My stimulating visit at the Quai Branly museum

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Good morning everyone,

Today, I’m sharing a cultural post. As some of you may know, I spent last week in Paris and took advantage of the fact that I was in the capital to visit some museums. The really amazing thing about Paris is that if you’re a European citizen under 26, most of the time you get a free entrance to museums, even very big ones like the Louvre, which I already talked about here for the Egyptian department and here for the rest.

I went to the Quai Branly Jacques Chirac museum because I had heard so much about it, so I was curious to check it out. In addition, it is a very original museum because it does not look like the French Louvre, the British National Gallery or the American MoMA. Indeed, it features the indigenous art and cultures of non European art : it displays masks, costumes, totem poles and other artifacts from around the world that are mostly linked to religious sacred beliefs.

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The museum collections are divided into four departments : Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas. It has about 450,000 objects, which justifies why I spend an entire afternoon there !

The Quai Branly Museum is very recent, it opened in 2006, Both a museum and a center for research, it is located in the 7th arrondissement of Paris, on the left bank of the Seine, close to the Eiffel Tower at the RER and subway station Alma – Marceau and Pont de l’Alma if you want to check it out.

A little bit of history.
The ex French President Jacques Chirac followed its predecessors’ decision to build a museum as a symbol of their time in office: George Pompidou was behind the initiative of the Centre Georges Pompidou, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing created the Musée d’Orsay and François Mitterrand the Grand Louvre for instance.

The idea to build a museum dedicated to non European art had indeed made its way. In 1990, the ethnologist and art collector Jacques Kerchache wrote a manifesto in the newspaper Libération calling “The masterpieces of the entire world are born free and equal” which was signed by three hundred artists, writers, philosophers, anthropologists and art historians.

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Another peculiarity of the museum is that it was created by combining combining the collections of two different museums : the Musée national des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie (The MAAO or National Museum of the Arts of Africa and Oceania), initially created for the Colonial Exposition of 1931, and the laboratory of ethnology of Musée de l’Homme (“Museum of Man”), created for the Paris Exposition of 1937.

Because the two museums had different purposes – the first was an art collection run by art historians while the second was focused on socio-cultural explanations of the artifacts run by ethnologists and anthropologists – the Quai Branly was put under two different ministries. The Ministry of Education oversees the ethnological teaching and research while the Ministry of Culture and Communication, which oversees the art.

In order to have an original venue rendering justice to the diversity and richness of cultures, the museum is designed in a very open way. By not including barriers or railings, it is supposed to feel inclusive and simulate a journey throughout the continents for the visitor.img_1228

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Controversies.
Interestingly enough, I stumbled upon some controversies around the opening of the museum. I honestly had not really think about them, but it is worth having in mind. Basically, besides the people who did not like it, there are two main polemics surrounding the Quai Branly.

The first one revolves around the idea that the museum was used as a political tool by the French government. Indeed, when it opened in 2007, France was trying to reconcile increasing ethnic diversity among its population through its Republican model of assimilation. The museum was therefore to be seen as a hand reaching out to non-Western peoples and cultures, but many saw behind this a pretentious and erroneous self-proclamation of France’s supposed openness coupled to a political motivation.

Furthermore, some argued about the perspective we should adopt when looking at the objects. The vegetal exotic mise en scène was seen by some as regressive museology and others wondered whether the artifacts should be considered as anthropological objects or pieces of art.

My experience

I really liked this museum. It was sizable, which means I was able to see a lot of different items. In addition, I’ve always been into non-European art, so for me it was deeply interesting. I learned a lot, and was actually extremely surprised to see the dates of some of the objects (a lot were from the early 20th century).

I really put to use and enjoyed the many explanation cards distilled around the museum. They usually give the name and date of an object, where it comes from, and then explain the significance of the sacred ritual behind it. I also was astonished to see some artifacts from Alaska that looked like they were from South America. I made think about the similarities within the richness and diversity of cultures, especially despite the geographical distance that sometimes separate them.

There were several temporary expositions on the second floor. On was entitled “Du Jourdain au Congo”, and dealt with the relation of art and christianize in central Africa. The other, “Eclectique”, was about how a private collection can be built today, centered around the collector and patron Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière.

The latter was very stimulating in the sense that it was maybe more thought provoking than the rest since it actually engaged our critical thinking. It made me put into question our perception of art and foreign art by associating old non-European artifacts with rather recent European works. The collection and the way it was display questioned the amount of subjectivity in the eyes of the collector, and asks if it is possible to build a collection without passion.

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Future exhibits

I strongly suggest you visit this museum if you’re interested like me in non-European art, especially statues and daily objects, as well as in foreign religious rituals and sacred behavior. Also, keep an eye on the temporary exhibits on their website. For instance I see that starting on the 28th of March there will be something about Picasso and his relation with primitive art.

Then, from the 23rd of May, there will be an exhibit devised by the New Zeland museum Te Papa Tongarewa about its rich jade collections, a gemstone called pounamu in māori that can only be found on the southern New Zeland island Te Wai Pounamu (literally “the waters of the green stone”.

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