Museum Anthropology

The Public Sphere as Wilderness: Le Musée du quai Branly



This article has the dual purpose of first describing the Musée du quai Branly and secondly critically evaluating its espoused intentions, its reception and its potential disciplinary, political and museological implications. The first part of the essay is approached through the analysis of a selection of newspaper reviews, and a comparison between these and institutionally sanctioned views of the Museum as expressed by some of its principal functionaries and instigators. The essay concludes by discussing whether the function and organization of the museum as a public space significantly differs from earlier projects undertaken on the eve of the 21st century.

The Musée du quai Branly is a blood-red knife that rips open the pleasing and repressed story of Paris.

Lisa Rochon, “Thorns in Paris's Garden”

The public opening of the Musée du quai Branly on June 23, 2006 polarized critics and delighted audiences (Brothers 2006; Wecker 2006). With the launch of the project ten years earlier, the contestation between two essentially polarized views of museums of non-Western objects as scientific or aesthetic spaces, or more implicitly, given their particular history, as neo-colonial or post-colonial projects, was moved from the academy and museum world into the public sphere. Newspapers and magazines including Le Monde, Le Figaro, Figaro Magazine, The International Herald Tribune, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Time Europe, TheWellington Dominion Post, Newsweek, and the London Review of Books ran generally supportive and even enthusiastic reviews at the time of the Museum's opening, while Libération, The Times, The Independent, The New York Times and the Vancouver Globe and Mail took more critical positions.

Some reviews were clearly tainted by the political debacles that accompanied the Museum's gestation and merely reiterated previously stated positions without regard to its planned future development. Others sidestepped the political and interpretive issues entirely. Of the two articles featured in Libération on June 21, one by Antoine Guiral (2006) described the inauguration ceremony at the Elysée Palace, while the second by Nathalie Bensahel (2006) reported on the Museum's small staff and the short-term contracts that most of them were given. The International Herald Tribune, focused on the commission awarded Naoki Takizawa for the Museum's curtains (Menkes 2006). Many reviews commented positively on the architecture (Albert 2006; Dickey 2006; Glancey 2006; Le Monde 2006a; Ouroussoff 2006; Prat 2006; Rochon 2006). The Times articles on June 17 and 21 raised old rivalries between the Gallic and Anglo American cultural and art worlds, but otherwise added little to the debate.

This article is intended generally as a review of reviews, but primarily it aims to give a provisional critical evaluation of the Museum's espoused mission, its reception, its potential disciplinary and museological implications, and its position in relation to France's changing geo-cultural politics. I conclude by discussing the potential of the new institution to radically change the general terms of debate between art and cultural institutions and in particular between the disciplines of aesthetics and ethnography.

Architectural Provocation or Jungle Paradise?

The quai Branly, the first new national museum to be established in Paris since the opening of the Centre Pompidou in 1977, staged its weeklong opening, amidst great fanfare, in June 2006. The inauguration speech and reception given by Jacques Chirac, in the presence of Kofi Annan, Rigoberta Menchu Tum, Paul Okalik (the Premier of Nunavut) and Claude Lévi-Strauss in the Elysée Palace on June 20, 2006, was followed on the 21 by a review of experts and museum professionals, and on the 22 by a reception for the diplomatic corp and the Parisian elite. Quai Branly opened its doors to the world on June 23, with an extended weekend that alone attracted 30,000 people (Brothers 2006).

The public announcement of its impending opening began six months earlier with an advertising campaign on the Paris metro, though curiosity and intrigue had already been sown over the past decade and half by the steady flow of newspaper reports on the controversies, soaring costs, and the protests and diatribes between its various supporters and detractors. By June, banners announcing the Museum's imminent unveiling decorated the Charles de Gaulle airport (figure 1) and the enthusiastic reviews from the French Press, particularly Le Monde and Le Figaro, backed by extensive television and radio coverage, contributed to the long cues in which expectant visitors, in the week that followed, waited for up to two hours to gain entry. During the first day of its operation it attracted 8,757 visitors (Wecker 2006), and although expecting only around 2,000–2,500 after that, it continued to average 4,500 persons per day (Brothers 2006). Six months later, it still attracted large weekend crowds proving, if anything, that anthropology museums need not be dull (Harding 2007). This makes one earlier official estimate of receiving one million visitors in its first year of operation, tailing off to around 600,000 thereafter, conservative, to say the least.

Figure 1.

 Advertisment for the opening of the Museum at the airport Charles de'Gaulle, June 2006 (photograph by the author).

The effect of re-organizing the collections of the Musée de l'Homme and the former Musée National des arts d'Afrique et d'Océanie (MNAAO) to create the new museum had a dramatic effect on the whole French museological landscape. The closure of the MNAAO freed its building in the Porte Dorée to provide the home for the proposed Musée National de l'Histoire de l'Immigration. The redistribution of the Musée de l'Homme's European collections, to be amalgamated with those of the Musée National des Arts et Traditions (closed in 2005), will form a new Musée de l'Europe et de la Méditerranée in Marseille due to open in 2011. The Musée de l'Marine will be refurbished, while the Museum of French Monuments and the National Institute of Monuments have become amalgamated and rebranded the Cité de l'architecture et du patrimoine in the refurbished east wing of the Palais de Chaillot. Facing the sleek buildings of the quai Branly on the opposite bank of the Seine, stands the melancholy corpse of the Musée de l'Homme, which in the summer of 2006 appeared almost abandoned, desolate, nearly devoid of visitors and empty except for an ironic, but disappointing exhibition on birth for which its designers had misguidedly given its galleries the appearance of dreary mid century hospital wards (cf. Harding 2007). In the course of time, it too will be refurbished and refocused on human biology.

