I’m trying hard, very hard, to be fair to the new Musee du quai Branly. My visit began well enough – a pleasant hot chocolate in the showpiece garden, watching the sun set over the nearby Eiffel Tour. Then it was downhill from there: to reach the actual galleries requires a long trudge over a dimly lit sinuous walkway, and that theme of dramatic spot lighting combined with almost total blackness was to continue throughout the visit*. I’ve never previously thought it was possible to actually “walk into a door”, that alibi for many a black eye, but I managed to do that here – very dim lighting, combined with a reflective black door, combined to make it look like a space.
And then there were the gallery staff. “No, you can’t take notes,” one insisted. When I spluttered “but this is a museum”, he repeated his insistence several times, and it was only after he marched me over to the gallery superviser, who then had to contact her superior by radio, was it established, with great reluctance, that OK, I could take notes.
But when, finally, you can focus on the exhibits (when you aren’t falling over fellow visitors in the gloom) all of the inconvenience and irritation seems worth it. There’s no doubt that here as an amazing, astonishing, spectacular collection of human creation and creativity in all of its forms.
Folowing the less than clear path suggested by the gallery design, the visitor starts in Oceania. The first item to catch my eye was a sensational piece from Papua New Guinea of a woman emerging from an eagle and a crocodile, one of those pieces that makes you feel the artist has found the shapes in the wood rather than created from scratch. An electronic display off to the side, when you find it, reveals that in Sepik River mythology, the crocodile is the creator of the physical world: from its back sprang the earth, from its mouth came the sun, and its upper jaw became the sky. It is also the ancestor of the first animals and men; scarifications on the back giving an appearance of crocodile skin are part of male initiation ceremonies.
Illustrating such occasions there’s an appparently modern video of a boys’ initiation ceremony showing the crafting of an ancestor’s skull into a statue. It provokes the sort of discomfort these things always provoke – if this is staged, well fine as far as it goes. If not, then should we be watching such an intimate, personal event?
There’s much focus here on music – back in the entrance hall the stairs down to the toilets, cloakroom etcetera twist around a central storage area for instruments of every kind. Nice idea, although the way it causes people to stop suddenly has nasty effects on traffic flow and is likely to prove disasterous in peak tourist season.
But back in Papua New Guinea, on display are flutes very like didgeridoos, which, we’re told, speak with the voice of a particular ancestor who is modelled on it. Iteems ancestors aren’t on mass a tuneful lot.
In the side displays, the visitor learns about the “liminal beings” for these societies (buzz word alert). The turtle is an intermediary between the living and ancestors “as an amphibian”. Sharks, because they can approach shores, belong partly in the world of humans, but also cross the ocean depths – the world of the ancestors. In the Solomons they thought of as a human ally, leading fishermen to well-stocked areas.
Next up were a fine, spectacular collection of war shields, lit like fine sculptures. Which was where my moral discomfort started to match the moral. These were serious matters of life and death – is it really defensible to present them as “objet d’art’?
Nearby we see some of this warfare in action, in what we are told is the Baliem Valley, filmed, the nature of the image suggests, in the Sixties or Seventies. Perhap the conflict was mostly ceremonial, but the camera lingers on man with a spear through his thigh and the removal of one from the chest of another. Is he dead at the end? It is not entirely clear. Again, should we really be watching this, here, in the comfortable surroundings of “civilisation”? We’re being presented with, it seems “primitive” warfare, for little more than entertainment.
Then from one side I see a huge, beatifully stylised wood shark whose spiked jaws are ridden oddly but seemingly comfortably by a human figure. Walk around the other side and it holds the skull of an ancestor. This was collected, the label says, from an “expedition of 1934-36”. It could be the remains of the great grandfather of someone alive today. If they were French, would the remains be displayed this way?
From New Caledonia, a mask with an enormous hooked nose, bulging cheeks and a wide grin showing white teeth, all under a huge hair headdress and above a cloak of feathers, makes me smile, think of a carnival mask. But it shouldn’t, for it was for a funeral ceremony – but until you read the label nothing in the display gives you a hint of the appropriate approach.
