"Every Place in the World on the Same Level!": Examining the Display of Non-Western Art at the Musee du Quai Branly

By Taylor L. Poulin
2010, Vol. 2 No. 03 | pg. 3/3 |
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The Musée du Quai Branly: New and Improved?

The Quai Branly sits along the River Seine, steps away from the Eiffel Tower, on the rim of the 7th arrondissement, one of the wealthiest and most bourgeois neighborhoods in the city. The Musée du Quai Branly was designed by renowned French architect Jean Nouvel and named for its location on the quai.39 The vision for the museum was modeled on that of the Centre Pompidou, a few arrondissements away; with a theater, restaurant, research libraries, multimedia resources, and a large plaza outside the museum for the public to gather and interact, the Pompidou was originally built as a space that offered both information and entertainment. So would the Musée du Quai Branly, but with a focus on “primitive art”.40 The Musée du Quai Branly could also be seen as an effort to fulfill roles that the Pavillon des Sessions and the Musée de l’Homme had not. The new museum was to be both didactic and aesthetic (even if, according to some, in a flashy way41), but ultimately, it does not dep from the patronizing and biased way its predecessors displayed non-Western art.

In 1999, architect Jean Nouvel won the competition to build the museum with his proposal for a complex that included four separate buildings and ample space for gardens, designed by Gilles Clement; one of these gardens was planted so as to find its way up the walls of the administration building next to the museum, creating an overall effect of a lush and vibrant atmosphere. The contemporary aesthetic and the verdant greenery were meant to “‘avoid all the habits of Western architecture’” and to be “‘the antithesis of a national palace’”.42 While this goal was meant as a nod to contextualization, one could also see the built environment of the museum as continuing to propagate old French ethnic biases. Upon entering the museum grounds, for example, one might infer that the antithesis of a national palace is a jungle. Referring to the overgrown gardens that envelope the administration building, one newspaper art critic mentioned the word “jungle” twice in his article, while another used it eight times and also included the word “wilderness” in his title.43 These references to a jungle conjure up less-than-positive word associations: wild, uncultivated, natural, primitive. None of the authors of these articles are French, but their comments were based in subjective examinations of the museum; regardless of their own possible biases, they were ultimately influenced by what they saw and felt—by the story the museum itself presented.

Returning to the museum’s interior garden, Jonathan Glancey of The Guardian, writing at the museum’s opening, notices that the vegetation will eventually conceal the museum, alluding perhaps to the mysteriousness of “the Other”. “Designed by Gilles Clement, [the garden] features oaks and maples, offset by magnolia, cherry, wisteria, rambler rose, wild clematis and giant Chinese creeper. When they are fully grown, Nouvel's work will be glimpsed between leaves, blossom and branches.”44 Christopher Steiner comments on this “illusion of discovery” in his article on the creation of value in the African art market: “There is a long-standing tradition…that involves [one’s] arduous exploration for genuine cultural objects—the more difficult the search, the more authentic the find.”45 Steiner expounds on the practice in the modern-day African art market of making new objects and manipulating them to appear aged and “authentic,” and then creating an environment through which European treasure-hunters must search to find that one “rare” item of inestimable value. Ultimately, the entire incident is a charade, with the European being tricked into thinking he is purchasing something of great value. With this in mind, it becomes evident that the glimpse one gets of the museum through the leaves is not entirely accurate.

Moving past the leafy exterior to inside the museum, the view does not change. Curatorially, the museum is an intriguing space. The rez-de-chausée containing the lobby is on level with the exterior gardens, and the second floor, which holds the permanent collection, is accessed by a winding ramp that weaves from the lobby up to the second floor and through to the end of its long gallery space. The third floor consists of a mezzanine and two more gallery spaces for temporary exhibits, while the top floor is home to the terrace restaurant. Unlike museums of Western art that are hierarchically arranged by country or period to show the progression of Western civilization,46 the different countries represented in the permanent collection of the Musée du Quai Branly—Africa, the Americas, Oceania, and Asia—are all located on the same floor, theoretically giving them all the same importance, as well as, in view of the fact that Western art is not displayed, a lesser importance than that of Western art. Michael Kimmelman writes, “No hierarchy, but no commonality either. Separate but equal. What links Vietnamese textiles with contemporary Aboriginal paintings with pre-Columbian pottery with Sioux warrior tunics with Huron wampum? Only the legacy of and the historical quirks of French museum collecting…”47 The motto of the museum, là où les cultures dialoguent—“where cultures dialogue”—reaffirms this interpretation: the museum presents a specific dialogue from which the West is absent.

