Musee du quai Branly, Paris

The controversial museum of “tribal art” or “art of Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas”, the Musee du quai Branly, opened on June 23, 2006. Eleven years in the making, Jacques Chirac’s legacy sits in the shadows of the Eiffel Tower, the entrance facing rows of stately 19th. century Haussmann buildings, some of which are currently advertising apartments for sale. (For a description of the architecture of the museum, see the New York Times architectural review.) Articles in the BBC, the Epoch Times, and the Boston Globe hint at some of the points of controversy, which includes the very mission of the museum. Is it an art museum? An ethnographic museum? An anthropological museum? A museum to showcase France’s colonial legacy?

Mark and I went to the museum yesterday on the fourth day it was open; an extended day of free admission. We walked to the entrance on Rue de L’Universite after crossing the Pont de L’Alma from the Alma Marceau metro stop. We were able to get a wheelchair for Mark, and were escorted by the friendly, bilingual (at least) staff to the yet-closed-to-the-public elevator banks, so we didn’t get the first impression that everyone else does of the museum by walking up a long, curved ramp to the main galleries on the second floor. We started in the Africa section, following the color-coded floor to the Asia, then Oceania, and finally the Americas. We didn’t get much of a chance to see the multimedia exhibits, mostly video displays of people engaged in various ceremonies. The video screens were buried in low, wall-like structures with seats built in, leaving space for one, maybe two people to view the screens at the same time. Others were placed to face the passageways, leading to congestion. Images projected on to the mostly glass cases and walls of the displays were not clear.

Other problems besides the typical opening pains of missing lighting, descriptions, and not-quite-ready-for-prime-time bathrooms included an ill-executed test of the emergency evacuation notice (they neglected to tell us that it was a test so the staff had to run around telling everyone “it’s just a test”) and the takeover of a gallery on the third floor by a news crew.

Although the objects on display from the over 300,000 item collection are stunning, the exhibits just did not hang together. Some of the artifacts were displayed thematically, but the descriptions were disappointing (“Masks are used for many purposes…” – uh, I could have told you that!). Others were merely like items (textiles, for example), displayed together by region (a Gujarati piece near a Punjabi piece) with no other explanation than area of origin (What were the uses of these textiles? What is the type of embroidery called? Is it the work of a predominant “tribe”? Etc.) And, there were too many objects on display. In some cases, the exhibit would have made a bigger impact by presenting just one, or fewer examples of an item (e.g. Oceanic Great House pillers).

I left the museum thinking that it was a great gallery.

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