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The Opening of the Musée du Quai Branly: Valuing/Displaying the "Other" in Post-Colonial France

On June 23rd, the posh 7ème arrondissement in Paris was crowded with visitors as usual, though this time most were not tourists coming to see the Musée d'Orsay or the Eiffel Tower, but French men and women flocking to the public opening of Jacques Chirac's presidential project finally realized – the new Musée du Quai Branly.  It was quite a scene. The view of the building from the street was striking, with its glass façade, colored cubes protruding from the second story, and a "vertical garden" growing on the exterior wall.  Security guards in headsets and employees in purple suits directed the crowd, while video cameras and journalists conducting informal interviews outside added to the commotion. 

Though most people present for this spectacle would call it a success, the opening of the Quai Branly was actually the culmination of a decade-long, 232 million euro project steeped in history and surrounded by controversy.  Impressive as the turnout was, the opening tells a much deeper, more complex story when analyzed in its broader social and political context.  As we will show, connecting the museum and the flurry surrounding its opening to the ancient colonial empire and to the riots of November 2005 reveals important questions about French identity, minority politics, and the valuing of art and people. These questions and their answers are difficult to tease out, but crucial to understanding France's battle with its "Other" on a domestic front.     

The seeds were planted for the Quai Branly in 1990, when an art dealer and collector named Jacques Kerchache along with 150 scholars, art dealers, collectors, and politicians published a manifesto in the newspaper Libération entitled "So that the masterpieces of the world are born free and equal," arguing for the inclusion of non-Western art in the Louvre.  With Chirac's support as President in 1995, Kerchache managed to turn this manifesto into reality with the opening in 2000 of a section of the Louvre for l'art primitif which would be the predecessor to the larger project of a museum.  Even at 120 pieces, the Louvre collection was controversial.  The inclusion of non-Western art disrupted the pictorial chronology of the Louvre, which curators claimed had its own so-called "primitive" collection of early Italian paintings.  Each side in this controversy accused the other of racism and both had valid arguments: on the one hand anthropologists claimed that incorporating ritual and everyday objects into the Louvre was to inappropriately aestheticize and exoticize them, while on the other hand art collectors and connoisseurs declared that a bourgeois, traditionalist institution was throwing low blows to keep non-Western, tribal arts out of the its collections.  

Despite the controversy over the Louvre, Chirac's planning commission continued with the larger project of a museum.  The planning was heavily influenced by Kerchache as aesthetic advisor until his death in 2001, as well as Stéphane Martin, the general director, Germaine Viatte, the former director of the Musée National d'Art Moderne, Maurice Godelier, anthropologist and scientific director of the project, and a team of specialists.  This supposed "team" was actually bitterly divided on the direction of the museum, with Kerchache, Viatte and Martin all favoring a more aesthetic approach and Godelier fighting for a more ethnographic approach with cultural contextualization.  Professor of Ethnology Benoît de l'Estoile has argued that through the 20th century, the power of anthropologists has decreased in favor of art historians and collectors (in the context of French museography), so in this sense the aesthetic approach that came to dominate the Quai Branly is not an isolated phenomenon.  The name of the museum itself was the subject of much debate as well, changing from the Musée des Arts Premiers, to the Musée des Arts et des Civilisations Premiers, to dropping the Premiers altogether and settling for the neutral Musée du Quai Branly, which refers to the museum's location.

The broadening of the museum's name makes sense when one considers the diverse roots of its collections. The objects span four continents, originating in Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Oceania. The museum can hardly be formally called des arts premiers when objects range in date from 300 BC to the present.  The objects were also obtained from diverse sources within France: 250,000 objects were brought from the ethnology wing of the Musée de l'Homme, an anthropological museum established in 1938; 25,000 objects come from the Musée des Arts d'Afrique et d'Océanie, formerly the Musée des Colonies, which opened in 1931 after the Colonial Exhibition; 8,000 objects (at 23 million euro) were acquisitions for the museum; a small number come from the collections of the Musée Guimet, which houses Asian art, and the rest were private donations or loans.  

The roots of these collections also show that the museum is closely tied to France's colonial past. As historian Pap Ndiaye explained to us, the collections are largely made up of what ethnographers brought back to France (both the Musée de l'Homme and the old Musée des Colonies were obvious colonial projects). Ethnography was in itself a colonial science – the rise of physical and social anthropology reflected imperial interest in underdeveloped cultures and the desire to get to know the colonized in order to rule them more effectively.  While as early as the late 1920s and 1930s there were ethnographers who were anti-colonialist, as expert on the French Empire Emmanuelle Saada explains, the Quai Branly still "fits very well in a trajectory of the relationship between power and knowledge that was very much present during colonization."