The Museumgoers

Compliments

Not all the responses to the Musée du Quai Branly have been negative. Alan Riding of The New York Times supported the museum’s mission of treating non-Western art with the same care as Western art at the Louvre or Impressionist art at the Musée d’Orsay; he emphasizes the political statement the museum makes in declaring open to the world.48 Riding then quotes Chirac at the inauguration of the museum on June 21, 2009: “‘[The museum] aims to promote among the public at large a different, more open and respectful view, dispelling the clouds of ignorance, condescension and arrogance which in the past have often nourished distrust, contempt and rejection.’”49 Being open to other cultures is not the same as presenting them on an equal level, but, at least according to Riding, the Musée du Quai Branly seems to be a good beginning to this ultimate goal.

The museum is also supported—perhaps most importantly—by people of the very countries it represents. In her New York Times article “Immigrants Flock Proudly to the Musée du Quai Branly,” Caroline Brothers writes that “…[W]ord is getting out in immigrant communities throughout France that the space celebrates the patrimonies of their cultures as art.”50 Indeed, interviews with people throughout this article reveal that the museum is a platform for giving public weight to cultures that are otherwise neglected in France. This contradicts Nélia Dias’ argument that French Republicanism has all but confirmed the erasure of cultural diversity in the public sphere; however, Dias criticizes the French perspective of diversity. Brothers’ article emphasizes the immigrant perspective, presenting the museum in a positive light. Some visitors bring their children—who, born in France, are French nationals and often lack the opportunity to know or even to visit their parents’ country of origin—to show them products of their ethnic heritage. Others visit to view items that remind them of their childhood. One interviewee lamented the fact that the museum spoke too loudly of colonialism, but acknowledged the good in the fact that work of his was on display at all. “Whether for beauty, value or curiosity, all of the objects that belonged to us and to our ancestors were pillaged. What is positive is that they have assembled all that in once place.”51 Despite the critical eye directed toward the Musée du Quai Branly, many see it as a place of pride. This juxtaposition with the criticism of the museum makes coming to an ultimate decision about the its mission difficult.

Criticisms

Even before the Musée du Quai Branly opened, critics were already penning barbs and accusing the museum of maintaining stereotypes of “the Other”. Michael Kimmelman for The New York Times described the interior space as “an enormous, rambling, crepuscular cavern that tries to evoke a journey into the jungle, downriver, where suddenly scary masks or totem poles loom out of the darkness and everything is meant to be foreign and exotic.”52 Some have argued that the “cavern” of the building has overshadowed the collection. Jean Nouvel designed not only the shell of the museum but also everything within it, from the display cases to the restaurant on the roof; as a result, displayed objects were placed according to an already-existing architectural framework, rather than the other way around.53 This approach thoroughly deemphasizes the aesthetic qualities of the pieces on display, but perhaps since the “best” non-Western pieces were already in the Pavillon des Sessions, the aesthetic properties of the pieces at the Musée du Quai Branly were not taken into account.

Some have called the museum “kitsch,”54 accusing it of playing into stereotypical views of the countries represented. For example, a low, leather-clad wall runs the length of the second floor galleries on either side of a winding path that guides the visitor through the space. (This path is the extension of the ramp that brings visitors from the first floor.) The leather-clad wall is referred to as the “Serpent” which is fed by the “River” (the central path), which symbolizes the irrigation of the represented countries.55 The “Serpent” has contextualization elements built into it, as well as tools for visitors with disabilities. Despite the questions that arise as to why it was at all necessary to “stage” the permanent galleries this way, others took issue with the materials used for the walls. In an article for the London Review of Books, Jeremy Harding notices that, “…the leather upholstery on the partitions simply elevates a clunky failure of taste into an error of judgment: leather means cattle, cattle means pasture and pasture implies deforestation. Many of the pieces on show in the main gallery were produced by forest peoples.”56 This observation is similar to Jonathan Glancey’s previously mentioned remark about the exterior of the museum being covered in greenery; both of these elements of the museum environment conjure images of a stereotypically exotic, faraway land removed in almost every manner possible from the bourgeois neighborhood of Paris in which it is located.