Then having looked at a lot of labels, what sinks in is what is here, and what is missing. Of course it is traditional for museums to record the provenance of items on display, but perhaps it should have been rethought here. For what you get is a list, label after label after label, of European collectors, mostly men (and a few women) who took these objects under frequently dubious circumstances and are now being rewarded with more or less perpetual fame. It is probably unavoidable (the records hardly ever exist) that the names of the craftspeople, or even the chief who one way or another handed over these objects are not recorded, but the focus is all on the European, colonial side.
You’d love to know about the women who made great spectacular sheets of Tahiti bark cloth – after hour upon hour of pounding the fibres. Or the wonderful Maori capes of linen (Phornium tenax) from the start of 19th century. Instead, when you get to a delightful friendly pottery dog from a Mexican culture that flourished between 300BC and 600Ad the most detailed piece of information provided is that it was presented by Don President Copez-Matro to General de Gaulle on his visit in 1964.
I concentrated particularly on the Oceania collection, for these were areas that my Australian education disgracefully neglected. But as you range across the continents on the Branly, there are many other treasures to be found, many other educations. I didn’t know that Hebei, near Beijing, is famous for its shadow puppets made from donkey hide. (No, although all labels come in four languages, the “why” wasn’t explained.)
But that pretty well sums up China – presumably it is granted a “civilised, almost European tag” that allows it extensive space at the Louvre. And there’s even a Roman lamp, but it is from Tunisia, so I guess that gives it a place with the “foreigners”.
There’s a beautiful Zoroastrian women’s tunic with dot patterns oddly reminiscent of the traditional Aboriginal paintings that appear earlier – but then you might also make comparisons with the Impressionists – why should they not be displayed in the MusÃ©e de l’Orangerie?
Writhing along the floor is an enormous, impressive wooden snake, from a sigini ceremony, held every 60 years by the Dogon in Burkina Faso. The relic should later be stored in a sanctuary – yet somehow this came to be chopped into piece for easy transport (ow) and ended up here.
At least the spectacular ceremonial paddles from the Chincha Kingdom, a semi-independent dependency of the Incas, look like they survived in one piece. They sound like a fascinating group – almost a parallel to the Phoenicians, described as a caste of sea-going traders. These paddles were grave-markers.
You get to the end and it is clear there is something monumental, missing. You’ve visited a museum that is part anthropology, part art, and been all around the world, except to Europe. And that’s one thing that might help to balance some of the morally questionable aspects of the Branly – present Europe in the same manner, with the same form of analysis, with the same weight here – and then you wouldn’t be constructing this as “the weird things Other People have done”, people not like us.
Why is it, after all, that the fine chapel of Ethiopian Christian wall paintings, which in style and iconography would be entirely at home beside their Byzantine compatriots, here, rather than in the Louvre. Is it just because of the skin colour of the people who created them? And why is it that the story of Dahomey, to give just one example, is told by a slideshow using entirely colonial era engravings that focus on the “barbarity” of the regime – the regime that French troops would eventually destroy for their own colonial ambitions?
The moral ambiguities are, finally, recognised, right at the very end of the approved path through the exhibition, when most visitors will be thinking of nothing but a shot of caffeine, or something stronger. It reads:
“Collections are never complete. They tell the long story that begins with the exploration of the world by Westerners, and then continues with colonial conquests, thnographical expeditions, and the discovery of these objects by artists in the early 20th century. The way these eyes view the other… comes across in the collection.”
This is not an adequate, not even approaching, an adequate, attempt to deal with the issues.
So, there are here hundreds of objects that, on their own, would justify the visit, and I’d have to urge you to make that visit. But it is a grave pity that the design of this spectacular museum has allmost disappeared up its own concept, and that so little serious consideration seems to have been given to the problematic morality of the whole collection.
The museum’s details can be found here. Lest you think I might have been biased by my black-eye experience – here’s a Guardian take on it. Here’s a summary of other views.
*I visited on the Thursday night late opening. It probably isn’t quite so bad during the day, but if you are planning to open at night, some provision for lighting might be a good idea.