Inside Musée Quai Branly, an African Disneyland

[A shorter version of this article was originally published in 2006 by cafebabel here.]

Museums house objects. Cast adrift from previous lives, these objects stutter on in display cases. The museum then faces an important task: how to bring these objects to life? How to make them live again? This afterlife is made through arrangements, classifications and comparisons. What to put next to what, with what information. Museums give a version of history; they offer an insight into the way the past is interpreted by the present. 

Some of the first museums were in Scandinavia – it was here that the three ages system was invented. The stone age, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age -- history was an evolutionary grading of technology that culminated in, you guessed it, European man. For nearly two millennia, man had known how old the world was. God had created the world in six days – and by the end man was on this earth. The first great collections of objects from other cultures kept this world view. The wunderkammer, or cabinets of curiosity, of the Renaissance, made comparisons between native American Indians and the old testament Jews due to the common practice of circumcision. Everything was touched by God's hand.

The first museums emerged out of Darwin and secularism. Suddenly we had thousands of empty years to fill; suddenly God was no longer at the centre of the world; suddenly the question of what could unify people together was being posed again. The very first museums were Napoleonic – designed to instill pride in the great French empire. Ethnographic museums came later; these great storehouses of the trophies of colonialism were conceived as an exploration and celebration of the human spirit. Diversity, of course, but within a universal model where colonialism was the implicit mode of government.

Colonialism; universalism, evolutionary theories of history: even nationalism, all these are dirty terms today. What nation should the museum eulogize? Which historical project? Until this year, Paris had one of the most important ethnographic museums in the world – the Musée de l’homme. It was designed not simply as a museum, but also as a place of teaching, of educating the French public in the meaning of these objects taken from the colonies. It was also, famously, the place Picasso and Co. discovered Africa, using flashlights to peer at masks in the dusty museum.

Earlier this year, the baton was passed to the Musée Quai Branly, who in turn plundered most of its objects from the Musée de l’homme.

As I entered France, Sarkozy announced that no more amnesties would be given to hundreds of children of illegal immigrants who were to be deported. Last November, the banlieues went up in flames as the children of France’s colonial workers protested their marginalization. Nowhere does France seem to be living easily with its colonial inheritance. Maurice Godelier, a noted French anthropologist and an advisor to the museum, announced that Quai Branly would be a post-colonial museum, and that it must “find a means to introduce into the museum the contemporary history of contemporary societies.” The Musée Quai Branly is about to start a series of lectures on colonial history, and the question arises, how does the museum live with its past?

Entering the Zoo

The name of the museum was not easily chosen. One of the early mooted possibilities was the Museums of First Arts. At the opening Chirac said, without a hint of irony, that he refuses evolutionary sequences of human history, and that in this museum we should appreciate the first arts. First? What came after?

Walking to the entrance of the museum and you begin to appreciate what Chirac was trying to do. A large glass wall separates the buzz of the outside world from the museum. Through it one peers at a veritable jungle. It seems like an African Disneyland. First arts here means: objects removed from the outside world, of which they are a proper part. To enter the museum’s central display, I walk up a long stairway – the architect seems to want us to forget the outside world. As I go up, I glimpse a moment of the museum's history. A long glass display case filled with the stock that is not on display. Silent musical instruments heaved into cases, which, with their rigidity and order, seem like nothing less than medical specimens. The bones of history. Michel Leiris, one of the foremost French anthropologists and a member of the Dakar-Dijibouti exhibition on which many of the objects displayed were collected, noted these objects stand testament to our urge to have, as much as our urge to know.

In these cases we see what ethnographic museums used to try to do – the scientific quantification of other cultures; objects formed into patterns. Facing this exposed piece of the museum's past is the museum's present. There is a series of large video screens showing a series of exotic landscapes and smiling brown faces. Museum MTV. On the screens, there are people without objects: a smiley multiculturalism without content, without any sense of what might make people different. We, the video seems to say, all live in the same world, the world of images and appearances. On the other side, stacked up like preserved cadavers, objects without people. Later, I overhear a child asking her mother, mummy, who are the Dogon? She looked lost – from the objects displayed, it would be easy to say, “these are the Dogon” – this mask, this statue – anything but people.

If the Musée du l’homme was designed to appreciate the diversity of human nature (in a colonial setting), then the Musée Quai Branly is Duchamp for the age of minority politics: everyday items ruptured from the world and placed in glass cages. Everything stands separated – the passage between cultures, the interconnections that makes us what we are, are never shown. Things do not improve in the interior of the museum. Jean Nouvel, the architect, says he wanted to create a museum “free of all western forms.” So gone are the banisters, railings and stairs you know so well. Instead, everything is dark. There is little available light as you follow the brown central path, what Nouvel calls “the snake”, through his strange theme park. Masks from West African secret societies are presented behind a wall display made to look like a tree trunk, as if to evoke the forests in which the masks were used. It doesn’t – it only evokes a failed Disneyland.