Conclusion

Okuwi Enwezor writes, “…[B]eyond and national cultures, decolonization is more than just the forlorn daydream of the postcolonial artist or intellectual; for it has, attached to it, something recognizable in the ideals of modernity: the notion of progress.”57 Looking at the three spaces in Paris that have been devoted to non-Western art since the mid 20th century, it is clear that the evolution of a equal representation of non-Western cultures sans the effects of colonialism has not evolved along with the newly created spaces. The Musée de l’Homme, though opened with intentions of making visitors aware of racial differences, did not ultimately make its original goals its focus; instead, scientific research became its raison d’être. The Pavillon des Sessions in the Louvre took an entirely different view of non-Western art, presenting it in the manner of all other objects at the Louvre by showcasing the aesthetic qualities of the pieces, but at the expense of prominent contextualizing information. Finally, the Musée du Quai Branly, created as a place where non-Western art and the current president would be honored, falls short of presenting unbiased portrayals of the cultures it represents.

While there has been positive feedback by people of the cultures represented, some responses have acknowledged feeling the undercurrent of colonialism. Throughout each of these spaces, colonialism still rears its ugly head, while the French republican values and national identity largely shaped both the collections and the way in which they were regarded and presented. The French tendency to neglect racial differences while accepting broad cultural difference under the label of “citizen” prompted the division between the two; the presentation of art of other cultures thus does not take into account racial differences, resulting in a largely biased presentation. In a 1952 publication for UNESCO entitled “Race and History,” the eminent French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss writes, “We cannot claim to have formulated a convincing denial of the of the human races, so long as we fail to consider the problem of the inequality—or diversity—of human cultures, which is in fact—however unjustifiably—closely associated with it in the public mind....”58 Only when these biases are laid to rest, and cultures and their products are given true equal footing and presentation in all aspects, can progress in the French presentation of non-Western art begin to take place.


Bibliography

Brothers, Caroline. “Immigrants Flock Proudly to the Musée du Quai Branly.” The New York Times, 21 August 2009 http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/21/arts/design/21muse.html?scp=6&sq=Musée%20du%20quai%20branly&st=cse (accessed 30 November 2009).

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David, Douglas. The Museum Transformed: Design and Culture in the Post-Pompidou Age. New York: Abbeville Press, Inc., 1990.

Dias, Nélia. “Cultural Difference and Cultural Diversity: A Case for the Musée du Quai Branly.” Museums and Difference. Edited by Daniel J. Sherman, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008.

Dietler, Michael. “‘Our Ancestors the Gauls’: Archaeology, Ethnic Nationalism, and the Manipulation of Celtic Identity in Modern Europe,” American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 96, No. 3 (Sep., 1994).

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Dupuis, Annie. “À propos de souvenirs inédits de Denise Paulme et Michel Leiris: sur la création du musée de l'Homme en 1936 (A Few Thoughts Drawn from the Unpublished Memoirs of Denise Paulme and Michel Leiris about the Creation of the musée de l'Homme in 1936),” Cahiers d'Études Africaines, Vol. 39, Cahier 155/156, Prélever, exhiber. La mise en musées (1999).

Enwezor, Okwui. “The Postcolonial Constellation: Contemporary Art in a State of Permanent Transition,” Antinomies of Art and Culture: Modernity, Postmodernity, Contemporaneity. Edited by Terry Smith, Okwui Enwezor, and Nancy Condee. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008.

Gafaiti, Hafid. “Nationalism, Colonialism and Ethnic Discourse in the Construction of French Identity.” French Civilization and its Discontents: Nationalism, Colonialism and Race. Edited by Tyler Stovall and Georges van den Abbeele, Lanham: Lexington Books, 2003.

Glancey, Jonathan. “How does your gallery grow?” The Guardian, 26 June 2006, Art and Design, http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2006/jun/26/art.france (accessed 9 November 2009).

Gould, Cecil. The Trophy of Conquest: the Musée Napoleon and the Creation of the Louvre. London: Faber and Faber, 1965.

Harding, Jeremy. “At Quai Branly.” London Review of Books, vol. 29, no. 1, 4 January 2007 http://www.lrb.co.uk/v29/n01/jeremy-harding/at-quai-branly (accessed 10 October 2009).

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Laveissière, Sylvain. Napoléon et le Louvre. Paris: Librairie Arthème Fayard, 2004.

