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.