Graeme Were, UCL Museums & Collections
Since its opening last year, critics have declared Chirac’s museum of ‘primitive art’ in Paris – better known as the Musée du Quai Branly – as ill-judged, neo-colonial, and racist to list just some of the negative terms deployed. If those weren’t strong enough, the new museum has even been dubbed the ‘Musée des bogus arts’ (Fiachra Gibbons, The Guardian, 3 July 2006) and less flattering still, France’s answer to the Millennium Dome, but even more of a folly. Oh dear – could it get any worse? Yet amid the jibes and controversy, art critic Jonathan Jones of The Guardian (The Guardian 1 Nov 2006) courageously breaks rank and hails the new ethnographic museum to be a thrilling spectacle that rekindles that ‘spirit of amazement’ that our Enlightenment ancestors would have marvelled at. In view of his wholehearted endorsement of the museum, perhaps all this commotion could be put down to another case of French bashing by disgruntled Brits. Having received several invites to visit the museum, I finally took up the offer and decided to find out once and for all what the fuss was all about.
The Musée du Quai Branly stands on the Left Bank of the Seine on the Quai Branly not far from the Eiffel Tower. The museum itself is striking, designed by Jean Nouvel the French architect responsible for the Institut du Monde Arabe among other places. Situated amid a garden with meandering pathways, the museum immediately imposes its presence on the visitor as you enter it beneath raised stilts holding above cube-like structures painted in earthy colours. I was pleasantly surprised to see, as Jonathan Jones points out, there are long queues of people avidly waiting to get in.
Once entering the main museum entrance foyer, you are greeted by an elevated glass structure inside which contains musical instruments on open storage. This is incredibly impressive. However, one is left wondering whether this is merely an aesthetic touch or that the storage feature has become integrated into the display as a functioning visitor / collections space in an attempt to salvage them from dusty store rooms. A temporary exhibition space is located to the right, currently housing an exciting installation by African artist Yinka Shonibare as well as a major collection of New Ireland art from Papua New Guinea.
The main displays are located on the first floor. To reach this space, you follow a circular ramp which gradually winds around the musical instrument storage area and climbs upwards. As you walk along the elevated ramp, your senses are immediately stimulated by moving film images beamed onto the floor in front of you depicting indigenous performances accompanied with sounds coming at you from many directions. I found this captivating but uneasy about the thought of people trampling over the film footage.
On reaching the main area, visitors enter Oceania, one of the four continental sub-spaces that the floor is divided into (each space was divided by earth coloured walls – note no Europe). Okay, this may be problematic in that it is inherently ethnocentric, but for many visitors this is very logical – the same spatial arrangement was deployed in Liverpool’s World Museum to good effect. The space itself was also very crowded, reminiscent of my visit to the Velasquez exhibition at the National Gallery. But what struck me most in the Quai Branly was how the displays were set up. I found that the entire space was badly lit – it was in fact deliberately dark with lit cases to draw the visitor to the object. Minimal labelling accompanied the objects on display – this exhibition certainly fell into the aesthetic mode of representation.
I spent some time in the Oceania area and the glass cases there displayed objects typologically: you could find outstanding examples of Papuan Gulf shields alongside those from various provenance of the Sepik; as well as a range of shell valuables side-by-side from across Melanesia. There was scarcely any attempt to provide interpretation and engage with the objects on display: little if any explanation as to why these objects were collected, when and how they relate to today; and certainly no photographic imagery to give historical depth or presence. Indigenous voices were muted except for the odd film of a performance which again remained unexplained. An amazing glass orb stood in the centre of Oceania showing moving images of distances between Europe and the Pacific Islands as well as the routes of famous European voyages of discovery – this Euro-centric perspective summed the museum up well. In effect, the visitor was treated to range of outstanding and exemplary objects from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas firmly looked at from a western viewpoint.
Although I totally disagree with Jonathan Jones’ review – since his opinion only reinforces critics’ concern of celebrating the western gaze – he does however raise one important point about the practice of exhibiting and representing culture. He believes the aesthetic approach succeeds because anthropological interpretations of ethnographic collections are watered down so much so that the explanations appear so rational that they are ‘woefully inadequate in looking at works of art from any culture’. Perhaps he has a point. Having worked with the curators and designers on the Centenary Gallery in the Horniman Museum in London – a reflexive display of ethnographic collecting over a century – the display cases that appear to hang from a gridlike structure from the ceiling are meant to evoke the Mondrian painting Broadway Boogie Woogie, an image that for the curator and designers, encapsulates western modernism’s desire to categorise. How that concept is conveyed to the public is sadly lost.
What then should the ethnographic museum of the 21st century look like? How are we to design displays that bring to the fore the issues that we explore in anthropology and material culture whilst allowing the public room to engage with our work? How are we to deal with open storage given the unnerving fact that most ethnographic collections continue to be housed in dusty storerooms never to be displayed? Why are we still susceptible to pressure from trustees and stakeholders that ensure that archetypal ‘treasures’ continue to reaffirm our notion of the Other? Perhaps there is more to be learned from the Quai Branly after all.