The political importance of the quai Branly is reflected in its budget and the impressive array of architects commissioned to submit tenders, Tadao Ando, Renzo Piano, Norman Foster, and Ken Koolhass. The contract was finally awarded to Jean Nouvel for a design that has been repeatedly described as “striking” without being “monumental” and supposedly more sympathetic towards its content and purpose than any of the other submissions. A mélange of four architectural styles break up any monolithic institutional façade, all of which eventually will partly disappear in the lush gardens, designed by Gilles Clément that will grow to surround them. The permanent gallery, a long sinuous structure, 220 meters in length, studded with 26 boxes that jut out of its north side, is raised 10 meters off the ground allowing the public to walk underneath, amidst plants, shrubs, and pools, to the ticketing office (figure 3). The gallery, following perfectly the curve of the Seine and level with the treetops, is surmounted by a terrace restaurant giving panoramic river views. The permanent exhibition gallery is joined to a circular silver louvered building partly nestled under it, that houses the ticketing office, the Garden Gallery, a huge exhibition space intended for temporary and traveling exhibitions and the auditorium named in honor of Claude Lévi-Strauss (figure 4). The Garden Gallery is the largest of three temporary exhibition areas, the other two being irregularly shaped mezzanine spaces suspended over the main permanent exhibition hall. A third mezzanine area contains interactive databases that provide access to collection-based information. The library of 300,000 volumes from the Musée de l'Homme, a lecture theater named after Jacques Kerchache, a cinema and research hub is housed in a more conventional building, while the administration wing overlooking the Seine is cushioned behind a hydroponic wall designed by Patrick Blanc covered with over 15,000 plants (figures 2 and 5). The fourth building with its asymmetric walls flanking the Rue de l'Université, houses a boutique, bookstore, and the conservation laboratories. The total built area amounts to 29,450 square meters with 7,500 square meters given to gardens. The area dedicated to temporary exhibitions is roughly equal to 6,000 square meters and is indicative of the potentially different foci the Museum is able to choose.

Figure 3.

 Exterior of the permanent exhibition gallery, June 2006 (photograph by author).

Figure 4.

 Garden gallery with the bookshop and boutique and conservation department in the distance, June 2006 (photograph by author).

Figure 2.

 Exterior of the administration and research buildings, June 2006 (photograph by author).

Figure 5.

 Hydroponic wall on the administration building, June 2006 (photograph by author).

Jonathan Glancey, writing for The Guardian, described the visitor experience as “a walk in the woods, through a flow of buildings set back from the Rue de l'Université that nevertheless form a whole” (2006:13) and endorsed Jean Nouvel's vision for the complex as “a building nestled in the landscape and awaiting discovery, intended to serve as a home to these different forms of arts rather than an example of western architecture” (Glancey 2006:12). For Marie-Douce Albert, in Le Figaro, the Museum represented a collection of architectural styles and constitutes more a “territory” than a single built structure.

Branly, en effet, est un ensemble d'edifices trés divers. Les façades des annexes sont tatôt tapissées de verdure, hérissès de brise-soleil ou sobrement vitrées pour laissser transparaître des peintures réalisées par des artistes aborigines. [Branly is indeed composed of a diverse set of buildings. The facade of one of the annexes is covered with greenery, the other is protected with blind-like structures, while the last is plainly glassed in so as to let Australian Aboriginal paintings show through.]

[Albert 2006]

A 12-meter high glass wall along the embankment shielding the Museum from the sound of traffic and doubling as a billboard announcing its varied programs completes the illusion of an exclusionary reserve.

Some Museum staff remarked that Nouvel designed the building to fulfill an established curatorial program but emphasized subsequent consultation with them was minimum, while others have said he worked closely with its President, Stéphane Martin. Nouvel, sidestepping the issue, told Richard Lacayo and James Graff: “This is the first time I've been able to work like this, around a collection, and it has been formidable to create harmony between the nature of the place and the objects” (in Lacayo and Graff 2006). The complex has been referred to as a collective work involving 25 collaborators working with Nouvel, including landscape architects, museologists, conservators, curators and Aboriginal and African artists (Le Monde 2006a), though how much autonomy any of these had is questionable. Sally Price reported the strong-arm tactics used to ensure the Aboriginal artists complied with the architectural vision of the project and some employees complained of coercion (2007:147). Whatever the case, disregarding dispersions on the hydroponic wall, which supposedly causes excessive humidity in the offices behind it; the underground collection storage areas that are claimed to be susceptible to flooding due to their proximity to the Seine (Dupaigne 2006:189); and the controversy over disabled access (Roger 2006), the building's public spaces achieve a high degree of functionality.

Externally and internally, the building uses subtle colorings, rusts, sand-like orange, pale blues, earthen ochre and brown and aubergine, while the glazing on the south side of the exhibition hall, protected by rust colored brises-soleil, has plant motifs that echo the garden surrounding it and the vegetation growing off its walls. The effect that this achieves for the architectural critic of the New York Times, “evokes an abandoned city, sprinkled with French modernist landmarks, that has been taken over and transformed into a wondrous collage” (Ouroussoff 2006). The “building” he goes on to say: “Creates a Kaleidoscopic montage of urban impressions” (Ouroussoff 2006). Lisa Rochon concurred referring to it as “a rare architectural provocation,”“a sketch of the impulses of urbanity,” and “a factory in the Garden of Eden” (2006:R3).

For most reviewers the most unsettling part of the permanent gallery was the “serpent,” a twisting low walled structure that marks out a path, “la rivière,” that funnels visitors from one area of the hall to another (Clifford 2007:10; Harding 2007; Kimmelman 2006; Lacayo and Graff 2006; Rochon 2006). Although described as a “tactile area,” specially adapted for handicapped visitors, this brown molded leather structure conjured for me the Dogon's Bandiagara Mountains, and echoed perhaps the most famed of the former Musée de l'Homme's collecting expeditions (Africa is the strongest area represented in the collection with approximately 90,000 objects) (de Roux 2006a). Apart from embedded texts in brail the “serpent” also discreetly houses film monitors and, in the pre-Columbian area, a series of decidedly low tech but effective viewing scopes that open out on Mayan archaeological sites. Critics (Clifford 2007:12; Price 2007:146) have rightly noted that this strange structure separates contextual information from the exhibits, maintaining an unbreechable aesthetic halo around the artifacts themselves. James Clifford worries that if the virtual tools for contextualizing the exhibits are ignored or go unused the whole spectacle could become like a “magical theme park” that at best might be thought exciting, but at worst, superficial and confusing (2007:12). For Jeremy Harding the serpent is kitsch, an aesthetic embarrassment that “simply elevates a clunky failure of taste into an error of judgment” (2007:32).

