Jacques Chirac's ambitious museum, partly hidden inside a garden, opened in June 2006. © Musée du quai Branly, photo: Roland Halbe
Controversial ethnographic museum was a grand project of the former French president
The Musée du Quai Branly, Paris’s museum of non-Western arts and civilisations, celebrates its tenth anniversary this month. To mark the occasion, the museum has organised an exhibition opening today on the former French president Jacques Chirac, who was the driving force behind this ambitious institution on the south bank of the Seine (Jacques Chirac and the Dialogue of Cultures, until 9 October). Chirac, who has a personal interest in Japanese and Pre-Columbian art, was deeply committed to establishing what has become the world’s greatest museum of non-Western art.
Chirac’s grand plan was to bring together two Parisian collections: those of the Musée National des Arts d’Afrique et Océanie and the ethnographic section of the Musée de l’Homme. The highlights include African masks, Peruvian pottery figures and Asian textiles. At the time, some criticised the decision to take work from existing institutions to build a new one. But Steven Engelsman, the director of Vienna’s Weltmuseum, says that the Quai Branly has “worked miracles to increase the public appreciation of ethnographic collections and museums”.
The museum has held 97 shows—almost ten a year. Its ambitious exhibition programme focuses on specific non-Western cultures (such as Matahoata: Arts and Society in the Marquesas Islands, until 24 July) and cross-cultural themes (such as Persona, Strangely Human, until 13 November).
Looking to the future, the museum’s founding president, Stéphane Martin, feels that more emphasis should be placed on the permanent collection, which occupies just 60% of its display space, and slightly less on exhibitions. There could well be a redisplay during the coming decade to present the collection in a fresh way.
Spotlight on the display
Since the museum opened in 2006, the installation of its collection has been controversial. The objects are under spotlights in a darkened gallery, raising questions about whether they should be regarded as works of art or ethnography. The impact is certainly dramatic, but many visitors end up understanding little about the cultures that created these objects.
Moving forward, the Quai Branly must also consider how to deal with acquisitions. Nicholas Thomas, the director of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (and a member of the Quai Branly’s council), believes that the Parisian museum should put more resources into collecting contemporary art. “How to renew collections, and create collections for the future, is among the greatest challenges for museums of ethnography,” he says.
Despite the controversies, the museum’s global ambition is even more important today than it was a decade ago. As Martin explains: “In these troubled times, the Musée du Quai Branly must remain, more than ever, a place of dialogue and openness to others.”
Inside the Museum du Quai Branly
The collection of the Quai Branly comprises around 300,000 items (plus photographs and documents), many of them from former French colonial territories. At the heart of the Jean Nouvel-designed building is a 200m-long gallery, raised above the ground on huge stilts. This meandering structure houses 3,500 objects from the permanent collection, with sections on Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas. The museum attracted 1.3 million visitors last year, making it the fourth most popular in Paris; 83% of its visitors are French, a high proportion for a major museum in a tourist capital. Most of its budget (a total of more than €50m a year) comes from the government.