At Quai Branly
by Jeremy Harding
Jacques Chirac's museum on the quai Branly, opened last summer, continues to pull large crowds at weekends. Chirac, a long-time admirer of what used to be called 'primitive' art, made a great deal of noise at the start of his first presidential term about the need to show the various public collections to better advantage. He suggested, not entirely in passing, that some of the artefacts in the Musée de l'homme should be housed at the Louvre. The idea, which he'd borrowed from the eccentric collector Jacques Kerchache, left the Louvre in turmoil. It also put the social scientists at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes and the keepers of the Musée de l'homme into a state of battle-readiness: the museum’s wonderful collection of artefacts was a storehouse of meanings that could not be divulged by aesthetics alone.
What Chirac really wanted was a monument, a Chirac museum in the manner of Mitterrand's Bibliothèque nationale, but he could hardly insist while he was busy urging cuts in public spending. The comic stand-off he created was very much to his advantage. The rugged ethnographic faction would not let their cherished objects fall into the hands of the exquisite fops at the Louvre if they could help it. The anaemic Louvre contingent, for its part, turned a shade paler at the prospect of having to take on all that mud-stained primitive clutter: for an inkling of how matters stood at the Louvre, think of Norman Bates as he watches Marion Crane's car being winched from the swamp beside the motel.
A solution was found. It appeared to favour the rugged party over the dandies and took the form of a new commission. The building would go up on a plot of public land across the river from the Palais de Chaillot, the home of the Musée de l'Homme. Chirac had got what he wanted without having to go begging.
The arguments surrounding a new museum dedicated to 'the arts and civilisations of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas' continue to bubble away. They include a strong minority view that the museum patronises the cultures it wishes to invest with lustre. Objections from scholars – the rugged faction no less than the fops – turn on whether a Tuareg tent cushion, for instance, is an extremely pretty household object, a ceremonial device or a work of art. Not everyone is happy, finally, with Jean Nouvel's architecture, especially the main building which houses the permanent collection: a long nave – more than two hundred metres – set on stilts and gently curved, endorsing the nearby bend in the Seine.
The real difficulty for the Musée du quai Branly lies beneath these controversies. [read on...]