Rochon found “the museum offered an aesthetic experience that is by turns exhilarating and jarring. Pathos and disjointed narratives are its chief preoccupations” (2006:R3). Molly Moore, in The Washington Post, advised visitors to “toss out all preconceptions” (Moore 2006) of what museums are supposed to be like. The quai Branly has no corridors or hallways and deliberately breaks away from traditional codes governing the way internal spaces are supposed to work. The permanent exhibition hall is entered via a twisting ramp way alternating between areas of light and dark, that first curves around a glass cylinder that projects from the basement to the top floor and serves as a visible storage area for the musical instrument collection. The cylinder holds five floors of racks containing 9,500 instruments divided by type. Although closed to the public, it has outward facing video screens illustrating different types of instruments accompanied by sound clips.

Naoki Takizawa, the creative director of Issey Miyake, was commissioned to design the Museum's curtains, which were intended to be an extension of the architecture. The ground plan of the Museum, he recalled, reminded him of the silhouette of a pregnant woman bringing life and water to bear on his creation. The texture of the cloth was intended to represent the surface of water while the curtain in the auditorium, volcanic lava. “The brown color of the auditorium curtain represents the red soil of the earth, and the printed copper foil on the surface, the life force lurking in the lava” (Menkes 2006). Nouvel's “obsession of death and forgetting” (Bremner 2006) is therefore tempered by Takizawa's inclusion of themes of life and rebirth, completing the cycle of creation.

As in his other buildings, Nouvel designed the Museum's display cases and interpretive platforms. The glass cases, whose structure has been minimized to fade into the gallery, are either unusually high or placed side by side at eye level to allow better viewing of smaller objects. These frameless cases house the majority of the gallery's 3,500 objects, which despite being described as a “reference collection” were chosen by aesthetic qualities. Lit by a combination of internal fiber optic and LED lights together with external spots, the overall look of the permanent exhibition hall is of a dark dramatic space that despite high levels of reflection, allow the objects to pop out in remarkable singularity (figure 6). The box-like projections off one side of the permanent exhibition hall were envisaged as “sanctuaries” for artifacts either made of or containing human remains or endowed with extraordinary spiritual powers according to Germain Viatte, the museologist responsible for the installation (Musée du quai Branly 2006:8). Véronique Prat (2006) described them as containing exceptional pieces or objects related by a common theme. Notwithstanding the architect's intention, Christopher Dickey interprets the cubes as resembling “darkened huts from the inside” (2006). This is the opposite effect of the white cube of the art gallery and detracts from its desired impact through being too dark, having too much glare, and by making it difficult to see where the case glass ends and the glazed walls begin. Overall, most reviewers suspended judgment on the success of the building's interiors. Harding, however, commented: “As for exoticism, it's hard to say how the new museum scores until some of the grotto effects are taken away. The silly leather partitions should go and the Tarzan décor should be washed off the windows” (2007:33). Clifford provides what is probably the most succinct summary when he writes “[in the] quai Branly, ‘illusion’ and the ‘work of art’ coexist uneasily with the realism of ethnography and history” (2007:5).

Figure 6.

 Interior. Beginning of oceanic displays, June 2006 (photograph by author).

Interpretation: Gauguin and the Two Rousseaus Meet Aristotle

Michael Kimmelman, one of the quai Branly's strongest critics, writing in the New York Times, is unequivocal: “If the Marx Brothers designed a museum for dark people, they might have come up with the permanent-collections galleries; devised as a spooky jungle, red and black and murky, the objects in it chosen and arranged with hardly any discernible logic, the place is briefly thrilling, as spectacle, but brow-slapping wrongheaded” (2006).

On the contrary, according to the Museum's functionaries, objects are meaningfully placed but are also intended to encourage visitors to feel the thrill of deciding their own journey through the hall. The main exhibition gallery is divided into four continental areas each flowing into one another, but demarcated by different colored vinyl floors. Objects were grouped by type. According to Viatte:

The itinerary has been designed to instill a sense of wonder in the visitors, and a desire to deepen their knowledge. Their wonderings are punctuated by thematic sequences in which objects illustrating a given subject throw further light upon the cultures that produced them. The presentation as a whole is crossed by transversal sequences highlighting cultural relationships and influences present in worlds more interdependent upon one another than might be imagined.

[Musée du quai Branly 2006:8–11]

If there is any failure, it lies not with the architecture or technical display of the art, but with the interpretation of the collections. This is difficult to assess and has made most non-academic critics focus on the architecture and the rhetoric around the new Museum. During the press call on the 21 of June, floor finishes were still being laid, vitrines still awaited cleaning, lighting had not been adjusted and a few areas and cases were devoid of objects. Even when these had been nearly remedied by the following day, parts of the permanent gallery lacked text panels and labels and most of the monitors were still not working making it easy for critics, like Kimmelman to dismiss the exhibition as a decontextualized, over-aestheticised spectacle. Tom Dyckhoff described it as a “blot,” an “epitaph for a botched President” (2006), which he further clarified by comparing the building—“eccentric, incoherent and full of unresolved doubts” (2006)—to Chirac's own character. Bernard Dupaigne (2006:212), the former head of the Musée de l'Homme's Laboratoire d'Ethnologie, dismissed it as a new formulation of a colonial museum; while others mused about whether it is still defensible for the West to continue to hold the art they “took” from their subjected dominions. Marina Bradbury reiterated the critics charge of it being “patronising and racist” (2006). “Its very existence is an assault on aboriginal peoples around the world” according to Rochon (2006:R3). Concerns like this had already been voiced in 2001, when Benoit de l'Estoile argued that to prevent the Museum from becoming analogous to former colonial exhibitions, it needed to solely focus on historical cultures or ensure a dynamic coverage of their present and future (Amato 2006:60). As Harding observed however:

When the Republic extends the courtesy of “identity” to other cultures, it is rebuffed as a condescending, assimilationist ogre acting in bad faith; when it grits its teeth and prepares to celebrate “difference,” it is accused of exoticism or thought to be in the grip of a cultural hallucination brought on by the return of jungle fever.


