June 30, 2006

Museum of the oppressed

Posted at 7:19 pm in Similar cases

France’s new Musée du Quai Branly aims to correct some of the faults of previous ethnographic museums. Where possible the provenance of artefacts is clearly marked & care has been taken to involve visitors more in understanding the context of the objects & to identify themes that run through parts of the collection. All this does not necessarily solve disputes, but at least the circumstances & location of the acquisition are noted.

Al-Ahram Weekly (Cairo)

29 June – 5 July 2006
Issue No. 801
Museum of the oppressed
The first major museum to be built in Paris for 30 years opened in the French capital last week, the cause of great public excitement and not a little controversy, writes David Tresilian

After 10 years of planning, more than five years of work, and with the personal prestige of the French head of state riding on its success, the musée du quai Branly, latest addition to the French capital’s already impressive collection of museums, opened in Paris last week.

Intended to be a showcase for the traditional arts and cultures of Asia, Africa, the Americas and Oceania, the museum is, in the words of French president Jacques Chirac, designed to “render justice to extra-European cultures and to recognise the place that their artistic expressions occupy in our cultural heritage…. Breaking with a long history during which these expressions have been looked down upon, it will give a just place to arts and civilisations that have been too long ignored or poorly understood, giving dignity back to peoples too often humiliated and oppressed.”

At first dubbed the “musée des arts premiers” and now being called, unofficially, the “musée Chirac” in a reference to Chirac’s personal commitment to the institution, the French president formally opened the Quai Branly museum in the middle of last week in the company of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and, still looking very sprightly for all his 97 years, Claude Lévi-Strauss, the world’s most eminent living anthropologist, before its opening to the public last Friday.

While a visit to the site on the quai Branly, a stone’s throw from the Eiffel Tower, a few weeks before had revealed that the extensive garden surrounding the museum building had not yet been planted and the high plate-glass screen fronting the Seine had yet to be fully installed, these things were reassuringly in place at the weekend for the hundreds if not thousands of people queuing from well before the museum opened to be the first to see the new displays.

While there have been some teething troubles, and neither the restaurant nor the building’s roof-top viewing platform were open last week, the new complex is a magnificent new addition to the French capital’s complement of museums, and it will be an essential stopping- off point for the millions of visitors who come to Paris each year.

Indeed, now that the new Quai Branly museum has taken shape and is very much up, running and welcoming visitors, it is hard to imagine why it has taken so long to build an institution of this kind dedicated to non- European traditional arts and cultures. It seems set to take up a central place in France’s cultural and intellectual life, as well as in that of much of the world beyond. In addition to the exhibition spaces, the museum also has a 390- seat theatre, named after Lévi-Strauss, a cinema, library, and extensive research and conservation departments, and it will host lectures, performances and public debates related to its activities.

There was an air of confident, if slightly nervous, expectation at the museum last week, as smartly uniformed young men and women, looking a little like Air France cabin crew and at home, it seemed, in several languages, waited to welcome the first visitors to the new displays. Set back from the Seine, the museum is almost directly opposite the site of the old ethnographical museum at Trocadéro where Picasso and other European artists once found inspiration in the “primitive” objects collected in the colonial period from traditional African and other cultures.

Called “quai Branly” after the area of the river on which it sits, the main museum building curves away from the road leaving large areas of this difficult-shaped site free for the carefully landscaped garden that, once it matures, should be a main attraction of the new complex.

A long, low design, looking something like the Californian office buildings seen on television and something like a construction inspired by children’s building bricks, coloured rectangular structures sticking out at right angles from its walls, the museum was designed by Jean Nouvel, one of France’s leading architects and also responsible for the Institut du monde arabe on the other side of Paris.

The latter building, one of the many grands travaux that transformed the face of the French capital in the 1980s under late president François Mitterrand, recalls the habit French presidents have of erecting memorials to themselves in the shape of prestigious public buildings. Mitterand named the gargantuan French national library, completed in 1998, after himself, and reports in the French press have spoken of Chirac’s pride in his new building, which may turn out to be an enduring memorial to his presidency when it ends next year, if one less Pharoanic in scale than those erected by his predecessor.