At the least, the museum is tied to the French empire because the strengths of its collections lie in the former colonies and because most of these objects are in fact colonial heirlooms and booty obtained through such means as pillage, seizures, military conquest, and ethnographic expedition. In 1931 a law was even passed allowing Marcel Griaule, the famous anthropologist, on exposition in Dogon country to legally "confiscate" objects in the name of science.  While no one can argue that many of the objects were not obtained through suspicious means, the debate which has continued to get press coverage through opening week is surrounding the issue of repatriation.  Professor and author of the book Bringing the Empire Back Home Herman Lebovics proposes "that in a very short time either someone whose ancestors are portrayed in the museum or a government official is going to say 'I want it back.'  This happens everywhere, it is going to happen here."  Fair or not, the papers have zeroed in on this issue and claims have already come up surrounding objects from the Louvre section, though the Quai Branly still seems largely unprepared to navigate the debate. The collections are considered legitimate French property by many.  Their very title as objets patrimoniaux français, or "objects of national heritage" gives a legitimacy to the French state to hold onto them.  Dean of l'Inspection générale de l'Education nationale Dominique Borne points out the fact that it was the Western eye and market for these goods that gave them value to begin with.  He says, "How did objects which were not considered works of art by their creators (functional or religious objects) become works of art?  It is because art dealers buy them, it's as simple as that.  One does not just declare that a work is a work of art.  When it has a price in the market, the dealers buy it and the museums put it in the museums." 

So we pose the question: is the Quai Branly a truly post-colonial museum?  Or as Lebovics asks, "Has the museum's engagement with post-coloniality been done with enough complexity?" The architect Jean Nouvel, Lebovics argues, has had a powerful say in this regard and is "totally intoxicated by the 'Heart of Darkness' metaphor."  Exploring the inside of the museum it would be hard not to notice this imagery.  Upon entering, the visitor climbs a winding pathway which the architect designed to resemble a serpent.  Moving projections of the words "L'Autre en Soi" – a wordplay in French that means "the Other in Itself/in Oneself" – remind the visitor of the ambiguous concept of the "Other" and its potential for revealing inner beauty and passion as well as what is alien and "savage" in Joseph Conrad's eyes.  This bright, open pathway then leads to the exhibit space which has contrasting (and somewhat extreme) dark lighting, black and dark earth-toned walls, leather-covered rock-like formations separating sections, and jungle transparencies covering the windows.  The architecture is decidedly modern, but as Herman Lebovics reminds us, aesthetic modernism and colonialism can go hand in hand.  De l'Estoile agrees, calling the museum's architecture "the revival of the myth of the noble savage," a primitivist myth which is at the ideological base of colonization (as reported on France Inter, 19 June 2006).  

The architect's romantic vision of the "Other" poses problems for a museum that is attempting to move beyond the racist ideology and oppressive structures of colonialism to become truly "post-colonial."  The presentation of the objects is also controversial.  As we mentioned before, it is clear that the aesthetic approach won out over the more ethnographic approach, and the fact that only 3,500 of 300,000 objects in the collection are displayed underlines this point. The objects in the permanent collection are anonymously and ahistorically presented, with some objects grouped by theme, some by ethnic group, and others by region, with no apparent timeline.  Many have argued that the displays emphasize the universal beauty of the objects and in doing so elicit positive reactions from visitors, just like at the Louvre.  Many anthropologists, on the other hand, view the lack of contextualization as deeply problematic. Anthropologist and author of Primitive Art in Civilized Places Sally Price told us that she believes that “decontextualization is an act of gross condescension, since it denies the artists and their fellows their creativity and aesthetic sensitivity.”  Godelier also explained that without contextualization for objects from other societies, the museum visitor will simply make up their own fanciful stories, potentially continuing racist beliefs, for example, that African peoples are driven by obscure instincts, the spirits, the mysterious forces of nature, even cannibalism.  Finally, lumping together objects from different periods recalls the classic colonial trend of denying history to the "Other," studying other cultures through the science of anthropology as if only Europe changes and progresses with time.  As Lebovics points out, the older anthropological timelessness and the modern emphasis on aesthetic innovation both take history out of the picture.   