Such impassioned attacks were, therefore, probably unavoidable.

There are undeniable disquieting effects in the quai Branly's presentation. The overall darkness surrounding the brilliantly lit jewel-like cases conjures fantasy images of the “Dark Continent” that reference discredited notions of primitive mentality, primordial origins and pre-Enlightenment worlds, what Jean-Loup Amselle referred to as conjuring “delicious fright” (2005). For Harding the overall effect of the gallery is to evoke “a fantasy of pre-contact worlds adrift in benign and fertile obscurity” (2007:32) before noting, “… vitrines are beautifully illuminated, like sacred objects in a series of clearings” (2007:32). Kimmelman referred to the Museum as “a heart of darkness in the city of light” (2006). The famous Fon anthropomorphic figures from King Glélé's Royal Palace (Republic of Benin) look out from a darkened angular recess. In another cube, Congo minkisi figures, formerly acclaimed as “fetishes,” are displayed on a barely lit series of surrounding pedestals, while elsewhere an impressive group of Vanuatu mummies stand facing the onlooker who is pressed close to the vitrine by surrounding isle cases (figure 7).

Figure 7.

 Interior. Mummies, Vanuatu, June 2006 (photograph by author).

While highlighting the objects, the darkness defines an absence radiant with older prejudices and presuppositions about these objects that is quite at odds with the institution's commitment toward vanquishing any hierarchy between the world's artistic traditions and aesthetic sensibilities. Moreover, the lush gardens with which Clément has surrounded the Museum and the etched botanical illustrations on its glazed walls reference Jean Jacques Rousseau's visions of original nature. Even the pillars supporting the raised section of the permanent gallery are intended to evoke trees prompting Dickey to suggest the jungle motif to be overdone and bordering on condescension. The same issue was raised by Gilles Manceron, an historian and civil rights proponent who likewise accused the jungle theme as perpetuating traditional stereotypes of non-Western people living in a state of savagery (Bremner 2006). The winding pathways, meant to encourage visitors to experience their sojourn as a kind of expedition, do little but add to this impression. For Kimmelman the main gallery is “an enormous, rambling, crepuscular cavern that tries to evoke a journey into the jungle downriver …” (2006). In contrary fashion it has been described as a giant hammock hanging above a garden (Le Monde 2006a). The jungle motif when it was first proposed, prompted Geneviève Welcomme, writing in Le Croix in 2000 (in Dupaigne 2006:98), to compare the grounds to a “sacred grove,” a phrase repeatedly used by its architect that resonates with James Frazer'sThe Golden Bough (1890). Enlightenment philosophy, Paul Gauguin's Tahiti, and the Douanier Rousseau's Parisian junglescapes seem to collide with Aristotelian theories on the determinacy of nature on character, or Lucien Lévy-Bruhl's ideas on primitive mentality being a response to intimidating and fearful environments. These contradictions are never resolved and appear to proclaim a new hagiography superseding the latent surrealization of “primitive art” championed by André Breton, Max Ernst, Wolfgang Paalen, and other artists who had become romantically attached to the galleries of the Musée de l'Homme.

On the positive side, the sheer amount of temporary exhibition space indicates the institution's commitment to greater and more in-depth coverage of world cultures; its disavowal of terms like “primitive,”“primordial,” or “tribal” arts, and even its suggested post colonial designate, “arts premiers” (a term proposed by Pierre Gaudibert, a former curator of the Musée d'Arte Moderne and preferred by Chirac and Kerchache) points to the possibility of a new kind of engagement. While the term has been heavily criticized as a new foil for “primitive” art, Dominique Michelet, director of research at CNRS, has argued that the concept behind it, “arts des premières nations,” distinguishes it as derived from “autochtone,” native, an appellation that supposedly avoids connotations of the primitive (Amato 2006:61).

Many reviewers reiterate that the Museum has been called Chirac's greatest legacy for Paris (Bradbury 2006; Bremner 2006; Glancey 2006; Harding 2007) and may soon bear his name. In Chirac's eyes at least the quai Branly is a post-colonial museum, an aspiration also supported by Jean-Yves Marin, Director of the Musée Normandie in Caen (Le Monde 2006b). The Museum's collections will be liberated from their interdependence on other French national narratives. No longer will they be seen as tools used by painters like Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Wilfredo Lam, Max Ernst, or Joan Miro, nor as muses as they were for writers like Henry Roussel or Antonin Artaud, nor even as inspirations for new philosophical views of the world as with the Orientalists and the Surrealists (the relationship was only picked up by Dickey), but as original and unique creative expressions in their own right.

Chirac repeatedly claimed there is no hierarchy between the arts just as there is none between peoples and voiced his desire that the young, disaffected population of Parisian immigrants will warmly embrace the Museum. His inauguration speech emphasized French recognition of cultural plurality, the importance of dialogue between cultures and the country's openness to the wider world; ideals that were also intended to subtly criticize United States political belief in the supremacy of its own culture (Bremner 2006). For Chirac the quai Branly is intended to dispel ignorance and arrogance and promote a more open and respectful public view of the cultures and arts it represents. In his inauguration speech he observed:

Au Coeur de notre demarche, il y a le refus de l'ethnocentrisme, de cette prétention déraisonnable de l'Occident à porter, en lui seul, le destin de l'humanité. Il y a le rejet de ce faux évolutionnisme qui pretend que certains peoples seraient comme figés á un stade antérieur de l'évolution humaine, que leurs cultures dites “primitives” ne vaudraient que comme objets d'étude por l'ethnologue ou, au mieux, sources de'inspiration pour l'artiste occidental. [At the heart of our approach is the rejection of ethnocentrism, of this unreasonable pretension of the West to hold within itself the destiny of “Humanity.” Our approach is centered around the rejection of the false evolutionism that claims that some peoples remain in an anterior stage of human evolution and that their so-called “primitive” cultures are merely worth serving as objects of study for the anthropologist, or, at best, as an inspiration for the Western artist.]

