Monday, June 23, 2008

Quai Branly vs. the Musée de la Marine

Last week we visited two museums with major exhibitions on the Pacific: the Musée du Quai Branly and the Musée de la Marine. The Quai Branly houses art from collections that were previously held at the Musée de l'Homme (as ethnographic material) and the Musée national des Arts d'Afrique et d'Océanie: hence, the result is a collection of art from Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas (with significant omissions, like most of China and Japan). The Musée de la Marine is dedicated to the history of seamanship and marine exploration in France. Both were impressive in their own way; but ironically it was the Musée de la Marine which came away more strongly than the famous if controversial Quai Branly.

The building at Quai Branly has been open for two years and is alternately hailed and vilified for its architectural choices. When evaluating new architecture in Paris it must be pointed out that compared to other cities Paris is extraordinarily architecturally consistent, thanks to the 19th century Haussmann plan which also created its main avenues and oblique intersections. It often strikes me that it is probably more difficult to innovate architecturally in Paris than elsewhere, because the city is so uniform over all. Still, one would hope that it wouldn't be completely impossible.

The architect of this building chose not to build right to the edge of the sidewalk, which is the pattern for most Parisian buildings. If they have open space on the lot, it is usually in the form of an interior courtyard. In this case, by contrast, the footprint of the building is considerably smaller than the lot itself. The Quai Branly edge of the lot, notionally the front, is faced with a giant curtain wall of clear glass, on which the names and images of special exhibitions and events are applied (how is not clear: with decals or paint, it appears). One part of the building is built up to the sidewalk, and this part is the famous "living wall" of mosses and saprophytic plants: a strangely organic effect, sort of anti-architectural. Behind the glass wall is a lush and jungly garden, which one passes through to reach the building. The museum itself is elevated on pillars above the ground, so that it is quite open below, except for a restaurant on one side and the bookstore/entry point on the other. The facade of the museum, up above, is made of large projecting blocks of different, saturated colors.

Given the enormous space the building occupies, it is remarkable how little of that space is used for actual museum displays. The washrooms are two stories below the entry foyer, down endless flights of shallow steps, and the exhibitions are two stories above, in the main body of the museum. The exhibition spaces are reached by a very long walk up a winding, serpentine white ramp that moves through nothingness. When we visited, the space of the ramp was somewhat relieved by a series of video installations by Trinh T. Minh-Ha, projected on the floor of the ramp, but these were soundless loops of crashing waves, exotic scenery, and the faces of brown people; on the whole, not much more diverting than the structural pillars and ductwork one also passes on the way up, and what one was supposed to learn from the video was not at all clear.

The exhibition spaces are similarly organic in shape, with curving walls and ramps, though they are filled with the usual rectangular display cases. The light is unusually low, even for a collection which includes materials like basketwork, feathers, kapa cloth, and so on, which may be damaged by excessive light. The overall effect is of excessive theatricality: as though the museum were trying to exoticize and dramatize the collection.

This is the surprising part, because the collections of the museum really don't need dramatization. They are uniformly high in quality, and one object after another had us ooh-ing and aah-ing. Spectacular wood carvings from Melanesia, tapa cloth like we'd only seen in books, shell-disk jewelry from the Solomon Islands, Maori hei tiki, and so on, to the tune of several thousand objects: it was a parade of familiar object types, for those of us who live in the Pacific, but of a quality that we'd never seen before.

We had gone particularly to see a temporary exhibition of famous artifacts from Polynesia, including incredibly rare figural statues from Hawai'i, akua hulu mano (feather gods), 'ahu'ula (feather cloaks), featherwork and wickerwork helmets, and many other things collected in Polynesia in the late eighteenth century by Captain Cook and other explorers. Again, these were familiar object types, but examples so fine and rare that we were really awed.

