museum review - Culture Comes Together
Written by Gregg Henglein
If you’re going to open up a museum in a city known for them, then you had better make it count. In the shadow of the Eiffel Tower the Musée du Quai Branly does just that.
The Museum of Natural History in Manhattan is one of the world’s most renowned. But in Paris sits what can best be described as not a museum of natural history, but a museum of cultural history.
Opening in 2006, the Musée du Quai Branly (MQB) was built to replace two older museums criticised not just for lack of character but for a taint of bias from the colonial past. As it celebrates its fifth anniversary, the MQB has been resolute in its commitment to this ‘openness on the world’. The phrase relates to the museum’s effort to wholly connect itself to the countries whose artefacts it presents.
“Most museums today are built to display art and culture directly related to the societies they issue from: museums of Chinese art are built in China; those with American art in the United States and so on,” observes museum president Stéphane Martin. “But the original function of a museum was in fact to do the opposite, to display Italian art in Spain, for example, or Spanish art in Flanders.”
And so, set along the Left Bank in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, the MQB houses under one roof nearly 300,000 tribal artefacts from Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas. Masterpieces crafted by advanced traditional civilisations are in abundance, including a varied and impressive array of tribal masks of different cultures. Though accompanied by vivid descriptions and explanations from regional scholars, these works are so lifelike that you can feel the emotion – from fear to elation and everything in-between – involved in their use.
Accompanying these artefacts is a steady flow of culture within the museum’s Claude Lévi-Strauss Theatre, where music, rituals, and ceremonies are performed to support both the museum’s standard collection and temporary exhibitions. Examples include the museum’s Blue Indigo series, which explores the relationship between jazz and world music.
Symposiums are frequent as the museum hosts foreign academics and other stakeholders from a variety of fields and backgrounds, fuelling rich debates about museology in the post-colonial world. Subjects range from cultural property to collecting practices and the distribution of power among collectors, curators, and anthropologists.
Among the most technologically advanced museums in the world, MQB is the first national museum to use a virtual ticket, known as the M-Ticket; it has also provided downloadable audio guides to exhibits. Both are accessible on iPad and Android – a true bridge between its ancient artefacts and the present day.
The Branly is celebrating its fifth anniversary with an array of offerings.
Photoquai, a biennial festival of contemporary, non-Western photography, returns to the Branly’s gardens this year. In addition, the Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand presents an exhibition on the strong and lively Maori culture, including ancestral treasures known as taonga.
Beginning in November, the museum will present Samurai: Armor of the Warrior. The warrior’s appearance, known as omotedogu, is presented for the first time in Europe, with full suits of armour, helmets, and horse armour dating from the 12th century.