Look on Our Works: Ethnography and Aesthetics at the Musée du Quai Branly

The Musée du Quai Branly, opened in Paris in 2006, acts as a window onto non-Western cultures. In its permanent collections, the Quai Branly displays objects from Oceania, Asia, Africa, and the Americas to a majority-Parisian public. The museum’s curators encourage visitors to engage with the collections as art objects as well as to appreciate the significance of these objects in their original cultural contexts. I argue that the Quai Branly facilitates discovery of its collections as works of art and as ethnographic objects, but that the global significance of the objects subverts the definition of the collections as unfamiliar and thus complicates the discovery that the museum encourages. This duality of discovery and familiarity reflects the reality of the relationships of space and place between cultures in the globalized world.

Susan Pearce asserts that museums must understand themselves in order to understand their relationship with the public. As a cultural institution with global resonance, the Quai Branly must be studied as an important domain in the encounter between the world’s cultures. This paper is based on my fieldwork at the Quai Branly in 2009-2010, as well as on library research. I conducted interviews with an information agent at the museum, with curators from each of the museum’s geographical sections, and with the director of the Quai Branly’s visitor research. I also performed participant observation in the Quai Branly’s collections and conducted interviews with visitors.
Three issues both support and complicate the definition of the visitor’s experience at the Quai Branly as the discovery of unfamiliar cultures. The translation that takes place when an object is removed from its original cultural context and displayed in a museum, the human fascination with the other, and colonial history all simultaneously characterize and complicate the process of exploration that the Quai Branly’s curators seek to create at the museum. Sally Price critiques the distinction between the concepts of primitive art and art proper as a distinction between non-Western and Western objects. The opposition between these two categories indicates the role of the dynamic between the self and the other in the discovery of unfamiliar cultures at the Quai Branly. This relationship rests upon the arguments of Edward Said and Nicholas Thomas concerning the construction of a non-Western other within the framework of colonialism. Cross-cultural translation, the relationship between the self and the other, and colonial history reveal the importance of place in constructing definitions of material culture.

Two individuals in the Paris museum world exerted particular influence on the Quai Branly as a site for cultural dialogue. Art dealer Jacques Kerchache’s aesthetic approach and anthropologist Maurice Godelier’s ethnographic focus define the process of discovery of the Quai Branly’s collections as both works of art and as ethnographic objects. The collections space, designed by Jean Nouvel and often singled out for praise or criticism, influences the visitor’s encounter with the museum’s objects. Through the organization of the collections according to curators’ ethnographic and aesthetic goals, the museum both offers insight into non-Western cultural spaces and creates a unique space for dialogue between Western and non-Western cultures. The Quai Branly’s intellectual genesis and physical qualities provide a sense of place for the experience of discovery that the museum seeks to create for its visitors.

The Quai Branly occupies a prominent position in the global museum dialogue and seeks to act as a universal museum, that is, as an institution that transcends cultural boundaries in order to present its collections as relevant for all human populations. Kwame Anthony Appiah’s theory of cosmopolitanism offers insight into the Quai Branly’s role in the contemporary globalized world and illuminates its contested definition as a universal museum, which shapes the process of discovery that the Quai Branly seeks to create.

The thesis-antithesis relationship that I identify in the Quai Branly’s simultaneous support and complication of a process of cultural discovery both stems from and reveals the complex interactions between the world’s cultures historically and in the present day. This relationship signals the role of space and place for the Quai Branly.

Susan Falls (sfalls@scad.edu) is the contributing editor of the SUNTA column in Anthropology News.

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