Paris’s Musée du quai Branly: A Review

I know I promised a short series on the Wari, but I was in Paris last week, and I’d like to write down my thoughts on the Musée du Quai Branly while they’re still relatively fresh.

If you want to experience sheer wonder at human creativity and cultural diversity, then the Quai Branly is the museum for you. They’ve got everything there from Easter Island heads to Native American totem poles, from half-caribou half-walrus shaman masks from the Arctic to creepy voodoo doll’s heads from the Caribbean, from contemporary art produced by Australian Aborigines to Medieval Ethiopian murals, and all kinds of masks and costumes, gods and goddesses, weapons and musical instruments. And the way the objects are presented makes them even more spectacular than they would be by themselves: objects that were “sacred” to those who first made and used them are placed into small chapel-like rooms to the gallery’s sides, each one designed in a different way, and, in the main gallery, I was particularly impressed by how the Ghanaian goldweights were arranged–almost as if they were the splendid debris of an explosion frozen in time–or as if they were a particularly fine infographic.

Half-caribou half-walrus mask

Half-caribou half-walrus mask from somewhere in Alaska. I think it’s Yup’ik, if I remember correctly.

Voodoo shrine

Voodoo-related object of worship from the Caribbean. I’ve lost my notes on who made it/when, so if anyone knows, please tell me in the comments!

Goldweights

The Ghanaian golweights display.

But, but, but. When it first opened in 2006, the Quai Branly was widely criticised for a number of practices which seemed a little… anachronistic.

First, a bit of context. Many museum collections have their roots in colonialism. Back when Western nations had empires, it was considered important to collect objects from the farthest reaches of their colonial possessions, and then display them back home. This for a number of reasons, but, in most cases, it would be fair to say that a collection was meant to celebrate, in some way, the colonial endeavour–for example, by demonstrating how “primitive” conquered peoples were and therefore how much they needed white rulers to “civilise” them, or by showcasing the objects as if they were trophies, almost like severed animal heads in hunting lodges.

In recent decades, however, most museums have tried to shake off their colonial undertones. This in a number of ways, including: involving so-called “source” communities (that is, communities whose ancestors manufactured and used the museum’s objects, or ones like them) in the curation of both permanent and temporary exhibitions; ditching words like “primitive” or “advanced”, and any terminology or way of displaying things that might give an impressions that cultures are being ranked from least sophisticated to most sophisticated; trying to give a sense of how cultures change through time, rather than trying to preserve a timeless, “authentic” idea of what the culture is thought to be like; returning certain objects to their place of origin; and even explicitly tackling colonialism and related phenomena (slavery, racism, turn-of-the-century wars) in their labels and exhibitions.

The Quai Branly, however–when it first opened, and during its first few years of business, it did a number of things which people didn’t agree with. In no particular order: they did ditch the word “primitive”, but in favour of the word “first” (as in, they described the arts of Africa, Oceania, the Americas and parts of Asia as “first arts”, les arts premiers), which many see as just as bad as primitive; they refused to repatriate a number of objects, including Maori warrior’s heads from New Zealand; they did not collaborate with source communities (with the exception of a number of Aboriginal artists who designed a few beautiful murals and the painted roof); they presented non-Western cultures as timeless and changeless; they completely failed to mention colonialism or slavery; and so on. They also enshrouded the gallery in darkness, which some saw as an unfortunate reminder of colonial ideas about Africa, Oceania, the Americas and parts of Asia as dangerous places, mostly made up of jungles, forests and caves, with plenty of shadowy spots for predatory animals and “savages” to hide in waiting for the perfect ambushing opportunity.

Aboriginal

One of the murals specially commissioned by the Quai Branly to a number of contemporary Australian Aboriginal artists. This particular one depicts the Milky Way, and was designed by Gulumbu Yunupingu. It can only be seen from outside.

It’s been almost eight years now since the Quai Branly first opened, and I think it’s fair to say that an effort has been made (by individual curators? by the administrative board? I don’t know) to change at least some of these things. Loads of new lights have been installed, to dispel the gallery’s darkness. The Maori heads were returned to New Zealand. Some contemporary stuff was acquired, providing visitors with a vague sense that Africa, Oceania, the Americas and Asia change through time as much as Europe does–a few contemporary Aboriginal paintings, and several huge display cases with some really cool stuff from modern-day Bolivia and the Caribbean (which was actually a nice contrast from how museums usually do this sort of thing–that is, by including one painting or art object from one contemporary artist, tucked away in a little corner, or just at the end before the gift shop, where visitors either won’t see it or won’t care).

Diablada

Costumes for the Devil and his mistress, for the Bolivian Diablada festival. Highlight of my visit.

Diablada

Costume for the Archangel Michael, also for the Diablada.

Diablada

This bear (ukuy) is also an important figure in the Diablada–originally it was a spectacled bear, which you can actually see in the Andes (if you’re lucky), but for some reason now it’s a polar bear. The effect of one too many Coke adverts perhaps?

However, besides this, I don’t think the Quai Branly has made any more efforts to collaborate with source communities, nor could I discern any attempt at problematising where their objects come from–I don’t think colonialism is ever mentioned, except perhaps for the Spanish conquest of the Americas, which is simply presented as “the end” of ancient American arts and cultures. Also, they still use the term “first arts”.

And, because this is mostly an archaeology blog, it’s worth pointing out that Quai Branly labels also fail to mention both the illegal trade of antiquities and looting, which is very probably how many of the archaeological objects got there. To be fair, this could be said of most museums, even ones that could otherwise be considered more “enlightened” than the Quai Branly, but it’s still worth pointing out.

Looted

“This item was part of a hanging several metres long found on the north coast of Peru in 1951. With its exceptional dimensions, iconography and range of colours, it was divided into several panels to be sold more easily”. This is the only reference to looting and the illegal traffic in cultural material I could find at the Quai Branly–worded in such a way that it almost seems like a reasonable thing for an ancient Peruvian textile to be mutilated this way.

Djenne

If you see an ancient terracotta from Djenne in a museum that isn’t the one in Bamako (Mali), the likelihood is extremely high that it was looted, and found its way out of Mali by illicit means. Perhaps the label should mention this?

The Quai Branly, then, is an infuriating mixture of absolutely awesome objects and displays, anachronistic display and curatorial practices, and a few successful and semi-successful attempts at correcting some of these practices. If you haven’t been, I recommend you go–both to see the objects on display (especially the Diablada stuff), and to think, how would you do things differently? Is there a way of talking about looting, colonialism or the illegal trade in cultural materials that will actually grab museum visitors’ attention? Is the darkness really an issue, or is it just overthinkers overthinking it? What would you substitute the term “first arts” with, assuming a term like that is needed to describe what the museum is about? And what contemporary cultural phenomena from Africa, Oceania, the Americas and Asia should be included in the display, to give a sense of how non-Western cultures have changed through time?

Answers to these questions, other questions, criticisms, or comments are, as always, very welcome, both from those who’ve been to to the Quai Branly and from those who haven’t.

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