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PostPosted: Fri Jul 28, 2006 5:20 am 

Joined: Fri Apr 14, 2006 7:18 am
Posts: 93
Dear Pamela and all,

I made a quick trip a few days ago from my home in The Netherlands to the new Musée du Quai Branly, devoted to the art of all cultures - except that of Europe – and housing the treasures that used to be found in the Musée de l‘Homme, and the Musée national des arts d’Afrique et d'Océanie. In short it is a Museum of Ethnology that emphasizes the aesthetic aspect of the artifacts. You may have seen articles about it because it made a splash when it opened last month.

It being so much my focus, I expected to find billboards announcing its presence in the Paris metro, and for it to be the talk of the town. I arrived at the Gare du Nord, and went straight into the metro. En route, I asked at least ten people which stop I needed for Quai Branly – it wasn’t yet on any of the metro maps -- but none of them had ever heard of the museum. So I went on instinct and vague recall. Wasn’t it essentially just across the river from where the Musée de l’Homme had been, close to the Eiffel Tower? Luckily I was right.

It wasn’t hard to recognize. When you do finally set eyes on it, the trick is to figure out a way to pull your eyes away from it again. It is so unusual, so compelling, so magical. And it turns out from the crowds lined up in front for a ticket that many have heard of it afterall. So bring your parasol or umbrella to match the weather conditions, because the wait might be long. And don't give up. It is well worth the wait. It is a colossal place, and you can spend the whole day there. So wear comfortable shoes, too.

Even if textiles are all that you are interested in, it is an all-day museum. In my experience textiles often get short schrift in ethnographic museums, and especially those devoted to “art”, but that is not at all the case in the Musée du Quai Branly. The displays are sumptuous, most of them behind glass to protect them and with dim lighting. You can’t touch the pieces and turn them over while looking through your magnifying lens, but if you go for the sheer pleasure of gazing at a rich variety of the ethnographic textiles of the entire world, you won’t be disappointed. You will be treated to pre-Columbian weavings from Paracas, Guatemalan huipiles, an extraordinary Chilcat blanket, painted skins from the North American plains, feather headdresses from the Amazon, Panamanian molas, an Inca kipu, Maghreb carpets, dress styles from all of Asia, silk ikat from Afghanistan, a double ikat from Western India, Bengal embroidery, Indonesian ikat, African strip-textiles, and their counterparts from French Guyana, pandanus mats from Melanesia....the list goes on and on. A friend of mine has a very long ikat patterned textile made of some kind of vegetable fibre the provenance of which was a mystery to us. It is reminiscent of Indonesian textiles, but unlike anything I’ve ever seen from there. During my walk through the Quai Branly, I saw a remarkably similar raffia textile from the Sakalava people of Madagascar. Hurrah! The mystery may be solved. The sumptuous display of variety also has its uses.

I was pleased to see not just the provenance in the accompanying text, but also the name of the collector. In general, it satisfying to see how much attention the museum gave to the ethnologists who had assembled the collections – more than 300,000 objects over a period of five centuries according to the introductory text. Indeed, one of the temporary exhibits, Nous avons mangé la forêt (We have eaten the forest), was devoted to the Viet Namese collection made by the well-known French ethnologist, Georges Condominas between 1948 and 1950, and accompanied by quotations from his book of the same title, photographs, and field notes. Moreover, the introductory chamber, if that initial section in the flowing museum space can be called that, invited the visitor to take “a voyage of discovery”. Facilitated by high-tech audio-visual displays, we were treated to sights and sounds that, according to their writings, greeted the first explorers of the world. (The museum is set up on the assumption that the public must be introduced to the art of “the rest of the world” and that the museum will constitute a voyage of discovery. A curator of Monet’s paintings operates on a very different assumption.) An “isthmus” in the flowing space of the museum is filled with computer screens where the visitor can sit comfortably and, internet-style, go through detailed information on museum themes. Here again, I was impressed with the depth of the information, and the opportunity given to the visitor to learn about ethnographers in France and throughout the world.

For me, this was a welcome surprise. I had read criticisms of the aesthetic emphasis of the museum. Years ago, I worked at the Museum of Anthropology (MOA) at the University of British Columbia (Canada) where the visitor is encouraged by the style of display to apprehend the stylistic forms of the ethnographic objects, and I had expected to find the same at Quai Branly. But at Quai Branly I did not experience any frustration from lack of information (the museum is not yet quite finished, and some of the attached texts were still on strips of paper rather than professionally applied to the glass display cases, but absent they were not). I personally am enamored of the simple ingenuity by which a harvest blade may be attached to a wooden handel, for example. That even such functional objects were presented by Quai Branly, and in a way that evoked admiration for their simple beauty, was very appealing to me. What a change from the early years of ethnographic display when objects were used to demonstrate, according to misapplied Darwinian principles, the level of development of peoples! While Quai Branly de-emphasized cultural context in the permanent exhibit, the temporary Condominas exhibit did provide this emphasis, so clearly it is not taboo within the museum.

Alot of money has been spent on the new Musée du Quai Branly. Has the expenditure for this new museum been worth it, was a question that lurked constantly in the back of my mind. Has Quai Branly contributed something new and lasting to ethnography and ethnographic display? In the end, I don’t think so. Ideas such as “open storage” and “the aesthetic approach” have been tried before. Decontextualization is old rather than new. Certainly, that all the ethnographic collections in Paris are now found under one roof is innovative and generates great potential. But the museum is more of an opulent splash than a landmark in the development of ethnographic study. It was politically motivated. That may be why I was more struck by the brilliant architecture than anything else. I refrain from going on and on about that because that is not what the readers of this web site are looking for. Suffice it to say that the architecture is a spectacular monument – to Jacques Chirac. But also for aficionados of ethnographic objects, including textiles, Musée du Quai Branly is well worth a visit.

I still live in the Dark Ages and have no digital camera. However, the Quai Branly websites have nice photographs. I have attached a page from the brochure for English-speaking visitors, but had to scan it twice because it was too large for one scan.

Quai Branly Brochure II.jpg
Quai Branly Brochure II.jpg [ 44.97 KiB | Viewed 3841 times ]
Quai Branly Brochure.jpg
Quai Branly Brochure.jpg [ 56.28 KiB | Viewed 3841 times ]

Sandra Niessen
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