THE MUSÉE DU QUAI BRANLY : « A MUSEUM FOR VIEWING THE OTHER »
At the legendary “Musée du Quai Branly”, built in the heart of Paris, are showcased the arts and civilizations of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas, featuring magnificent collections that have been acclaimed as treasures of the non-European world. Long ignored and unappreciated, or restrictively labelled as curiosities, these “faraway” non-Western cultures are exhibited over a vast area that highlights “the full extent of their depth and subtlety” by fostering a lasting dialogue between individuals and cultures.
Already defined as “un musée du regard sur l’Autre” (“a museum for viewing the Other”), the Musée du Quai Branly was born of the resolve of French President Jacques Chirac to “give arts and civilizations that have been neglected for far too long their rightful place”, with the aspiration that the museum will also become “an instrument of peace that bears witness to the equal dignity of all cultures and individuals”.
The Museum du Quai Branly project’s first step was completed in April 2000 with the opening at the Louvre – a “temple of Western art” – of the “Pavillon des Sessions”, devoted to the arts of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas. The gallery comprises 120 stunning art pieces selected by Jacques Kerchache, a passionate primitive arts expert who, like President Chirac, firmly believed that “no hierarchy exists among the arts” or cultures. In 1990, he penned a manifesto entitled Pour que les chefs d’œuvre du monde entier naissent libres et égaux (“The world’s masterpieces are born free and equal”). Jacques Kerchache died in 2001, five years before the inauguration of the future Musée du Quai Branly, scheduled to open in June 2006. The reading room has been named in his honour.
The museum, designed by architect Jean Nouvel as “a building nestled in the landscape and awaiting discovery, intended to serve as a home to these different forms of arts rather than as an example of Western architecture”, is built from the ground up along the Seine, at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, on the city’s last major undeveloped lot (25,000 square metres) in the heart of Paris.
The main edifice, which houses the combined collections of the Ethnological Laboratory of the Musée de l’Homme and the now-closed Musée des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie (MAAO) – some 300,000 artifacts – is a long, fluid building raised on piles. It overlooks an 18,000-square-meter garden planted with 180 trees growing over 15 meters tall in order to conceal the building. A ramp leads to the 6,500-square-metre main gallery, the museum’s central exhibition area, where 3,500 objects are on permanent display alongside thematic presentations: 2,000 square metres have been set aside for these temporary exhibits (ten annually). The museum also features a 500-seat amphitheatre opening onto a luxuriant green setting, a 120-seat cinema, a 180-seat multimedia study and research library with some 250,000 works for consultation (including 25,000 available for open consultation), state of the art multimedia resources, and a panoramic restaurant.
The Musée du Quai Branly was designed as a new type of cultural institution, with a dual purpose: to conserve and exhibit the collections, and to stimulate research and instruction. The museum will also run a programme of performing arts events – theatre, dance and music – designed to resonate with the wide range of exhibits on display. This will enhance the site’s role as a convivial “cultural city” of non-Western arts showcasing non-European populations: an area where cultures, civilizations and individuals meet and mingle.
In parallel to the construction of the buildings, a preventative conservation campaign, unprecedented in the history of French public museum collections, has been underway for three years in order to disinfect, clean, restore, identify, catalogue and photograph each one of the 300,000 objects transferred to the Quai Branly site – from the humblest tools used in everyday life, weapons and jewellery to the most exceptional sculptures. Art lovers are able to view these objects on the Internet.
An unusual “keeper” of the premises was already in place prior to the transfer of the other works of art to their new home. It is an enormous Senegalese megalith in the shape of a lyre, carved from red volcanic stone, and which for 40 years stood guard at the entrance to the MAAO. Weighing in at nearly 6 tonnes, and measuring 2.4 metres in height and 1.6 metres in width, the colossal sculpture would not have been able to fit through the completed building’s windows and doors. So it was neatly packed in a gigantic wooden crate and lowered by crane onto the site prior to the construction of the roof terrace. The lyre welcomes visitors to the Department of African Arts, where an equally exceptional masterpiece of Dogon art from Mali is on display: a magnificent 11th or 12th century wooden statue from the Djenne region.
Many gifts and new acquisitions complete the collection of transferred objects: notably, the world’s most remarkable collection of ethnic ornaments and jewels from the Indonesian Archipelago, remarkable for its size and diversity. This collection was donated by passionate Swiss art collectors Monique and Jean-Paul Barbier-Mueller, founders of the museum that bears their name.
Contemporary artistic creation also has its place in the Musée du Quai Branly. Eight aboriginal artists from Australia were invited to decorate the façade and ceilings of one of the museum’s edifices, perpetuating the spiritual heritage of a millenary art of parietal and bark painting evocative of the aboriginal “Dreamtime” that explains the origins of the world.