Tribal Artefacts in Paris: Musée du Quai Branly

Musée du Quai Branly in Paris is a museum of tribal objects and artefacts and definitely a must-see for those interested in the genre. Its building, designed by the star architect Jean Nouvel, is also an interesting piece of contemporary architecture.

Although the collection of Quai Branly is rich, colourful and fascinating, like other European and North American museums with colonial collections, it does not present the genuine story of the origins of its objects. And the visitors ought to ask the question, how come ritualistic tribal objects from Polynesia, Australia or Madagascar end up in Paris, completely removed from their original contexts.

Fancy architecture by Jean Nouvel - Part of the museum overlooking the street is covered by a vegetal wall. The museum is preceded by a very strange glass window, which continues for meters separating the museum garden from the street. (Notice the Eiffel Tower in the background)

Fancy architecture by Jean Nouvel – Part of the museum overlooking the street is covered by a vegetal wall. The museum garden is preceded by a very strange glass window, which continues for meters separating the garden from the public street. (Notice the Eiffel Tower in the background)

Musée du Quai Branly features a brilliant collection of tribal art and artefacts. It is displayed in a large and continuous gallery called the Plateau, loosely separated in different sections, divided according to continents. The collection comprises of ritualistic objects created by tribal communities of Asia, Oceania, Africa and America. However the museum does not talk about the origins of its collections, which is fairly unethical given the colonial past of the French state.

It will be a more honest and sincere approach to explain how African, Asian, American and Oceanic tribal artefacts came to Paris in the first place, a place that has nothing to do with the original context of these objects.

Plateau: The permanent exhibition area of Quai Branly.

Plateau: The permanent exhibition area of Quai Branly.

Although the objects displayed are very interesting, the design of the exhibition area is quite hectic. It is hard to orient yourself and to find the section you are looking for in the gallery. Finding the toilet can also become a challenge. I am not sure if Jean Nouvel designed the building to resemble a chaotic rain forest but if he did, he certainly achieved something.

Objects are pretty much explained in French with traditional labels. However there is a serious problem with the English labels. Somehow the museum did not translate all the labels into English, which is funny since the non-French speaking visitor is allowed only half the information that is offered to a francophone. Considering that it took 235 million Euros to build the museum, translating rest of the labels into English should not be too costly (1).

Two sculptures from Quai Branly. The ambience of the exhibition area is dark and objects are illuminated by spotlights.

Two sculptures from Quai Branly. The ambience of the exhibition area is dark and objects are illuminated by spotlights.

There is a quite large green space in the museum compound which you go thru after entering the museum grounds from the street. Somehow it seems that this green space is not used efficiently as it could have been used with a better design and installing outdoor furniture of some kind to make it a more lively area. Right now the entrance seems to be fairly unwelcoming with a path leading to the museum building surrounded by a vast semi-restricted garden.

After crossing the path the visitor reaches the gallery entrance. The museum shop is located across the entrance hall and features a nice variety of books including novels, exhibition catalogues and academic literature on anthropology and ethnography.

Left: The poster of the latest Quai Branly exhibition Tatoueurs Tatoués. Notice the bulky breasts above. Right: The building of Musee de l’Homme. A vast portion of its collections were transferred to Quai Branly and it was closed down. However it is going to be reopened in September 2015 with a change in its curatorial orientation.

Left: The poster of the latest Quai Branly exhibition Tatoueurs Tatoués. Notice the bulky breasts above. Right: The building of Musee de l’Homme. A vast portion of its collections were transferred to Quai Branly and it was closed down. However it is going to be reopened in September 2015 with a change in its curatorial orientation.

Design and branding has become a trend in contemporary museum practice and Quai Branly too employs its own visual language on its communication material, which seems successful and appealing enough. After all, design is a smart way to reach out. The poster of Quai Branly’s latest exhibition Tatoueurs Tatoués features the torso of a tattooed naked lady with her breasts displayed half way. It seems that the museum did not miss the chance to advertise its latest show by cleverly mixing two seducing elements: an eccentric Japanese tattoo and a naked woman.

As part of its branding Musée du Quai Branly adopts the slogan là où dialoguent les cultures, which can be translated as ‘where cultures converse.’ This can be a highly contested claim, which is vulnerable to serious criticism considering the Eurocentric presentation of the objects. Tribal and ritualistic every day objects are taken from four continents and are displayed by complete strangers (in this case the French are the strangers to the tribal communities of Oceania, Asia, America and Africa) in a 235 million Euro museum of a far away city (Paris). In this case do the cultures have a genuine conversation, or is it a conversation that is crafted and influenced by the point of view of the curator in charge? In a (Edward) Saidian sense (2) it is the French Quai Branly, which has the power to systematically organize, divide and present objects from four continents whose story is ultimately shaped by the museum.

Thus is it possible for the attentive visitor to expect an honest ‘conversation between the cultures’ without first finding out how on earth a Nigerian ritual mask ended up in Paris?

This question will be left unanswered here for the curious museum visitor to find out. Musée du Quai Branly is a must-see for those interested in tribal artefacts and for contemporary museum enthusiasts. Nevertheless it should be visited with a critical eye, not forgetting the colonial past of its collection, which is nowhere told in the museum.

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(1) Véronique Prat, ‘Quai Branly: le musée du XXIe siècle’, Le Figaro, http://www.lefigaro.fr/lefigaromagazine/2006/06/09/01006-20060609ARTMAG90447-le_musee_du_xxie_siecle.php.

(2) See the ‘Introduction’ of Edward Said’s Orientalism for an eloquently crafted discourse on the systematical creation of an imagined Orient (or the Other) by the Occident (or Europe).

 

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