The ethnographic present

The anthropologist Johannes Fabian coined the term the ethnographic present to explain how anthropologists constructed a fictional time before European contact – a time which stood still and contained all cultures before we came along and brought them history and movement. The ethnographic present ignores the rich history of other cultures before contact with Europe, and makes cultures seem impure after contact. If the ethnographic present had a home, it would be the Musée Quai Branly. Objects from all periods and all cultures are jumbled together, but without any sense of the connections between them. The computers and video screens that might help someone make sense of the display are set aside, well away from the objects. Godelier admits that this one done in order not to affect the aesthetic experience. It has the effect of making them seem like installation art.

But if France is the one culture not on display, it is the one culture that makes its presence felt everywhere. This much is suggested by a poster for the museum. It shows a statue from the Pacific Islands placed in the centre of Place du Concorde, with the catch line, les cultures sont fait pour dialoguer. Cultures are made for dialogue – but on our terms. Your objects, our construction of meaning.

In his film, Les Statues Meurent Aussi, Chris Marker decries the removal of objects from the contexts in which they have lived and breathed. In some cases this is literal, statues that were believed to be living now grace the museums’s cabinets, dead. But Marker’s film is not totally convincing. While statues die, they can also come back to life again.

If the objects at Quai Branly were given their histories, they would begin a second life. If the objects were presented as emerging from their history -- with bits of Leiris' journal, comparisons to contemporary practice, and a history of the object since it arrived in France in France -- we would have a museum appropriate to a world in which national glory (the museum's founding raison d’être) is no longer a viable model for museology.

Every (ethnographic) museum must become a museum of itself.

Some wrongly interpret this as a debate about aesthetics vs. context. The choice is between either having beautiful objects the world can appreciate or providing detailed ethnographic information that risks overloading the reader. Is the object functional or aesthetic? This is a false opposition.

Though the Hausa potter might have an different notion of aesthetics, his pots, however functional, have an aesthetic quality. And even the most prized works of art hanging in the Louvre played (and continue to play) a functional role in society -- every painting is also part of a symbolic class structure, as Bourdieu has lengthily detailed. Indeed, the aesthetic qualities of most objects have a large role in their functionality – if a Devil mask is not scary and impressive, it doesn't function too well as a Devil mask.

Museums beautify. It is part of what they do. And perhaps, in an age where it is highly unlikely that most visitors to the museum will have any idea about the cultures on display, the appreciation and visual shock of an object that leads to fascination and self-questioning is perhaps the best we can hope for. But the Musée Quai Branly doesn’t not present the objects like they were objects of art, and this is not a debate about aesthetics. It is about politics; it is about the stories we tell about these objects, and through them, the stories we tell about our own past.

Out of the darkness

As the Musée Quai Branly opened its doors, the old debate about returning objects sparked up. The critics demand that we return the objects to where we found them.

These are demands we should refuse.

There is no original context to which objects can return, just as they have no singular meaning. The demands for return are made by nationalist voices, who will place them in a new, nationalist context. Also, to return the objects would be to refuse the fact that they are now part of our history – just as French immigrants are now an indivisible part of French society.

For what else explains why these are objects are here? What connection is there between Papuan fertility figures and Congolese fetish figures other than French colonial history? And it is this history, the history of the museum, but also the history of the society we are today, that is absent from the museum. And it is this absence that makes its presence felt everywhere.

On the left, as you enter the main collection, hidden in the gloom and without lighting, is the only piece of information on the history of the acquisition of the objects. Murky photographs of Maurice Leenhardt and Michel Leiris peer out of the darkness. Below them is the bold statement. “Behind every artifact in the museum lurks a human adventure.” Colonialism. That human adventure. “Their journeys invariable filled with encounters [with all the people noticeably absent from the museum - they met them so we didn't have to] and some enhanced by close ties subsequently forged with people from far off lands.” In his journal, Michel Leiris put it somewhat differently – “this love we have for objects, this obsession… is something I cannot admit without shame.”

To give life

This is not to say that the museum should be a condemnation of colonialism (though a single mention would be nice). A good museum should decentre any one meaning for an object – it should make the public question the object as a work of art, and as a functional object, and ultimately, it should call into question the object as museum piece. Ultimately, the museum must display the history of the object.

There is no history in the Musée Quai Branly. It suggests that the rest of the world exists as a series of exotic objects to be admired, or as a series of photogenic faces adorning video walls. Objects without people, easy to admire. People without objects, easy to assimilate.

Sarkozy marches into the banlieues with promises of instilling law and order. Angry faces stare out at us from French television. Initiation masks stare back from fake forests. Cars explode and little shrunken heads emerge out of the half-light. All of these things are French, none of them are presented this way.

Just after the riots of November 2005, the secretary of the Institut Français, the powerhouse of the French language, suggested that the immigrants had all come from African villages and were just acting in the style to which they are accustomed. This shows the depth of the distance between the French understanding of its colonial history and the reality of France today. Sadly, the Musée Quai Branly has nothing to close this distance.