Musée du Quai Branly: the future or folly?

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.