Levi-Strauss, Claude. Excerpts from “Race and History.” UNESCO Courier, December 2001 http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1310/is_2001_Dec/ai_82066713/?tag=cont ent;col1 (accessed 1 December 2009). First published in 1952 by UNESCO.

Price, Sally. Paris Primitive. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Riding, Alan. “Imperialist? Moi? Not the Musée du Quai Branly.” The New York Times, Art & Design, 22 June 2006 http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/22/arts/design/22quai.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq= Musée%20du%20quai%20branly&st=cse (accessed 30 November 2009).

Steiner, Christopher. “The Art of the Trade: On the Creation of Value and Authenticity in the African Art Market.” The Traffic in Culture: Refiguring Art and Anthropology. Edited by George Marcus and Fred Meyers, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.


1.) Sally Price, Paris Primitive, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007), 10.

2.) “The Postcolonial Constellation: Contemporary Art in a State of Permanent Transition,” Antinomies of Art and Culture: Modernity, Postmodernity, Contemporaneity, eds. Terry Smith, Okwui Enwezor, and Nancy Condee, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008), 224.

3.) Carol Duncan, Civilizing rituals: inside public art museums (New York: Routledge, 1995), 24.

4.) For the Louvre’s collection history, see Cecil Gould, The Trophy of Conquest: the Musée Napoleon and the Creation of the Louvre, (London: Faber and Faber, 1965), 46 and 59. For Napoleon’s scientific forays into Egypt, see Sylvain Laveissière, Napoléon et le Louvre, (Paris: Librairie Arthème Fayard, 2004), 17 and 20.

5.) “Art Museums and the Ritual of Citizenship,” Exhibiting Cultures, eds. Ivan Karp and Steven Levine (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991), 94.

6.) Owen Connelly, The French Revolution and the Napoleonic Era (Fort Worth: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1991), 71.

7.) Nélia Dias, “Cultural Difference and Cultural Diversity: A Case for the Musée du Quai Branly,” Museums and Difference, ed. Daniel J. Sherman (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008), 142.

8.) Ibid., 141-142.

9.) Ibid., 128.

10.) Price, Paris Primitive, 123.

11.) “Universality” here means equality only in citizenship, not in individuality. If France did what Le Guével seemed so repulsed by—put “every place in the world on the same level”—they would also have to acknowledge ethnic individuality. This is not accounted for in their constitution, therefore it is ignored.

12.) Tom Carr, “French History Textbooks as a Tool for Teaching Civilization,” The French Review, vol 59, no. 1, (Oct 1985), 35.

13.) Michael Dietler, “Our Ancestors the Gauls”: Archaeology, Ethnic Nationalism, and the Manipulation of Celtic Identity in Modern Europe, American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 96, No. 3 (Sep., 1994), 587.

14.) Hafid Gafaiti, “Nationalism, Colonialism and Ethnic Discourse in the Construction of French Identity,” French Civilization and its Discontents: Nationalism, Colonialism and Race, Eds Tyler Stovall and Georges van den Abbeele (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2003), 109.

15.) Ibid., 136.

16.) James Clifford, “On Ethnographic Surrealism,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 23, no. 4 (Oct. 1981), 553-554.

17.) Dias, “On Cultural Difference,” 129.

18.) Clifford, “On Ethnographic Surrealism,” 554.

19.) Annie Dupuis, “À propos de souvenirs inédits de Denise Paulme et Michel Leiris: sur la création du musée de l'Homme en 1936 (A Few Thoughts Drawn from the Unpublished Memoirs of Denise Paulme and Michel Leiris about the Creation of the musée de l'Homme in 1936),” Cahiers d'Études Africaines, Vol. 39, Cahier 155/156, Prélever, exhiber. La mise en musées (1999), 523.

20.) Clifford, “On Ethnographic Surrealism,” 550.

21.) Ibid., 558.

22.) It is currently being renovated into a museum that presents several aspects of the human nature as well as the relation of man to nature. Price, Paris Primitive, 108.

23.) “…leurs buts sont clairement définies : combler les lacunes des collections et documenter les objets ; sauver de l’oubli certaines civilisations que l’on croit vouées à une rapide disparition, tant est considérée comme acquise l’action “civilisatrice” de la colonisation : il faut donc se dépêcher de recueillir ce qui peut l’être encore…” from Dupuis, “Denise Paulme et Michel Leiris,” Cahiers d'Études Africaines, 512. Translation mine.