Graeme Were, UCL Museums & Collections
Just to note that James Clifford has an article on Quai Branly in the latest issue (spring 2007) of October, the journal, entitled Quai Branly in Process which comments on the opening of the museum in 2006, particularly focusing on the Pacific exhibits.
The article is currently on Free access:
Paul Basu drew my attention to this review also – with a rather nice slide show:
Greame. I haven’t read your article yet, but I am a little surprise by the pictur on the top. THis is not a Musée du Quai Branly installation…
Thanks for that comment Philippe. I’ll speak to the editor who mounted the photo – they obviously haven’t been to the museum!
Editors note: Not sure what that image was, but it was obviously not from Quai Branly, so I’ve taken it down for the time being. We welcome reader’s images if anyone has been to the new Musee..
Thanks Graeme, for your probing questions. Having just returned from a conference at the quai Branly, I have many still-unresolved impressions. The biggest problem, for me, of the “aestheticization” program as implemented here is that it is completely married to one of de-politicization and de-historicization. A few examples:
– The main intro label invites visitors to embark on a “voyage of discovery” (that hackneyed trope) among objects assembled over 5 centuries, the “fruits of France’s contacts with non-Western cultures.” Please, a tidbit of reflexivity about colonialism need not be of the self-flagellating type, and would be a welcomed anecdote of accuracy here.
– The Africa hall is lined with this series of little alcoves for different ethnic groups, each showcasing the dramatic objects in extremely varied material contexts (small dark spaces, high light spaces, wood paneled rooms, simulated rock caves, etc). I assume that the curators hoped to simply communicate something like African “cultural diversity” (a laudable enough goal) through the diverse ways they thought to aestheticize the objects. But to me the whole thing reeks of some interior design exercise (wood paneling for warm objects, polished stone for cold) or those old museum and gallery exhibits that aimed to convince consumers of the suitability of “primitive art” for modern furnishing (the “see how good this looks over your couch” brand of installation).
– Regarding the Northwest Coast (of North America) material, there are recurring inaccuracies: in the exhibit, labels describing cultural practices (e.g. the potlatch) are all in the past tense; in the ”masterpieces” catalogue entry for a mask, it mentions that the Haida were “wiped out” in the 19th century; in the thick museum guidebook, it claims that that Mungo Martin was the “last totem carver” in the 1950s. This is all careless scholarship at best, but historically, culturally, and politically irresponsible at worst.
Perhaps the most telling and encapsulating moment for me came when Emmanuel Désveaux (main curator of the America’s hall) gave the conference group a tour. He paused at a couple Northwest Coast objects and declared: “These are very important pieces. We’re very proud of these. We don’t know anything about them, but this one used to be owned by Lévi-Strauss, and this one by Andre Breton.” Forget about cultural or historical significance; the aesthetic gaze of brilliant Frenchmen alone grants these particular objects their value.
I’m willing to entertain the marginalization of “ethnographic context” in order to highlight aesthetics, and even the effort to maintain classic structuralist “logic” in the formal arrangement of otherwise unrelated objects; both strategies can grant the viewer a kind of reflective space to encounter the amazing things on display. But it need not all be so rife with error, innuendo, and insulting oversight.
I have gone back to Quai Branly a number of times since most of the crowds and the press renounced the issue of everything and anything concerning the museum. Last time was for the final days of the “Objets Blessés. La réparation en Afrique” exhibit on September the 16th. The exhibition presented a number of varied objects (recipients, music instruments, sacred masks, symbolic statues…) from all over the continent that had at one point or another been repaired. Undeniably a lot of the major criticism made in Kimmelman’s article (New York Times of July 2nd 2007) still holds: the space is dark, the earthly colors symbolizing the different non-European “colonized” regions of the museum are still used, the labeling is concealed and minimal, (and I would even add that the quite bluntly demeaning display, or storage, of the traditional musical instruments in the circular ramp is still, very present), yet, this exhibit fulfilled the museum’s, a little simplistic yet very hopeful motto, “Where cultures converse,” in a particularly poignant way.
Through the exhibit the curator offered a space to be intellectually and aesthetically stimulated with objects that both African or Western cultures unanimously rarely see as profound: the broken, and then repaired, object; the result of humanity’s recessions, negligence, misery and/or scarcity. The exhibit, hence, forces both “cultures” to ponder upon the invisibility of their material forms. In the West, its voracious consumerist ways of colonial and present days, generally tends to throw broken objects before repair, while in Africa, the financial poverty and economic necessity to repair, turns recycled objects into everyday facts. The exhibit propses broken objects as means to ponder upon widespread human ways: our unbelievable reliance on material goods and simultaneously our universal denial of them.
The Quai, unlike the Louvre, should not only so boringly, yet beautifully like Kimmelman seems to want, place non western art in sterilized environments like unanimated objects set in the passed. Their meaning can be much more powerful when they honestly participate in the international cultural debates at large today. Those repaired artifacts’ resonance would be silent, I believe, if they still lay in the Louvre’s transparently and well lit cases.