[Le Monde 2006b]

Furthermore, the Museum is a form of homage rendered by France:

[D]es peuples auxquels, au fil des âges, l'histoire a trop souvent fait violence. Peuples brutalisés, exterminés par des conquérants avides et brutaux. Peuples humiliés et méprisés, auxquels on allait jusqu'à denier qu'ils eussent une histoire. Peuples aujourd'hui encore souvent marginalisés, fragilisés, menacés par l'avancée inexorable de la modernité. Peuples qui veulent néanmoins voir leur dignité restaurée et reconnue. [Peoples who have been brutalized, exterminated by harsh and instable conquerors: people humiliated and scorned, of whom it was even denied that they had a history: people often still marginalized, enfeebled, threatened by the inexorable advance of modernity; people who nonetheless want recognition and a restoration of their dignity.]

[Chirac 2006]

The Museum's President, Stéphane Martin, concurs:

Quai Branly is less a museum than a cultural complex. The arts hold top billing, no doubt, but so do music, dance and civilization. In addition, the museum is also a campus for students, and researchers who can study the collections in exceptional conditions. It is this coexistence between scientists and the public that will make Branly such a unique place.

[Bure 2006:68]

For Martin, it is a new kind of institution, empowered by the fracture between ethnography and aesthetics and conservation and research that will fulfill both a popular public function as well as provide a research and teaching institution for national and foreign investigators. In a conversation with Charles Bremner, Martin stated, “We want to be a portal, an interface between Western and non-European societies” (Bremner 2006). This seems part of a more general rethinking of what constitutes the essence of Francophone culture. Moving away from purist and essentialist categories France may be embracing a more intercultural perspective that allows it to point to some of the positive effects of its colonial post. According to Martin: “We eat Thai, our tattoos are Polynesian, we dress African and do our hair in Antillais [Caribbean] style. All that means that the notion of cultural purity on which many former ethnological museums rested makes no sense today” (Brothers 2006).

Jacques Friedmann, the Museum's Honorary President, expressed his hope that the Museum will also include contemporary art, an important area in which to trace the workings of interculturalism (de Roux 2006d). Though, with the exception of a number of Aboriginal acrylics, contemporary art was largely missing from the current reference collection, it promises to be an important thread running through future temporary exhibitions. Furthermore, because the ministries of education and culture and communication both fund the Museum, there is huge potential, far from obliterating the memory of the defunct Laboratoire d'Ethnologie of the Musée de l'Homme, as Dupaigne (2006:198) claims to be the objective of the new museum, to build on its enviable reputation while encouraging new lines of research. The success of the Museum in the end will depend on whether the rhetoric informs the practices that the new infrastructure can so evidently support (cf. Marin 2006). Put another way, as Clifford astutely notes, it remains to be seen whether the inherent contradictions between the different agendas represented within the quai Branly will bring into being a very different kind of institution than Chirac and Kerchache ever intended (2007:22).

“Glacial Responses:” Two World-Views, Two Museums, and Two Auditoriums

Amselle (2005) noted that the quai Branly project seemed to have been trapped from its inception. How, he asks, will it demarcate and legitimate the borderline between art and non-art? Are the arts of the rest of the world less primal than those represented in the quai Branly? Does it not reproduce the old dichotomy between Western and non-Western art museums? And what are the implications of excluding European and Islamic art? Ambiguity around the Museum has inevitably been provoked by the often-unrestrained cultural politics that date to the inception of the ideas underlying it in 1990 (cf. de Roux 2006b, 2006c; Le Monde 2006c). These have pitted anthropologists against politicians and aesthetes in a battle that was seen as a struggle between popularism and elitism, scholarship and emotion, science and commerce, colonialism and post-colonialism and provincialism and universalism. Neither the Museum as it stands today, or its future potential can be gauged without first understanding the painful period of its gestation.

The driving force and fundamental idea behind the quai Branly was first aired by the much vilified art collector, dealer and adventurer, Kerchache. Ignored by François Mitterand (in 1984 he wrote him advocating the inclusion of arts premiers in the Louvre), a chance meeting with Chirac in 1990 led to a close friendship based on their shared passions for non-Western art. The idea of curating a 1994 quincentenary exhibition in Paris that instead of celebrating Columbus' discovery of America, was focused on the civilization of the Taino was quickly endorsed and supported by Chirac and constituted the first of three bold projects that would bring the two men increasingly close together. Kerchache played a crucial role in shaping the aesthetic and what for him was a radical anti-ethnographic agenda. While his refusal to acknowledges the existence of any essential hierarchy between the world's art was opportune, his acerbic personality and his vehement opposition to anthropology and ignorance of the substantial contribution generations of curators at the Musée de l'Homme had made to the understanding of comparative aesthetics was vastly detrimental to the whole project. The archaeologist Michel Colardelle, writing in 1998 about the acrimonious split between “aesthetic” and “scientific” camps of curators, characterized their relationship as one of “reciprocal contempt” (Price 2007:107).

As early as 1962 when André Malraux, then Minister of Culture, re-designated the Musée de la France d'Outre-Mer at the Porte Dorée, as the MNAAO and placed it under the administration of the Musées de France, the idea of recognizing the universal aesthetic supposedly common to all artistic creativity had become an important pillar of Gaullist cultural politics. For Kerchache the fulfillment of such a view could only be realized once the Louvre had extended its coverage to the art of the whole of humanity. Later, he saw this as only the first step in a wider presentation of arts premiers to be housed in a reformed Musée de l'Homme. Claude Lévi-Strauss had put a similar position forward in the 1940s (Corby 2000:6). Although now criticized by many anthropologists, including Maurice Godelier, Chirac readily adopted the first part of Kerchache's crusade, which he easily imposed over the objections of the Louvre's director, Pierre Rosenberg and his curators, after becoming President.