So the quality of the collections is really tremendous. We had only energy to see the Polynesian and other Oceanic collections, and to breeze through the Asian section of the museum. We missed Africa and the Americas entirely. But a few oddnesses began to come to our notice (besides the theatricality of the exhibition style). For instance, among the collections of artifacts from around the Pacific were paintings by living Aboriginal artists of Australia. There was no contemporary kapa cloth, no contemporary Abelam yam masks, no other forms of contemporary Pacific art production; only contemporary Aboriginal paintings. This seemed to say something a little odd and possibly unsavory about the status of the Aboriginal Australians. Similarly, the Asian collections were strangely truncated: Japan was represented by textiles of the Ainu, and China by ethnic costumes and silverwork of the southwestern minority peoples. This above all else tended to highlight the status of the Quai Branly collections as the art of "uncivilized" peoples. It's not as if there isn't folk art from China and Japan, but the ethnic majority of each of these regions was totally ignored.

Of course, looking at the exhibition from the point of view of French museology, it really only seems to reproduce the existing problems of the two museums whose collections were combined to form the Quai Branly. Both of the earlier museums had collections that were formed by colonial collecting habits: the "cabinet of curiosities" crossed with the nineteenth-century grand exposition. There is a long history in this kind of museology (which isn't confined to France, by any means) of exhibiting objects as aesthetic curiosities with little to no contextualization. In its work, the Quai Branly did better than some exhibitions we've seen in Paris, like the exhibition of Oceanic materials from the Barbier-Mueller collection (of Geneva), which were on display at the incredibly froufrou Second Empire house museum, the Musée Jacquemart-André. Those pieces were shown with only a place of origin and a name: there wasn't even any information on materials or methods of construction, to say nothing of function. The Quai Branly did better, with some wall text on each of the pieces and even some recorded ambient music and embedded video. But the pieces themselves were still shown in relative isolation: their relationship to each other was unclear, as was their relationship to the viewer.

By contrast, the Musée de la Marine's exhibition on the famous voyage of the explorer Lapérouse was a smoothly integrated narrative whole, which left the reader with a strong sense not only of the importance of its subject (who was, ironically, an explorer who visited only places that had been visited before by Europeans) but of its connection to the present day. The relationship between artifacts, images, text and video was always clear and informative. It was really a textbook case of an excellent exhibition.

The exhibition began (after we had walked through the body of the museum, which contains everything from Napoleon's imperial barge to a giant Fresnel lens from a lighthouse to a strangely insectoid diving-suit from the nineteenth century) with a large-screen video projection re-enacting the wreck of Lapérouse's ship on the reefs of Vanikoro. There was next a small chamber of oil paintings, including Lapérouse himself, but also including some famous (and to us, familiar) paintings done by the artists who accompanied other explorers to the Pacific. It was really a shock to see John Webber's original painting of the death of Captain Cook at Kealakekua Bay.

The next section of the exhibition was devoted to the planning of the expedition, including bills of sale for equipment (which seemed dull but would come to have a point later) and, best of all, the large-scale maps reflecting what was known of the Pacific in 1785, with all the previous known voyages marked. Lapérouse basically travelled to areas which had been mapped and visited previously (though he was the first European to set foot on the island of Maui) and these maps gave a strong sense of what was known and what was unknown at that time, and who had done the observing; the maps distinguished between coasts observed and coasts inferred, and some things we now recognize were missing at that point. But in fact, many of the major island groups were visible: the Carolines, Yap, Pohnpei, and Guam, Samoa, Tonga, Tahiti, Hawai'i, Easter Island, the Solomons and so on.

There was then a long hall flanked on either side with niches, one for each major stop on Lapérouse's voyage: Monterey (CA), Maui, Alaska and the Aleutians, Macau, Manila, Korea, Sakhalin Island, the Kurils, Hokkaido, Kamchatka, Samoa, Tonga, and Australia. His last recorded landfall was at Botany Bay in Australia. Fortunately all this was well documented because he was in the habit of sending materials home as frequently as possible. The overall sense one got from this part of the exhibit was of the deeply scientific and technological nature of the expedition: the botanical and ornithological collection that was done, the ethnographic drawings, the astrolabes and sextants and telescopes, the essays on celestial navigation written by members of the expedition, and so on. This was the point at which the bills of sale became relevant, as the bill of sale for 35,000 brass pins was juxtaposed with a mass of prickly metal recovered from the archaeological dig.

