Madagascar. While the total amount of financing given to each project is not enormous, a well-executed project, such as the one here at Andafiavaratra, says to the global museum and culture community that Madagascar has dedicated professionals capable of doing world-class museum work. This recognition in turn can be used to leverage more funds for other projects. We hope that today’s opening of the exhibit marks not the end of this project but rather the start of a renewed interest in preserving Madagascar’s cultural heritage by the international community and, more importantly, by all Malagasy citizens.
In carrying out this project, I am thrilled that we were able to bring two American experts here to Madagascar to work with all the Malagasy staff who dedicated themselves to this project. The exchange of expertise and ideas between cultures is one of the great benefits of this program. Julia Brennan, the textile conservationist who guided the cleaning and conservation efforts that made this all possible, said that she felt she learned at least as much as she taught during her time here. Upon her departure, she expressed hope that much of what she taught will be carried on and spread to other museums in Madagascar.
Similarly, Sarah Fee who came from the Smithsonian Institution to coordinate the design of the exhibit space, has long hoped for the opportunity to design a show of Malagasy textiles here in Madagascar to help raise awareness of cultural traditions of which many young people have lost sight. After the Smithsonian Museum of African Art mounted its enormously popular exhibit of Malagasy textiles in 2002, there was great hope that such a show could be exhibited here in Madagascar.
We are pleased to say that we went one better than that.
We have succeeded not only in mounting an outstanding exhibit, but we have trained a dozen Malagasy museum staff in conservation and storage techniques and we saved a unique collection of historic textiles from the period when the United States and Madagascar were first developing relations.
Now, 138 years after the first official gifts were exchanged between our two countries, I am proud to share in this gift created through cooperation between our two great nations.
Ladies and gentlemen beyond all the talk of diplomatic relations and the weight of history, I ask that you simply enjoy the exhibit, for above all, it is an exhibit of many beautiful Malagasy works of art.
Thank you very much.