The Musée du Quai Branly, opening tomorrow, intends to promote a respectful view of world cultures.
Imperialist? Moi? Not the Musée du Quai Branly
By ALAN RIDING
Published: June 22, 2006
PARIS, June 21 — President Jacques Chirac of France has always liked African and Asian art, as he demonstrated with a flourish this week when he inaugurated the Musée du Quai Branly, a large, eye-catching building costing $295 million and devoted entirely to non-Western art. Announced in 1996 and years in the making, it is the first major museum to open in Paris since the Musée d'Orsay in 1986.
The museum, designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel, stands on a prime piece of real estate, on the Left Bank of the Seine, one block from the Eiffel Tower. Its gallery space is no less impressive. Half is used to display 3,500 objects from the museum's collection of 300,000 works from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas; the rest is given over to temporary exhibitions.
The museum's goal is simple and ambitious: to treat non-Western art with the same deference that, say, the Louvre gives to Greek, Roman and Renaissance art and the Musée d'Orsay gives to the Impressionists. In other words it is an artistic project with the eminently political objective of proclaiming France's openness to the world.
"There is no hierarchy among the arts, just as there is no hierarchy among peoples," Mr. Chirac said at the opening ceremony on Tuesday. "It is upon this conviction — the equal dignity of the cultures of the world — that this museum is founded."
The museum, he added, is a homage to peoples who have suffered conquest, violence and humiliation. "It aims to promote among the public at large," he said, "a different, more open and respectful view, dispelling the clouds of ignorance, condescension and arrogance which in the past have often nourished distrust, contempt and rejection."
The museum opens to the public on Friday, but it has already been visited by museum directors, anthropologists, private sponsors and the news media. And, as occurred with Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, and Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin, among others, the first work of art to be examined here has been the museum itself. It is the third built in Paris by Mr. Nouvel, after the Institute of the Arab World and the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art.
While the new museum comprises four connected buildings, one with an exterior wall covered with vegetation, the dominant feature is a 600-foot-long exhibition hall, which mirrors the gentle bend in the Seine and is peppered with 26 multicolored protruding boxes. This pierlike structure is in turn suspended so that visitors can wander freely around a large and soon-to-be-lush garden that is separated from the busy traffic of the Quai Branly by a 39-foot-high wall.
Photo: Ed Alcock for The New York Times.
The Musée du Quai Branly is Jean Nouvel's third museum for Paris.
The museum's atrium is tall enough to accommodate a 46-foot American Indian totem pole from British Columbia, while a glass tower displays some of the museum's musical instruments. A curving 600-foot-long ramp, inevitably reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright's spiral at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, then leads to the display area.
Unusually, this space is one large gallery, albeit divided by leather-covered partitions into the collection's four main geographical regions. Within each, free-standing display cabinets create a kind of warren, which encourages visitors to explore rather than to follow a particular path. From indoors, the mysterious boxes protruding from the building become small thematic rooms.
The museum spotlights individual objects in a generally dark environment, which is dramatic but also emphasizes a work's aesthetic appeal at the expense of detailed information about its origin.
The range of works is nonetheless impressive, with remarkable examples of the masks and statues from Africa and Oceania that a century ago so impressed Fauvist and Cubist artists in Paris. The Americas section embraces pre-Columbian and American Indian art, while the Asian works address daily life from Indonesia to Vietnam. (Ancient Asian masterpieces remain in the Musée Guimet, across the Seine.)
In all, a walk through the Musée du Quai Branly (pronounced kay bran-LEE) resembles a journey in which distances of time and space are telescoped into the here and now by the simple beauty and mystery of the works.
Yet even now the institution remains inseparable from politics. [read on...]