MUSEE DU QUAI BRANLY – culture or ‘merely’ theatre?

A window on the world or just empty spectacle?

Through an accident of internet-apartment booking, we found ourselves living opposite one of Paris’s newest, biggest and more controversial museums.

We loved it, though a little internet research showed me that not everyone shares our enthusiasm for the Musee du quai Branly.

The museum in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower opened in 2006, combining the collections of indigenous African, Oceanic, Asian and American art from the former Musee national des Arts d’Afrique et d’Oceanie and the ethnographic department of the Musee de l’Homme.

Architect Jean Nouvel’s building makes a spectacular impression on its site by the Seine with a living ‘green wall’ and a secluded garden. Inside, a maze of organic walls leads us through the dark halls, from which the artworks glow in their cases.

It’s a fabulous collection, a reminder that not all great creative work comes from a European tradition.

The criticism of MQB comes from those who believe that, despite its slogan ‘where cultures converse’, the superbly displayed and dramatically lit artworks lack the necessary interpretation and connection to their origins.

 The one area of MQB that I knew at least a little about was the section devoted to Australian Aboriginal art.

MQB has a superb collection of traditional bark paintings and a great example of the work of the late Rover Thomas, the artist from Warmun, in the Kimberley, who has influenced a generation of painters from that area.

Rover Thomas painting.

It would be fair to say that the collection did little to add to my understanding of Aboriginal art, and for those who know nothing about it, there was no explanation of the move from traditional painting to working on canvas.

We knew little about the origins or importance of work from other parts of the world, and couldn’t judge how indigenous people may feel about objects of sacred significance being displayed for our entertainment.

Some Catholics could feel the same way about the tourists snapping away in Notre Dame Cathedral.

There is also the uncomfortable probability that some works have only come to MQB due to colonial plundering in the days when this was not considered outre.

I began browsing and trying painstakingly to read the notes (most of them in French) by each work, hoping to educate myself about the unfamiliar cultures.

Then I gave up and just looked at the objects themselves, trying to appreciate each piece simply for its visual appeal.
Non-flash photography is permitted in the museum.


Filed under Art, France, Paris

6 responses to “MUSEE DU QUAI BRANLY – culture or ‘merely’ theatre?

  1. It is surprising what you find in unlikely places! In 2010 on a visit to Boulogne I came across what was advertised as the most important exhibition of masks from Alaska in the whole world? Why isn’t the most important exhibition of masks from Alaska in Alaska?

  2. David Young

    Hi Richard, Good to know you’re still travelling. I’ll certainly seek out the MDQ next time I’m in Paris. On the subject of ‘colonial plundering’, take a look at the British Museum next time you’re in London. Almost the entire collection (Elgin Marbles et al) has been filched.

    • I saw the MQB is in trouble with Maori people in NZ, for keeping a number of preserved Maori heads. Te Papa Museum in Wellington is also asking for artefacts to be returned.

      MQB doesn’t want to give them back but has promised they won’t be displayed.

  3. The history of this museum, and an abundance of specific arguments about why the musée du quai Branly is such a disaster, can be found in my book, *Paris Primitive: Jacques Chirac’s Museum on the Quai Branly* (published in French as *Au musée des illusions: le rendez-vous manqué du quai Branly*). To cite just one of the museum’s many failures to live up to its original goal of respecting non-European artists…. when it “honored” eight Australian Aboriginal artists by incorporating their work in the building, one of them was installed (cut in half, reversed left-to-right, patched together with part of another painting and severed in the middle by a large window looking out on an apartment building) in a narrow service entrance where it’s totally inaccessible to the public.

    • Interesting to hear your take on the MQB, Sally. As you can see from my post, I too had reservations about the lack of interpretation of the work, though I found the sheer spectacle most impressive.

      Since like many others we paid only a short visit to the museum, I couldn’t promise that I would have read a lot of interpretative information even if it had been available.

      It’s certainly a museum I would want to visit again and spend more time in.

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