This was not the first time that non-Western art had breeched the walls of the Louvre. As Price (2007:30) reiterated, the Museum's forerunner, the Musée Dauphin, as early as 1830 included ethnographic works that were not removed until the 1870s when they were re-housed in the newly constructed Palais du Trocadero. Calls for replacing such collections in the Louvre were never entirely silenced and were made by, among others, the poet, Guillaume Apollonaire, the anarchist, Félix Fénéon and the art dealer Paul Guillaume (Price 2007:35).

Organized by Kerchache and the architect, Jean-Michel Willmotte, between 1998 and 2000, 117 “master works” of non-Western art were placed on “permanent” exhibition in the Louvre's Pavillon de Sessions. Using items taken from the collections of the Musée de l'Homme and the MNAAO, the exhibition not surprisingly was arranged solely on aesthetic criteria that emphasized the individual creativity of their makers over the works' social or functional context. A prominent advertising campaign using images that illustrated various non-Western art pieces, including two extraordinary Inuit masks acquired in 1999 from the Breton collection, polemically proclaiming “we too are the Musée du Louvre,” succeeded not only in attracting three million visitors between 2000 and 2006, but also helped win support for a future museum based on Kerchache's aesthetic viewpoint. Kerchache and Willmotte's strategy further alarmed anthropologists and ethnographic curators alike who predictably accused them of decontextualizing objects and reappropriating them within European narrative traditions, based on Western individualism. The Louvre exhibition was accused of attempting to incorporate non-Western art and culture within a French hegemonic cultural politic. The well-orchestrated public criticism of Kerchache led some independent observers to believe he was being unfairly vilified (Corby 2000:4), and his questionable escapades and adventurous past led to others identifying him as a French Indiana Jones, or more benignly, Tin Tin (Price 2007:15–17). Kerchache had anticipated his critics. In an October 9, 1999 article by Prat in Le Figaro Magazine (quoted in Dupaigne 2006:104), repeating his view of the inability of anthropologists to recognize the formal aesthetic qualities of art, he tauntingly challenged them that if they were to arrange an exhibit of the Venus de Milo, it would undoubtedly be contextualized by positioning the sculpture between two mannequins, the one playing a flute and the other dressed as a shepherdess holding goat cheese.

This gulf between most anthropologists and Gaullist cultural politics began to widen in 1995 when Chirac voiced his view that ethnology and art were two quite separate things and the following year when he established a commission, under Friedmann, to examine the future of arts premiers in Paris. The commission reported that the distinction between ethnographic and art museums was no longer intellectually justifiable and recommended that the ethnographic collections of the Musée de l'Homme and MNAAO should be brought together. In October of 1996 Chirac announced the creation of a new Museum of Civilizations and Arts Premiers. Initially, the intention had been to establish a new department of Africa, America, Oceania and the Arctic in the Louvre by 2002 and to enlarge, renovate and transform the space occupied by the Musée de l'Homme in the Palais de Chaillot by removing the naval museum to the building occupied formerly by the MNAAO at the Porte Dorée. Germain Viatte, the former Director of the Musée de Arte Moderne, and the Musées de Ville de Marseilles, along with Kerchache as his advisor, were appointed to direct the establishment of the new institution in 1997, joined at the end of 1998 by Martin as President. These appointments exacerbated the rift between the supporters of the new Museum and anthropologists including Louis Dumont, Daniel de Coppet, and Philippe Laburthe-Tolra, along with members of the Ethnology section of the CNRS, who supported the approach of the Musée de l'Homme. The Laboratoire d'Ethnologie of the Musée de l'Homme established a Committee of Defense that by using the Internet organized a public petition against “the destruction of the museum,” which by 1997 had attracted 10,000 signatures. The same year the Musée de Marine organized its own defense committee and with the support of the Ministry of Defense, defeated plans to re-locate it. In February 1998, Chirac announced that the new home for the future Musée des Arts et des Civilisations, would be built at 29-55 quai Branly. The director of the MNAAO, Jean-Paul Martin, added his own voice against the plans for a museum of arts premiers and in 1999 was supported by André Langaney, Director of the Musée de l'Homme's Laboratoire d'Anthropologie biologique, who decried the lack of intellectual credibility around the project.

In an attempt to placate anthropological furor and to better represent the Ministry of Education that had been responsible for the Musée de l'Homme's collections, in 1997 Maurice Godelier was appointed scientific advisor with a mandate to develop a research and teaching agenda and advise on more anthropological type presentations. He began by successfully contextualizing the arts premiers that Kerchache had installed in the Louvre, before advocating more geographically based and thematic exhibition strategies in the quai Branly itself. His suggestion that exhibitions be based on great universal themes that tied humanity together—sexuality, death, exchange, the representation of power, heterosexual and homosexual rituals, religion, gods, spirits and ancestors, the body, the life cycle, the production of riches, ways of understanding the environment and human impact on it, and craft and technology—however, were ultimately unacceptable to Viatte and Kerchache and, with unexpected reductions in the research and teaching budget, in 2002, he withdrew from the project. While Godelier's vision that visitors to the quai Branly should be able to “pass from the joy of seeing to the joy of knowing” (in Price 2007:50) may have been at least partly fulfilled, his championship of it being a post-colonial museum can be seen by the lack of history in the permanent gallery to have been firmly rejected. With the Museum seeming to abandon its promised research and teaching functions and the retrenchment of the aesthetic camp, despite Kerchache's death the same year, the desperation of the Musée de l'Homme's staff was exacerbated and in November 2001 they went on strike. Staff withdrew their reluctant collaboration completely from the Project, and by 2002 were organized to prevent the removal of the Museum's collections. While the holdings of the MNAAO were relocated at its closure in 2003, not until the next year were they finally amalgamated with those of the Musée de l'Homme, when the Easter Island figure collected by Pierre Loti that had graced its foyer was finally carried away.