Part of the building on the street façade is covered with plants, forming a kind of “vegetable wall” that expresses the world’s biological diversity, and the building as a whole is full of diverting detail. The façade behind the museum has been decorated by Australian aboriginal artists, for example. Nouvel himself has described his building, built at a cost of over 300 million euros, as “a place marked by forest and river symbols and by an obsession with death and forgetting.” Designed around the collections that it contains, the building, he says, is intended to stage its own “dematerialisation”, “disappearing behind the sacred objects that it contains” and leaving the visitor in “a Paris garden that has become a sacred wood, in the depths of which the museum building has dematerialised.”

The collections housed in the new museum come from the French capital’s former anthropological and ethnographic museums, such as the musée de l’Homme, successor to the old musée d’ethnographie du Trocadéro that so entranced the European artists that discovered it a century ago, and the musée des arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie, which, now absorbed into the new museum, was once housed in the 1931 colonial exhibition pavilion at Porte Dorée. Altogether, the new museum has some 300,000 objects drawn from Africa, Asia, Latin America and Oceania, many of them collected during the French colonial period, explaining the museum’s particularly strong collections from West and North Africa and the Pacific.

More than 3,500 artifacts are on display in the permanent exhibition, three temporary exhibitions also marking the museum’s opening season. Laid out on mezzanine areas above the museum’s main exhibition platform, these include What is a Body, an anthropological exhibition exploring representations of the body in traditional African, European and Latin American cultures, Ciwara, African Chimeras, an exhibition of West African ritual masks, and Georges Condominas in Vietnam, an exhibition recording fieldwork carried out by Condominas, dean of South-East Asian anthropologists, in the villages of southern Vietnam.

Having passed through the garden area, lit, even in daylight, by translucent plastic tubes emerging from the soil, visitors enter the museum via a sinuous white ramp leading up from ground level to the exhibition platform mounted above the garden on pillar-type supports. This space, 4,750m2 in area, is divided into the four regions covered by the museum and contains the permanent collection. Even before the museum opened, commentators had dwelt on the problems likely to face an institution intending to display objects from extra- European traditional cultures, especially since many of these had been collected by individuals or institutions during the colonial period.

How, for example, might such artifacts best be presented within a European “art museum”, even one non-traditional in form, which tends to encourage certain forms of presentation and viewing? How could the museum’s presentation of works that might in many cases be considered to be of mainly anthropological or ethnographic interest, often consisting of religious, ritual and other artifacts, be done in such a way as to avoid their assimilation to “works of art”, a category that took on much of its present meaning in the 19th century, along with the public museums built to house it?

While the new museum certainly does not give definitive answers to such questions, it does respond to them in its design. There has been an effort, for example, to present the artifacts in context, showing how they might have been used or what their meanings might have been for the societies that produced them. Interpretative materials, notoriously inadequate in many European museums, give details of the objects’ provenance, and, where available, the date and circumstances of their collection. Attention is drawn to the forms of encounter between Europeans and non-Europeans and to the purposes and writings of the European collectors.

Care has also been taken to disrupt the viewing experience familiar from many museums, in which visitors are invited to gaze at rows of objects in glass cases. “Cross-cutting” themes are stressed instead that connect the artifacts in different ways, and visitors are encouraged to construct their own itineraries through the different regions of the exhibition. Ethnographic film and documentary material is used to contextualise the objects on display, and the viewing circuit is arranged as much like an obstacle course as a smoothly organised promenade, exhibition cases being set at odd angles to each other and set up in the middle of the space rather than being aligned along its walls.

