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France’s new museum

A new museum, the Musée du Quai Branly has just opened on the banks of the Seine in Paris. The museum’s collection will be largely ethnographically based – in many ways similar to that of the British Museum for instance.
When interviewed about its opening, the French Ambassador to South Africa commented that all items in the Museum had been acquired with full respect to international conventions governing the purchase of antiquities – he then went on to add though that these conventions are of course not retroactive – a coment which suggests that many of the items in the new museum purchase before these conventions came into force were acquired by less honourable methods. Following on from this, he compares the circumstances of acquisition of the artefacts to those of the Parthenon sculptures in the British Museum – suggesting that “It would be unreasonable to judge the past against the standards of today.” A valid enough point – but is there not also an argument that we should not continue to perpetuate the actions of our predecessors which are frowned on nowadays – on the basis that it is safer to try & preserve the status quo?

Business Day (Johannesburg) [1]

South Africa: Art: Musee Du Quai Branly
Business Day (Johannesburg)
June 12, 2006
Posted to the web June 12, 2006

Alex Dodd

LISTED as an absolute must-do on the European happenings circuit, this month’s opening of MUSÉE DU QUAI BRANLY in Paris is likely to be greeted with less unadulterated glee this side of the equator, where postcolonial temperatures tend to run a lot hotter.

The museum, to be opened formally by French President Jacques Chirac on June 20, has been built to house 300000 artefacts from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas. Of these, 429 pieces originate from SA.

Being hailed as a masterpiece, the building is designed by leading French architect Jean Nouvel to occupy a Unesco world heritage site on the banks of the Seine, near the Eiffel Tower.

“Not since the Pompidou Centre in 1997 has Paris had such a large, new, modern museum,” beams Sophy Roberts in the Financial Times glossy How to Spend It. Clearly, How to Spend It is not the correct platform for the voicing of postcolonial discontent, but there are likely to be some murmurs, if not loud indignant cries, of “return the pillaged colonial loot” from this less polite, more wounded hemisphere.

“Wounded” is perhaps too polite a word. Embittered might be a better way of describing arts and culture department spokesman Sandile Memela’s reaction to the recent Picasso and Africa show at the Standard Bank Gallery, which stirred up a hornet’s nest of race sensitivity in relation to cultural production. As that debate simmers down to a mild boil, along comes the opening of Musée du Quai Branly to test the inclement global waters once again.

The new museum unites the collections of the National Museum of Arts from Africa and Oceania with those of the Ethnological Laboratory of the Museum of Mankind. The Musée de l’Homme is a much-contested institution in these parts, having housed the remains of Saartjie Baartman, the Khoisan woman who was exhibited as a curiosity in the salons of 19th-century Paris. Baartman’s remains were returned to her land of birth on May 3 2002, but up until 1974 her skeleton, preserved genitals and brain were on display in the museum.

The world has come a long way since then and this museum is being launched to “celebrate the universality of the human spirit through the diversity of art and to encourage a new perspective, more respectful and more open to sharing and to dialogue, to these cultures and these civilisations”. The official vocabulary has that tender texture of kid gloves about it. And crucially so. The tinderbox of current Parisian street politics must have contributed to the careful wording.

The list of guests from SA seems less diplomatic. It’s not that there’s any problem with who’s on the list (William Kentridge, Jane Alexander, Marilyn Martin, Breyten Breytenbach and Lindsay Hooper, curator of the African collection at the South African Museum), but who’s been left off it. That not a single black person cracked the nod for an event as sensitive as this one seems ill advised, to say the least.

“The creation of the Musée du Quai Branly is the result of a political desire to see justice rendered to non-European cultures,” reads a statement by Chirac, “to recognise the place their artistic expressions occupies in our cultural heritage, and also to acknowledge the debt we owe to the societies that produced them, as well as to their countries of origin, with many of which France has especially close ties.”

At a press conference held in Johannesburg last week, French ambassador Jean Félix-Paganon pointed out that Musée Quai Branly had followed a strict code of ethics for acquisitions and that the curators regularly consulted the “red list” on works originating from countries at war or experiencing conflict. “Of course, these conventions have no retroactive effect,” he said. “But is the frieze of the Parthenon considered colonial loot? It would be unreasonable to judge the past against the standards of today.”

Responding to concerns about the museum institutionalising difference, he said museums were frequently specialised according to place and period. “There is a museum of Asian art in Paris, Musée Guimet, and nobody says it is racist. The spirit behind this museum is to treat the works as equal and living, and not as artefacts or ethnographical testimony to a culture.”

The museum has been conceived of in a discursive, multifunctional spirit, being at once a cultural centre, a research and teaching venue, a site for live shows and a multimedia library.

“Everything is controversial, particularly in SA,” said the wise diplomat. “There will probably be polemics, but it is good to have debates. When the Eiffel Tower was built, it was considered an insult to good taste. Now it is considered as the symbol of Paris.”

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