There were other well publicized debacles that the Musée du quai Branly had created for itself (de Roux 2006b, 2006c; Price 2007:67–80); the acquisition of looted or illegally exported artifacts, its extravagant acquisitions, the loss of the Pimpaneau Collection (Chirac authorized the expenditure of $28.7 million acquiring around 8,500 new works, while refusing to purchase this important Asian popular culture collection), the escalation in cost from 167 m in 1998 to 235 m in 2006 (Prat 2006), and rumors of corruption, but the antagonisms between Chirac, Kerchache and their emissaries against their ethnographic detractors and the dehistoricization of the permanent gallery will mark the development of the institution for years to come. Symptomatic of the conflict was that few former employees of the Musée de l'Homme, unlike those of the MNAAO, were transferred to quai Branly. Whether such antagonism masked more fundamental conflicts growing out of “power plays and interpersonal rivalries” as Viatte claimed (Price 2007:56), or outdated understandings of anthropology and art, remains to be ascertained. Paradoxically, because it has been so public, so bitter and so protracted the conflict between ethnographic and aesthetic interpretation may be one of the Museums enduring legacies. This fundamental antagonism is not only represented in the origin of its collections, derived from two fundamentally different institutions, the one an art museum and the other ethnographic, but was commemorated in the quai Branly's very fabric by naming its two auditoriums after the aesthete Kerchache and the chief anthropologist to support the project, Claude Lévi-Strauss.

Regardless of the intellectual accomplishments of the staff of the Musée de l'Homme, it is indisputable that its permanent exhibition galleries were old and out of date. For the most part badly lit and crammed into outdated metallic cases arranged in serried lines, collections appeared unused, uncared for, and incapable of engaging most of their visitors. Conditions were worse still in the stores where meager budgets had prevented the adequate conservation and care of the collection. The institution had been racked by internal conflicts at least since the 1970s. Between 1985 and 1995 attendance fell from 350,000 to 175,000 (Price 2007:85), and after Emile Biasini failed to get Mitterand to honor his 1992 promise of two hundred million francs to renovate it, the Museum stumbled from crisis to crisis (de Roux 2006c).

The Political Culture of Aesthetic Universalism

The first temporary exhibitions at the quai Branly indicated a different approach than that in the permanent gallery. The exhibition, Qu'est-ce qu'un corps?, curated by Stéphane Breton, was remarkably interrogative, concerned with using ethnographic examples from the West and elsewhere to raise questions about concepts of the body (figures 8 and 9). Using multimedia presentations, photographs, an installation, and African masks, the exhibition took a fertile approach resonant of the Année Sociologique a century ago, treating anthropology as a comparative study of ideas, a kind of empirical philosophy that seeks to dislodge cultural prejudices by juxtaposing them with alternative held beliefs. Emmanuel de Roux's (2006e) review described it as a conceptual exhibition, that followed a different approach from the mainstream but that was eminently anthropological. The second exhibition revolved around the French anthropologist Georges Condominas, author of the acclaimed monograph Nous avons mangé la forêt (1957) and a critic of the American Government's use of ethnographic research during the Vietnam War. Curated by Christine Hemmet, this was an historical, ethnographic, and biographical exhibition that included Condominus's notebooks, publications, and photographs. The third exhibition, curated by Jean-Paul Colleyn, centered on the Museum's collection of Bambara ciwara, Ciwara: Chimères Africaines, combined ethnographic, historical and stylistic perspectives. All three were reviewed by de Roux (2006f) and, by integrating visual seductiveness, aesthetic presentation, and ambitious interpretive texts, were acclaimed as having fulfilled the Museum's “double vision.”

Figure 8.

 Temporary exhibition on the body, June 2006 (photograph by author).

Figure 9.

 Temporary exhibition on the body, June 2006 (photograph by author).

These three exhibitions went behind the old and immensely futile contrasts between anthropological contextualization and aesthetic approaches to recognize both as valid methodologies, but methodologies that are themselves implicated within modernist discourses and themselves reconstitutive of any idealized originating context. Godelier's ethnographic exhibition criteria were as predictable and well established as those of Kerchache, but the interstices between the epistemologies on which they are predicated and between these and other narratives are redolent with promise. Viatte sees the quai Branly as “an ever changing forum for discussion” that will encourage debate through its theatre and cinema, as well as through teaching and research to enrich “the links that should be developed between the various networks that animate modern-day intellectual and artistic life” (Musée du quai Branly 2006:11). Martin agrees that in addition to recognizing the formal qualities of non-Western art, it is “equally important to highlight their social, historical, sociological and sometimes even psychoanalytic diversity” (Musée du quai Branly 2006:5). Later exhibitions on the Benin artist Romuaid Azoulay and the London based Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare as well as another on the photographic collections of the 19th century explorer Désiré Charnay seem to fulfill this wider mandate (de Roux 2006d). In September 2006, the Museum opened its first large scale exhibition, D'un regard l'autre, comprising of over 1,400 paintings, drawings, photographs, sculpture, and weapons, about changing European perceptions of African, American, and Pacific cultures from the 15th to the mid–20th century. Here at last was an historical show that, beginning with European depictions of anthropomorphic creatures and wild men, advanced to de Bry's prints of Native American savagery (c. 1590), to an impressive assemblage of Albert Eckhout's paintings of native Brazilians (1640s). The show continued with drawings made on Cook's voyages, and a presentation of the documents and collections made by diplomats, soldiers, and traders. The exhibition also included thematic presentations, on the modeling of 17th century maps, for example, on the human body, and the impact of non-Western art on 20th century European artists. The exhibition finished with a trophy display of miscellaneous weapons, and a selection of anatomical heads modeled on diverse ethnic groups, which were intended to illustrate supposed differences in brain size. The exhibition was notable for its size and comprehensiveness and the deconstructive gaze it placed on past European concepts of the “Other.” It was, however, regrettable that it did not continue its disquisition into the present.

There are many more important debates than that between scientific ethnology and aesthetics that have too often been ignored, but which with race riots exploding across France in 2005 and debates about tougher new immigration policies, need be given greater prominence. The efficacy and constitution of the quai Branly's public sphere appear initially to differ little to that of most majoritarian museums of the 19th and 20th centuries. The debates they host remain stuck between similar agencies and publics, blind to the diminishing possibilities for reconciliation and consensus building between different segments of their population. It is still possible that the danger of further social ruptures may encourage more radical re-institutionalizations of public narratives by the state itself, such as in the recent opening of the Islamic Gallery within the Louvre.

