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Power and taboo: the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris is home to a superb collection of non-Western art. The museum's director, Stephane Martin, spoke to Apollo about the challenges inherent in the display of ethnographic material and why it is directly relevant to the political life of the country.

The Musee du Quai Branly opened in Paris in 2006; at the time, it was the largest new museum to have been built there since the Centre Pompidou, which had opened almost 30 years earlier. When I meet Stephane Martin, the 55-year-old former director of the Centre Pompidou who is now president of the Musee du Quai Branly, he bemoans the fact that Paris has an aversion to new architecture--in a 2009 survey conducted by the French newspaper Le Figaro, for example, the Centre Pompidou was voted the third most undesirable building in Paris.

Given such entrenched local conservatism, as well as the facts that the museum was the pet project of former French president Jacques Chirac and sits close to the Eiffel Tower, one might have expected the overseers of the Musee du Quai Branly--devoted to the art of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas--to play it safe architecturally. Instead, however, they chose a design by Jean Nouvel which not only remains one of the boldest for any museum created so far this century, but achieved the unlikely feat of being absent from Le Figaro's list of 2009. Nouvel's design is smart: the main galleries are in a long, low-rise building sitting on pilotis and with multicoloured boxes projecting out at irregular intervals along its facade. Its curved form slinks through an exuberant garden design by Gilles Clement (Fig. 2), accompanied by three more sedate but elegant buildings, one with a wall of plants facing the Quai Branly itself. 'It is a good balance between slightly provocative new architecture and something which is very acceptable,' says M. Martin.

When a politician is closely associated with a cultural project, it can be a permanent millstone around that institution's neck. M. Chirac was the most passionate advocate of the museum from the moment plans were announced in the late 1990s. It was seen by some as a cultural monument to him, just as I.M. Pei's Pyramide du Louvre and Nouvel's Institut du Monde Arabe are associated with Francois Mitterrand. But expectations that it would be known as the 'Musee Chirac' have dissipated, and eight million visitors have come to the museum in its first six years, a phenomenal figure for what is essentially an ethnographic museum.

The museum was born of a desire to see non-Western art treated differently. Previously in France, African art had only ever been shown in two contexts, M. Martin explains: 'Firstly, because it is so related to Picasso and so influential on modern art; and secondly, because they have social structures that have been studied by [the structuralist anthropologist] Claude Levi-Strauss. So, as Chirac once said, every time a statue was displayed, there was always a kind of petit fil de laine [little thread] connecting the African piece to an explanation which related it to "us"--to our knowledge, to our tradition, our art, our culture. So he said that we needed a place where those cultures could be autonomous and could have leading, rather than supporting, roles.'


With a collection that is essentially a collage of different holdings, including those from the former Musee National des Arts d'Afrique et d'Oceanie and the ethnographic department of the Musee de l'Homme, M. Martin and his curators attempted to rip up the rule book for ethnographic museums, taking the view that television channels like Discovery and National Geographic and a growing environmental awareness had endowed the public with far greater basic knowledge of the places and images found in their collections. 'You do not come to this kind of collection today to be stunned by the exoticism,' he says. 'You have to work it differently, and it means releasing some power. [Ethnographic] museums were extremely powerful and that is why they have those magnificent and extremely pretentious names like the Museum of Mankind--they were the museums of big explanations: "Come into this temple, kids, and you will get this big holistic explanation that will tell you everything about humanity."'

So, while the collections are arranged into colour-coded areas marking out the different regions within the collection, the displays are dominated by a commitment to aesthetics. 'In France, museums are places of pleasure. People are happy to go to museums. [A museum] is not church or a lecture; it is a place of joy and beauty, and a lot of people would choose between going to a museum and going to a movie,' says M. Martin.

While context is present--on screens and text panels within a long, snaking, leather-covered partition known as 'the river' which runs through the gallery (Fig. 3), and in more depth on a multimedia mezzanine overlooking the displays--the museum has been accused of providing too little of it. The anthropologist Sally Price has complained of a 'general tendency to privilege harmony and nation-to-nation diplomacy over social criticism and attention to the interests of particular ethnic groups.' M. Martin acknowledges that he has picked a 'big fight' with Ms Price and some other anthropologists: 'My vision of a museum is a terrible loss of power for them, because the museum becomes a source of information and not the demonstration of a theory.'



He is similarly defiant in response to criticism of the lack of postcolonial critique among the collection's displays: 'A lot of people regret--and I understand that regret--that we don't give a bigger part to colonial history within the permanent exhibition. My answer is that I would love to, but how? You could have a museum about colonisation and decolonisation that would work on a scenario, and so the collection would be secondary to that scenario. But out of an ethnographic collection, it is very difficult to tell colonial history.' He believes that France's colonial past is self-evident in the layout of the museum, wherein the French colonies in Africa and Polynesia feature more prominently than the Americas and Asia. 'The [subtext] of this display is that, in contrast to the Museum of Mankind or the Musee de l'Homme, this is not a display of the different cultures of the world, but a display of souvenirs of different cultures of the world that have been gathered by the French.'


The museum does allow for more social criticism and anthropology in its exhibitions, each of which has what M. Martin describes as 'a very specific and very partial angle' on its themes. Two current exhibitions reflect the museum's dynamic approach: 'Human Zoos: The Invention of the Savage' (until 3 June) is curated by Lilian Thuram, a World Cup-winning French footballer who has set up an anti-racism foundation; while 'Masters of Chaos' (until 29 July), curated by Jean de Loisy, director of the Palais de Tokyo, looks at shamanism--the 'sacred cow' of anthropology, according to M. Martin--through the prism of modern and contemporary artists like Joseph Beuys and Thomas Hirschhorn. Their work is shown alongside ethnographical objects in a dramatically deconstructed space.

Eclectic exhibitions serve the central purpose first outlined by M. Chirac when he wrote that, through the museum, 'dignity is being restored to peoples who were too often humiliated, oppressed or even destroyed by arrogance, ignorance, stupidity and blindness' during the colonial era. It is a telling message in the face of the significant proportion of French people who will vote for Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Front National party, in this year's presidential election. M. Martin believes the museum offers a riposte to views like those of Mme Le Pen, not just in M. Thuram's overtly anti-racist show but in its full programme as well as Nouvel's 'prestigious' architecture. Furthermore, he wants to ensure that ethnographic museums are no longer 'cursed and damned to stay within the league of the specialised museum.'

M. Martin continues: 'If there is one reason for the museum and one thing that you will find in every show, whatever the topic is, it is the proposition that visitors come here and see that these are great peoples, that we have to respect them--they are incredible artists and they are part of the world and its history, not just a small, exotic thing that we would consider seeing after we have seen Leonardo da Vinci.'


Ben Luke is Contemporary Art Critic at the London Evening Standard.
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Author:Luke, Ben
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:May 1, 2012
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