After the sections on the expedition itself, there was a brief recounting of the disappearance of Lapérouse's ships, which failed to return to France as planned in 1789. In 1791, Rear Admiral Joseph Antoine Bruni d'Entrecasteaux made a search expedition to find Lapérouse, but was not successful, although he did come close to Vanikoro (where in fact the expedition had been lost on the very dangerous reefs). It wasn't until the 1820s that an Irish ship's captain, Peter Dillon, purchased objects on nearby Tikopia that clearly had belonged to the Lapérouse expedition. He inquired after where they had been found, and it was in this way that the area of the wreck was identified. Some artifacts in the exhibition had been purchased from local people in Tikopia in the 1820s and 30s; the rest had been excavated from the wreck sites on the reef, starting in 1964 and continuing today. The exhibition concluded with a video of the 2000s excavations on the reef, which were attended by a descendant of Lapérouse and a descendant of d'Entrecasteaux. This video formed the end of the grand circle of the exhibition: from the wreck on the reef to the discoveries of the present day, including entomological collecting and ethnolinguistic work that was also done by members of the excavation team.

This was a really effective way to bring the show back to the present day. It worked much like the Louvre exhibition on Babylon which we had also seen, which began with the Law Code of Hammurabi and moved through the conquests and the historical imagination of Babylon, till it ended at the late 19th century archaeological discovery of Babylon, which had been the source of the objects seen at the beginning of the show. We came away with a strong sense of the expedition and a strong sense of its importance to the French historical imagination (Rex: "They obviously really cared about Lapérouse.")

By contrast, the Quai Branly exhibition came across as non-narrative and unfocused, overly theatrical and strangely obsessed with a category, the non-civilized Other, into which peoples from the Nootka to the Igbo to the Ainu were expected to fit. Its problems are not new ones; my sense is really that the reason the Quai Branly has been so controversial is that, when it was announced that the old colonial-era museums were being dissolved into a new collection, it was hoped that this would be accompanied by a reassessment of the basic museological premise of the museum, and of its strategies of display. This doesn't seem to have happened, clearly. I will be interested to read the various critiques of the museum (Sally Price's book is one: Paris Primitive: Jacques Chirac's Museum on the Quai Branly) by people who've thought about this question more than I.

It is sometimes surprising to encounter what seems to be rather old-fashioned thinking about non-European peoples in the land of liberté, égalité, fraternité. From the point of view of US-style approaches to equality and diversity (in which "separate but equal" is historically and legally acknowledged as inequality), the romanticization and exoticization of the Quai Branly does seem obviously excessive (although the same kind of thing of course does happen in the US, as witness the most recent Indiana Jones movie). There is an old, possibly colonial form of French egalitarianism that begins to explain this, a point of view in which everyone has the same opportunity to become civilized (to master the French language, to read the Great Books of the French canon, etc.). There is perhaps a stronger sense here (more tenable in a smaller country) that equality requires some degree of shared culture. I don't know enough about the history of the place to know how correct this assessment is, but it seems one way to reconcile France's strong history of liberal social policy with the oddly colonial attitudes about culture which sometimes seem to persist.


Anonymous said...

I finally decided to go through the process of getting an account so I could leave a comment!

Ben has had an interest in the "cabinets of curiosity" not so much the curiosities as the cabinets. The idea that a cabinet can be a minimuseum and provide the opportunity to stage exhibitions.

On the subject of otherness, has globalization added any new dimensions to this extremely primitive brain function? Maybe we will never be able to restructure these things.

SEB said...

Awesome, thanks for commenting! I'm sorry it's such a pain in the buttski.

About globalization, it's interesting that you frame the problem in terms of brain function. We social science/humanities types are both of the opinion that what gets called "globalization" isn't as new as its proponents would have us believe. I do work on the Silk Road, after all.

So I don't think either of us would be inclined to consider the problem of the postcolonial Other to be primarily one of neurological wiring; if it were that, you'd think that thousands of years of cross-cultural contact would have rewired our circuitry by now. I think it's more that the social world is extremely complicated, and humans are loath to give up any of the tools they have developed to make sense and meaning of it all, even after they become outdated.