The museum’s windows have been darkened by foliage-type prints, making the interior dark or “cave-like” according to the museum guide. Apparently designed to encourage a particular viewing experience, and certainly very far from the traditionally institutional lighting of many anthropological museums, this has the drawback of sometimes making the interpretative materials hard to read. If the museum intends to continue with this design, visitors might be encouraged to take a small torch for use in some areas if only to avoid straining the eyes.

However more than this, it is not clear why a “cave-like” atmosphere was thought appropriate for the objects on display, most of which certainly were not produced or used in caves. One criticism of this arrangement is that, like the emphasis placed on “vegetation” throughout the design, it encourages a way of looking at the objects that assimilates them to “darkness” and to “nature” in a contemporary rewriting of the traditional opposition between European civilization and the “primitivism” once thought to prevail elsewhere.

Whether or not one accepts this reading of the main exhibition area, it is certainly true that the temporary exhibitions arranged on the mezzanines are far better lit in natural light, and both African Chimeras and Georges Condominas in Vietnam are very good, rewarding shows.

The “one hundred representative works” from the traditional cultures of Asia, Africa, Oceania and the Americas that have been on show in the Palais des Sessions at the Louvre since 2000 are also conventionally displayed in spacious rooms that have nothing to do with either vegetation or caves. Indeed, this superb exhibition, particularly well documented with extensive notes on each object in three languages, will be kept on as a permanent annex of the Quai Branly museum.

By contrast, on opening day translations were often lacking at the new museum, and the labels on some objects were perfunctory and came nowhere near the high standards set at the Louvre.

However, these things are likely to be teething troubles, the Quai Branly museum setting new standards for the world’s anthropological and ethnographic museums. Certainly, there is nothing like it elsewhere in Europe, the far from adequate Museum of Mankind in London being closed in the late 1990s, for example, and its contents, most of them still kept in storage, crammed into the British Museum.

The distance between the new Paris museum and institutions such as the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Brussels, containing one of the world’s most important collections of Central African materials collected during Belgian colonial rule in the Congo (Democratic Republic of Congo), could also not be greater, the latter institution, last redesigned in the 1950s, still being arranged like a collection of curiosities.

It seems that France, in the potential represented by the new Quai Branly museum, may have suggested the way forward for others.
‘Primitive’, ‘first’, or ‘distant’? The politics of a name

Western attempts at exhibiting objects from extra-western cultures have often come to grief over the issue of terminology, as well as over the best way of presenting such materials.

While earlier European and North American writers wrote of “primitive” art when describing objects from Asia, Africa, the Americas or Oceania, objects which may not have been “art” at all in the sense they gave the term, this designation is not now acceptable.

The controversy arising from a famous exhibition held at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York in 1984, ‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, which looked at the ways in which early 20th-century European artists had appropriated the African materials brought to Europe during the colonial period, may have rung its death-knell.

For, while Picasso, Derain, Vlaminck and others may have been “modern” according to the conventions of western art history, followed by movements such as Dada and Surrealism also fascinated by extra-European traditional forms, what justice is there in describing the works they borrowed from as being either “primitive” or “tribal”?

Conscious of this problem, when the French government decided to build a major new museum for traditional extra-European arts, it did not have a ready-made vocabulary to hand.

“Primitive” was clearly out, but what about “first” ( premier )? This designation was meant to suggest the idea of “indigenous” art, being that produced by cultures that had flourished in areas later colonised by Europeans, such as aboriginal arts in Australia, or the arts of the North American Indians.

Unfortunately, “first” turned out not to mean much to focus groups, giving rise to different responses. Would it really work in languages other than French, in which the suggested name of “arts premiers” had a pleasant-sounding ring?

If “first” was unsuitable, the idea of arts coming from outside or far away was tried, giving rise to “arts lointains” (remote or distant arts), a long way, that is, from Europe. This, again, was judged to be ambiguous, even meaningless.

As a result, the new museum became the “musée du quai Branly”, soon perhaps to be referred to simply as the “musee du quai” or the “musée Chirac” after its most influential supporter.

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