In the sparse contextualization provided, the text avoids directly referencing a colonial past.  The only gesture acknowledging how these objects were acquired is a couple of paragraphs printed on one of the leather barriers, entitled "Exploring/Collecting," with a section titled "Magnetic lands" and another called "Travel Fragments." These tell the visitor that behind every artifact on display "lurks a human adventure" – using vague language to explain that the ways of acquiring works were diverse – end of story.  Sally Price points out that even the media mezzanine, the place where motivated visitors can seek out more information on the societies and objects represented in the museum, fails to mention colonialism, slavery, tourism, or collecting art, all which deeply marked the regions and peoples represented in the Quai Branly.  

In gathering all the criticism of the museum, it becomes less and less clear what ties the museum's collections together.  From our perspective, the collection seems to be a sort of sampling of objects from the non-Western world.  Such a negative definition is all that is left when one erases all the dated terms such as "art sauvage," "art exotique," and "art primitif." As we mentioned earlier, the debate over the use of the term "arts premiers" rests in the fact that most of the objects are from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries and therefore were not the "first" in any sort of chronology of art.  The French Télérama special edition on the Quai Branly was called "Le Musée de l'Autre," pinpointing the fact that in spite of the museum's neutral name, the inclusion of art only from the non-Western world does create a dichotomy between "us" and "them." While some critics pushed for a Musée Intégré that would equally represent European and non-European works, even Godelier's more moderate proposed solution of a fifth wing with "universal" themes including some European works was scrapped.  Anthropologist Michel Boccara relates this distinction between us and them to Levi-Strauss' conception of societies "chaudes" and "froides" (a distinction rooted in the ideology used to construct colonies), and Ndiaye too distinguishes between the museum of white artists (the Louvre) and the museum of non-white people (the Quai Branly). Saada is careful to point out that the museum is not trying to frame art (and peoples) in hierarchical terms, but still frames them in differential terms, assuming a sort of essentialized difference as if there were two clashing civilizations.  Saada also points out that the lumping of all these objects together builds one big "Other." Borne and Lebovics attribute this problem to the word "Other," which Lebovics claims was created out of intellectual laziness, and for which Borne blames the press and the public who have informally mislabeled the museum.  The ultimate control for interpretation does lie with the visitor, and perhaps it is the visitor's context which is most important in this debate. As Price says, "In effect, the only thing that unifies the collections is that they are viewed from a similar gaze by people from European-derived cultures…."  

If the museum does create a distinction between us and them, what implications does this have in a political and social context? Chirac and Martin have set a truly international post-colonial agenda for the museum. Harking back to Kerchache's Manifesto in 1990, Chirac declared at the museum opening, "There is no hierarchy among the arts just as there is no hierarchy among peoples," continuing, “It is upon this conviction of the equal dignity of the cultures of the world that this museum is founded.” Speaking against a colonial mindset, he described the museum as "an homage to peoples who have suffered conquest, violence and humiliation" and which "aims to promote among the public at large a different, more open and respectful view, dispelling the clouds of ignorance, condescension and arrogance that in the past have often nourished distrust, contempt and rejection” (as reported in The New York Times, 22 June 2006).  Declaring the cultures and arts of the world equal is an important statement for a French president, whether or not this statement is reflected in the reality of the Quai Branly.  Martin also described sweeping goals for the museum: "This institution is at the center of a burning issue in current events: the confrontation of worlds, of civilizations.  We are trying to explain and to bring understanding to the cultural issues at stake in the future, to create bridges" (as reported in Le Monde, 21 June 2006). Through Chirac's speech, France is recognizing its responsibilities to non-Western countries, and as Lebovics explains, is trying to position itself as a friend to the countries of the south.  Both Chirac and Martin speak of celebrating culture in an international context.  For a country without much of a military, without a lot of diplomatic leeway, and with waning economic power, Lebovics argues, French diplomacy now focuses its energy on "culture intensive" projects. 