24.) Ibid., 85.

25.) Ibid., 95.

26.) Dias, “On Cultural Difference,” 132.

27.) Price, Paris Primitive, 11-18.

28.) Ibid., 35.

29.) Active planning began in 1995, when the Friedmann Commission was set up to explore the possibilities of allowing non-Western art into the Louvre. Consisting of French museum directors, scholars in art, anthropology and archaeology, and a representative of the Ministry of , the group focused on questions such as whether or not the space would be permanent, where the objects would come from, and what kind of didactic elements the galleries would offer. Ibid., 48-57.

30.) Ibid., 33-34.

31.) Ibid., 61.

32.) “On Cultural Difference,” 147.

33.) Ibid., 147.

34.) Ibid., 60-62.

35.) Conversation at the Laboratoire d’Anthropologie Sociale, 20 September 2005, quoted in ibid., 63.

36.) Ibid., 63-64.

37.) “A Heart of Darkness in the City of Light,” The New York Times, Art & Design, 2 July 2006, (accessed 10 October 2009).

38.) Ibid., 43.

39.) It was an interesting and ultimately evasive decision to name the museum after the quai on which it is located, rather than giving it a name that evokes the museum’s content. By giving the museum the generic name of its location, the French government managed to avoid nicely political issues that would have arisen if it had been given a more ethnic- or cultural-sounding name. See Kimmelman, “A Heart of Darkness,” The New York Times, 2 July 2006, as well as Price, Paris Primitive, 37 and 137.  

40.) For the Pompidou, see Douglas David, The Museum Transformed: Design and Culture in the Post-Pompidou Age (New York: Abbeville Press, Inc., 1990), 41. For the Musée du Quai Branly, see Price, Paris Primitive, 113.

41.) For a criticism of the Musée du Quai Branly’s aesthetic environment, see Kimmelman, “A Heart of Darkness,” The New York Times, 2 July 2006.

42.) Price, Paris Primitive, 113.

43.) For the first reference to “jungle” see Kimmelman, “A Heart of Darkness,” The New York Times, 2 July 2006. For the second, see Anthony Alan Shelton, “The Public Sphere as Wilderness: Le musée du Quai Branly,” Museum Anthropology, vol 32, no 1, 2009.

44.) “How does your gallery grow?” The Guardian, 26 June 2006, Art and Design, (accessed 9 November 2009).

45.) “The Art of the Trade: On the Creation of Value and Authenticity in the African Art Market,” The Traffic in Culture: Refiguring Art and Anthropology, eds. George Marcus and Fred Meyers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 152-155.

46.) For Western curatorial practice, see the example of the Louvre in Carol Duncan, “From the Princely Art Gallery to the Public Art Museum: The Louvre Museum and the National Gallery, London,” Representing the Nation: A Reader, eds. David Boswell and Jessica Evans (London: Routledge, 1991), 307-309.

47.) “The Heart of Darkness,” Art & Design, The New York Times, 2 July 2006 http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/02/arts/design/02kimm.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=michael%20kimmelman%20quai%20branly&st=cse (accessed 5 October 2009).

48.) “Imperialist? Moi? Not the Musée du Quai Branly,” Art & Design, 22 June 2006 http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/22/arts/design/22quai.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=Musée%20du%20quai%20branly&st=cse (accessed 30 November 2009).

49.) Ibid.

50.) The New York Times, 21 August 2009 http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/21/arts/design/21muse.html?scp=6&sq=Musée%20du%20quai%20branly&st=cse (accessed 30 November 2009).

51.) Ibid.

52.) Ibid.

53.) Price, Paris Primitive, 146-147, 163-164.

54.) Jeremy Harding, “At Quai Branly,” London Review of Books, vol. 29, no. 1, 4 January 2007 http://www.lrb.co.uk/v29/n01/jeremy-harding/at-quai-branly (accessed 10 October 2009).

55.) Price, Paris Primitive, 145.

56.) Harding, “At Quai Branly”.

57.) The Postcolonial Constellation, 225.

58.) Excerpts from “Race and History,” UNESCO Courier, December 2001 http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1310/is_2001_Dec/ai_82066713/?tag=content;col1 (accessed 1 December 2009). First published in 1952 by UNESCO.

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