Despite the widely felt misgivings among academic commentators on the permanent exhibitions, quai Branly's temporary exhibition program already shows a new critical slant that has been notably absent from other ethnographic museums in Europe and North America. In the main such museums have failed to question the fundamental categories on which they are based or contribute to the development of a new dialogue between the world's cultures and aesthetic sensibilities (Shelton 2001a:145, 2001b:227). Moreover, they have shied away from redressing the fracture that divides them from the communities and nations they claim to represent. To paraphrase Clifford, exhibits need to reflect “excluded experiences, colonial pasts and current struggles” (1997:122); they need to subvert the art culture dichotomy; local and community histories need to be inscribed into gallery interpretations; and collections need to be presented “inscribed within different traditions and practices, free of national, cosmopolitan patrimonies” (1997:122).

There are no native voices or colonial histories in the quai Branly. To cut colonial history from art (or anthropology) and institutionalize them separately, the one in the center of Paris, the other on its periphery in the Porte Dorée, represents the kind of depoliticized Kantian rationalism that has become only too transparent as ruling ideology. Both aesthetics and ethnography gain their legitimacy from the same epistemological program and represent different but no less problematic recontextualisations of cultures geographically and/or historically removed from their sites of origin. Martin and Viatte acknowledge that the quai Branly may at the very least change the terms of the public gaze away from looking at an object as standing for a society or race humiliated by western colonial science to representing an expression of aesthetic genius (in Amato 2006:55). This change of terms appears to be at the heart of a wider reorientation of French cultural politics. Amselle (2005) has drawn attention to the growing cultural and artistic engagement between France and her former African colonies that are producing an increasingly integrated intercontinental cultural landscape. Amselle (2005:52) referred to this as “Françafriche” and identified writers, choreographers and festival organizers who see the future vitality of French culture being dependent on renewal from the periphery. Price (2005:138–139) reported similar processes in Guyana where painters, carvers, and performers are encouraged with state and European Union subsidies to develop their talents and interpret their work through western discourses that favor symbolic exegeses, thereby amalgamating their French citizenship with their exotic cultural inheritance. If the quai Branly sees itself as part of this new project of cultural (and political) renewal, it is not surprising why so few contemporary indigenous artists have been critical of it. Maori artist Fiona Pardington referred to museums as “Western receptacles at their worst” and admitted to being impressed by the Museum's engagement on critical issues (Venter 2006:8). Her support appears to be reiterated by many of the Museum's immigrant visitors who, we are told, have overwhelmingly expressed their appreciation at seeing their cultural heritage exhibited in such a prominent Parisian location. Provisional visitor statistics seem to indicate only about a third of visitors are tourists, with 60% of the remainder made up of habitual museum goers and the remaining 40% comprising “a new museum-going public” attracted by the links the Museum provides between them and their cultures of origin (Brothers 2006). If the Musée du quai Branly is part of this cultural and political re-alignment of the French state, it is not alone. Since the appointment of Henri Loyrette as its director, the Louvre has taken an increasingly globalized path. It has instituted joint archaeological, museological and exhibition projects with Iran, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, and Sudan, increasing visitor numbers from 5 to 7.5 million in five years and shedding some of its elite pretensions (Melikian 2006).

As part of its opening ceremonies the quai Branly invited Bruno Latour to organize a series of eight roundtable discussions between distinguished scholars of non-Western art, visual culture, and museology to debate the central problems that affect contemporary museums. Panels discussed the implications of the ethnographic/aesthetic dichotomy on exhibitions, the differences between modern, contemporary and traditional art, issues over ownership, whether museums are secular, ritual, or multipurpose spaces, the preservation and collection of intangible cultural property, the purposes of museums in urban areas, international cooperation, and the meaning of the concept of authenticity. However, a museum with the resources of the quai Branly can do better than reiterate well-trodden ground. There is ample room to explore the nature of the epistemologies underlying Kantian and Hegelian aesthetics, to compare them with those of other societies, a kind of comparative epistemological and aesthetic exercise, which directly leads to questions of the gaze and their relation to indigenous forms of knowledge. There is the little developed branch of philosophical anthropology that through the work of Ernst Cassirer and Susanne Langer again returns us to questions of the nature of aesthetics, the efficacy of objects, and our perception of the world. Linguistic and phenomenological studies of the language and experience of connoisseurship has hardly been examined. Anthropology is rich with avenues prematurely closed to research, many bordering on adjacent disciplines, that interdisciplinary discussion can reinvigorate. Such discussions need to include indigenous peoples along with this international intellectual elite. While the opening of the Louvre to the public in 1793 represented the emergence of the museum as part of a new bourgeois public sphere that was to become characteristic of capitalist societies, it is conceivable that the Musée du quai Branly, at the beginning of the 21st century, could either come to be regarded as merely heralding the last painful gasps of the old museum model, or become representative of a new direction for refocusing such institutions. The coexistence of radical and contradictory agendas underlying the foundation and operation of the quai Branly, with their complex political, cultural, and intellectual interactions may produce, as their temporary exhibition program seems to imply, a very unique institution that might yet challenge some of our most dearly held museological presuppositions.


I would like to thank Sarah Carr-Locke for assisting in editing the final draft of this paper and Solen Roth for her expert translations of French texts into English. I am also grateful to Hadrien Laroche, cultural attache at the French Consulate in Vancouver and the French Embassy in Ottawa for kindly funding my trip to attend the remarkable opening of the Musee du quai Branly.

Anthony Alan Shelton is the Director of the Museum of Anthropology and a Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. He is the author of numerous essays and the editor of Collectors: Expressions of Self and Other (Horniman Museum and Gardens, 2001), Collectors: Individuals and Institutions (Horniman Museum and Gardens, 2001), and with Jeremy Coote, Anthropology, Art and Aesthetics (Oxford University Press, 1995).