While Chirac does not make direct connections between international and domestic issues here, the museum does directly relate to French people as visitors, at the least.  How would a French person of African origin, for example, interpret this museum as opposed to the interpretation of Gaulois, i.e. people of native French origin?  Many anthropologists and other scholars we interviewed did not want to relate the museum to French identities in overseas territories or among immigrant or minority groups.  Of those who did comment, many said they could not predict the impact on French society. Saada did address the issue, but only to tell us that it was not relevant.  She told us first off, "It is not a question that the 'Other' is with us.  It has always been, and much of France has been made outside of the métropole.  This is just another break in the wall." But she then argued that the Quai Branly debate is an elitist debate which does not have to do with broader political issues on a domestic level, pointing out that unlike the Native American museum in Washington DC, for example, the Quai Branly is "not telling the story of someone."  Martin himself also wanted to make this comparison. "The United States, New Zealand, and Australia have dynamic museums but they are often militant, wanting to fix the mistakes of the past and reconcile the peoples who now form one nation," says Martin. "Our 200 square meters are dedicated not to speaking about ourselves but about others" (as reported in Le Monde, 21 June 2006).  

Ndiaye, in contrast, makes clear connections between the museum's goals and the visitors.  He asks, "Who goes to the museum?  Do you have among the public, people from other countries, recent or not so recent immigrants?  Is it a museum showing the 'Other' to the Westerner, to Europeans?" If it should not be solely the white bourgeois who visits the museum, then the Quai Branly needs to enact policies of public outreach to attract people who have not heard about the museum, who live in la cité, the suburban projects.  What is interesting, Ndiaye says, is to see how the people will react.  "It could be a source of cultural pride, but we don't know yet." Also recognizing the museum's goals on a domestic front, Martin himself puts forward the idea that the museum will offer French people of immigrant origin a cultural reference that is "not only Louis XIV or the Impressionists" (as reported in The Economist, 17 June 2006). While Lebovics also proposed that the Quai Branly could be a place where the recognition of cultures and heritage occurs, the museum could also be a source of provocation.  "Who are you honoring?" Lebovics asks, pointing out that this museum took a huge percentage of the French cultural budget at a time when young men "with a lot of energy and not a lot of time in school" are causing trouble in France, like in the rest of the world. "Why don't you use the money for community centers?" 

Few people we spoke with acknowledged the paradox of celebrating cultures internationally at a time of great internal conflict with minorities originally from the societies represented in the Quai Branly, even in light of the negative attention France received internationally after the violence in November 2005.  Ndiaye addressed the implications for domestic politics by calling the museum "post-colonial but also post-riot," and pointing out the irony that works of art seem to travel more easily than people.  At the same time as this grand celebration of cultures, Ndiaye continued, "Sarkozy is proposing a law on immigration which would restrict those who come precisely from the cultures so well exposed in the museum."  In the press, only an article in The Economist eagerly pointed out this irony in the opening of the Quai Branly as yet another sign that the French model had failed.  

The museum's relation to minority communities is as contested in France as the existence of these "communities" themselves.  Ndiaye poses this as a problem: "In France we suffer from the lack of minority voices and political organization of minority groups.  In other words, there are no or not enough black voices in France, who could be valuable players in the national debate on those issues which do and should involve minorities.  Quite clearly the museum was devised and built without reaching out to minorities."  Ndiaye cites the fact that a prominent leader in CRAN (Conseil Représentatif des Associations Noires de France) was interviewed by the Quai Branly the same week of the opening to assure that the reaction of black people in France would be positive.  "This is typical of the way minorities are seen in this country, as a problem," says Ndiaye. It was a purely marketing approach, he argues, when "they should have had a more fruitful dialogue with people of Asian and African descent from the start." While disagreeing with the idea that there should be a progression towards recognizing ethnic identity groups in France, Lebovics nonetheless points to the lack of organization and consciousness of minorities as groups as the reason the museum would not have a direct impact on non-white French people.  Ethnic identities are not primary identities for these people, he argues, and while there will be issues with the Quai Branly related to ethnic pride and identity, Lebovics sees this on the level of nations (which will ask for their treasures back) rather on the level of communities.  

