jeudi, avril 19, 2007

CarlaVisitAgain Day 6: Museum of "First" Art, and Chez Denise

After a busy but at least brief day at work, I wandered back home to join Carla, who had been out walking through Le Marais during the day. After taking a few minutes at home to wind down, we headed off to the Musée du quai Branly. This recently-opened museum has had a pretty interesting history (see french Wikipedia article here); to begin with, the museum was a project (strongly supported by then-president Chirac) to deal with a fair bit of post-colonial guilt.

You see, after the expansion of the French empire into Africa and the Middle-East (and let's not forget America), Paris had accumulated a veritable treasure trove of cultural artifacts. The problem was precisely that they were treated as just artifacts: curious material evidence of "primitive" non-European cultures, of interest mainly to anthropologists and archaeologists. At the same time, there was virtually no representation of these creative works in the Louvre or any other important art museum. After efforts made by Jaques Kerchache in the 1990s to add a wing of arts premiers ("first" arts) to the Louvre met with resistance, he got Jacques Chirac interested in his project. When Chirac was elected president of France in 1995, he demanded that the Louvre add a wing for these non-canonical artworks (read: spoils of colonialism). The Louvre was having none of it, so he eventually announced a new project to create a museum specifically dedicated to these "first" arts.

Although this solved the problem of under-representation and allowed much of these collections to be appreciated as art rather than artifact, this new museum came with its own set of problems.

  • To begin with, consolidating all of these colonial collections in one place required dismantling and gutting several other collections, especially those in the Musée de l'Homme (which is the main anthropology / archaeology museum). This created a fair bit of controversy and resistance, especially since only a fifth of the "specimens" from the original collections can ever be on display at the Musée du quai Branly at any time (due to limitations of space).
  • Also, the use of the phrase "first arts" (arts premiers) is still reminiscent of the term "primitive," especially in French, implying that the artwork of other cultures somehow "precedes" the artistic developments of the Western world.
  • There have been problems of balance within the collection. There are tons of items from Oceania and Africa, but the Inuit are represented by one comb, and the native groups of Québec are represented by two woven belts.
  • The overall design of the building, although imaginatively done, preserves certain hints of "savages in the jungle" themes. The museum is actually a huge arch, allowing almost the entire surface area of the museum's grounds to be used for lush green gardens. The interior walls are a series of undulating curves that echo Gaudí's bio-morphism, and lush, jungle-like themes are present everywhere.
  • Imitating the practice of many art museums in the city, there are problems of decontextualization. Instead of the longer explicative texts common to anthropological museums, this museum usually provides no more than a paragraph of information on the articles it displays. In many cases, all you get is a terse descriptive term ("bone flute" or "totem pole") along with a list of materials used.

On the other hand, there were a few things I liked about it:

  • Despite the problems of representation, the lush green grounds are a pleasant sight in the forest of Haussmannian concrete buildings, and the interior is attractive in a rather modernist way.
  • As an ethnomusicologist, I was pretty impressed with their six-storey sealed glass "tower" of musical instruments. Whether intentional or not, it was a sort of monument to the dimensions of France's acquisitive power as an empire (if they could fill six storeys with instruments...). But I pity the poor sap who has to go in there and find something. Of course, you're only allowed to look.
  • Generally speaking, I was happy with the amount of video and audio used in the museum. Many of the exhibits had sound recordings (many by ethnomusicologist-grandaddy Hugo Zemp) that corresponded to the objects on display, as well as video that usually demonstrated how these objects were used.

Unfortunately, we didn't have time to see the whole museum, because we had dinner plans with two friends at Chez Denise (previously here and here and here). We got there a bit before our other two friends, so we grabbed an apéritif and took a moment to wind down. Once the other two arrived, we ordered a plate of rillettes and some salad as appetizers. For our main dishes, Carla got the famous mutton and white beans, our friends ordered calf's liver and a strip steak, and I got sautéed and stewed veal in a rich red sauce. As usual, the stewed dishes showed up in huge tureens placed in the centre of the table, so everybody got to taste a bit. Which is a good thing, since the portions are huge. There's no way I would've been able to eat the whole thing.

After a good dose of wine, a bit of dessert, and a digestif, we wandered back out into the night and back to our respective homes.

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