A project which contrasts sharply with the Quai Branly approach to directly address these domestic issues is the Cité de l'Histoire de l'Immigration (to open in April 2007), launched 25 years ago and conceived as a history museum.  The Cité de l'Histoire de l'Immigration will mix different disciplinary approaches, using testimonials, works of art, and other images (photographs, newspapers) in order to tell the story of immigration in France since the 19th century.  This project has involved partnerships at different levels of civil society, with various NGOs and associations, and aims to promote a better integration of immigrants in France through acknowledging their important role in the past, present, and future in French society.  The museum also seeks to interact with the public through special events and a center for recording and sharing the stories of immigrants.  It is important, Saada points out, to situate the Quai Branly in the context of this reconfiguration of museums in France and the creation of "Identity" or "Memory" museums, such as the Cité de l'Histoire de l'Immigration, but also including Le Mémorial National de la France d'Outre-Mer (to open in Marseille in 2007) which will tell the history of colonization in collaboration with associations of the "Rapatriés" (French settlers repatriated after Algerian independence), and Le Musée de la France en Algérie, both ambitious and controversial projects.  Perhaps it is in collaboration with these museums that the Quai Branly can create a more creative approach to domestic issues in France and specifically to immigrants and minorities.  According to Hélène Lafont-Couturier, the director of museography at the Cité de l'Histoire de l'Immigration, the two museums complement each other in ways which would make collaboration a necessity.  

With all the hype surrounding the opening of the Quai Branly, and the media at once praising the architecture and using such politically charged language as the "Other" and "des art premiers" to describe the museum, it is a difficult task to stand back and assess the museum's larger impact in a fair and measured way. The museum is also not frozen in time.  There is potential for change, through collaboration with other museums, through public outreach, in the incorporation of European art in the temporary exhibits, or even in allowing people to perform sacred rituals linked to objects on display (now impossible in a state museum), as proposed by the vice-president of Le Comité pour la Mémoire de l'Esclavage, Françoise Verges.  It will also take time to analyze the impact the museum has on the visitors, how French of all backgrounds as well as tourists interact with and interpret the collections for themselves.  What can be said is that the Quai Branly, at its opening, is a true product of the French Republican model, celebrating the French values of Liberté, Egalité, and Fraternité on an international level, declaring the arts, as well as the peoples of the world, free and equal.  The Quai Branly is plagued by the same contradictions as the French model itself: the difficulty of integrating cultural diversity and recognizing a colonial past without challenging the value of equality so central to the ideology of both the museum and the country.  Our hope is that the museum can become, as Godelier claims it is today, a means to fight against racial intolerance in France.  In order for this to happen, France will need to cultivate feelings of respect not just for the distant "Other," but for cultural difference within the country today.




Anonymous Interviews of visitors at the Quai Branly, opening day (23 June 2006).

Michel Boccara, anthropologist at the CNRS (22 June 2006). 

Dominique Borne, former doyen de l’Inspection Générale de l’Education Nationale, historian (22 June 2006).

Michel Giraud, Senior Research fellow at the CNRS, specialist of the history and memory of slavery in the West Indies (24 June 2006). 

Maurice Godelier, anthropologist at L'Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales and former research director at the Quai Branly (27 June 2006).

Hélène Lafont-Couturier, director of "muséographie" for Cité de l’histoire de l’immigration (27 June 2006).

Herman Lebovics, professor at the State University of New York, researcher on former French Empire (26 June 2006).

Pap Ndiaye, historian at Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) and co-founder of the CRAN (Representative Council of French Black Associations), (24 June 2006).

Sally Price, art historian and Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary (26 June 2006).

Emmanuelle Saada, researcher and teacher in the Institute of French Studies at New York University and at ENS, specialist of history of colonization (22 June 2006).

Marc Touret, historian and geography teacher, working for the French National Library (23 June 2006).

Published Sources 

Raymond Corbey, "Arts Premiers in the Louvre." Anthropology Today. August 2003, pp.3-6.

Michel Daubert (and others), "Quai Branly. Le Musée de l’Autre," Télérama Hors Série (June 2006).

Benoit de l'Estoile, "From the Colonial Exhibition to the Museum of Man: An Alternative Genealogy of French Anthropology." Social Anthropology. 2003, pp.341-361.

Newspapers (Le Monde, Figaro, Libération, The International Herald Tribune Paris, Le Parisien, The Economist) (from 17 June to 26 June 2006). 

Sally Price, Arts primitifs ; regards civilisés, ENSBA (1989, reed. 2006).


France Inter, "Les arts premiers : objets d’art ou de science ?" (A. Langaney, AC Taylor, B. de L’Estoile) Le Téléphone sonne (19 June 2006).

Radio France International, "Le Musée du Quai Branly change-t-il le regard sur l’autre ?" (Eric Deroo, Françoise Vergès, Benoît de l’Estoile) Culture Vive (22 June 2006).

Radio France International (RFI), special broadcast : "Regards sur l’humanité : d’hier à aujourd’hui, des hommes, rien que des hommes" (24 June 2006).





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