Monday,24 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1308, (18 -24 August 2016)
Monday,24 September, 2018
Issue 1308, (18 -24 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

A decade of dialogue

The Musée du Quai Branly, France’s first major museum of non-European art, is celebrating its tenth anniversary with an exhibition dedicated to its founder, writes David Tresilian in Paris

Al-Ahram Weekly

“Margaret Thatcher and the dialogue of cultures” – the words do not exactly trip off the tongue, perhaps because the former British prime minister, sometimes dubbed the “Iron Lady,” was not generally known for her capacity for dialogue. Former French president Jacques Chirac, on the other hand, apparently was so known, or at least this is what the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris has been telling visitors to a new exhibition designed to celebrate the Museum’s tenth anniversary.  

“Jacques Chirac or the Dialogue of Cultures” runs at the Museum on the left bank of the Seine a stone’s throw from the Eiffel Tower until 9 October. It is part of celebrations marking the Museum’s first decade and is being held in recognition of the role Chirac, France’s prime minister in the 1980s and president from 1995 to 2007, played in founding the institution, when it opened in June 2006 the French capital’s first major new museum in 30 years, and in supporting its broader mission.

When Chirac was elected French president in 1995, the exhibition says, he gave instructions that a new institution, then called the Musée des arts premiers, the “Museum of First Arts,” was to be built in Paris recognising the world’s artistic heritage outside of the anthropological museums to which it had traditionally been largely confined in many European countries.

The Louvre, the French capital’s famous encyclopaedic museum, was not the right venue for this, Chirac felt, given its emphasis on antiquities and European art. Smaller museums, such as the Musée Guimet in the capital’s 16th arrondissement, were too small and too specialised – it focuses on traditional Southwest and Southeast Asian art – and larger institutions, such as the Musée de l’Homme, the French capital’s famous anthropological museum, presented the artefacts produced by non-European societies not as artworks, as some of them at least might be looked upon in the Louvre, but as materials designed to illustrate the broader patterns of human societies.

The new museum would look at works of art as works of art, the argument went, and not as anthropological artefacts, even if what this meant in practice was largely a matter of reclassification. The collections of the Musée de l’Homme and the Musée des Arts africains et océaniens (formerly the “Museum of the Colonies”), another chiefly anthropological museum, were therefore split. Those that stayed in the Musée de l’Homme would now be looked at anthropologically as part of a (in 1995) still to be decided on re-presentation. Those that were sent across the river to the new Museum would qualify for an aesthetic gaze, meaning that they would be presented, and presumably also looked at, first and foremost as works of art. The Musée des Arts africains et océaniens would be closed.

Ten years later when the new Museum opened, now dubbed the Musée du Quai Branly because of its location on the Seine in Paris, attention focused on the strengths and weaknesses of the new approach. The Weekly commented at the time that “western attempts at exhibiting objects from non-western cultures have come to grief over the issue of terminology, as well as over the best way of presenting such materials. While earlier European and North American writers often wrote of ‘primitive’ art when describing objects from Asia, Africa, the Americas or Oceania, objects which may not have been ‘art’ at all in the sense they gave the term, this designation is not now acceptable.”

Some of the questions raised by the new Museum had been left unresolved, the paper felt. “How should artefacts best be presented within a European ‘art museum’, even one non-traditional in form, which tends to encourage certain forms of presentation,” it asked.

“How could the Museum’s presentation of works that might in many cases be considered to be of mainly anthropological or ethnographic interest be done in such a way as to avoid their assimilation to ‘works of art,’ a category that took on much of its present meaning in the 19th century” in Europe, which also saw the construction of the first public art museums to house it?

Perhaps those questions, debated at the time the Museum opened, have faded a bit with time. They are unlikely ever to find satisfactory answers, and at a time when there has long been a certain muddling of the anthropological and aesthetic gaze, it may be that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Anthropologists are never likely to be entirely happy with the Musée du Quai Branly’s aesthetic presentation of the material records of human culture, and art critics, or those seeking aesthetic experiences in museums, are never going to feel fulfilled by the educational presentation of artefacts at traditionally conceived anthropological institutions.

As the Museum’s architect, Jean Nouvel, put it recently in an interview published on the institution’s tenth anniversary, “I absolutely did not want to present the objects as if they were in some sort of middle-class drawing room, stuck on pedestals and with tasteful lighting. I wanted to create a ‘spiritual’ space in the new Museum that would allow for cohabitation among the objects and for their dialogue.” Even so, he said, some writers at the time had criticised what they saw as the “catastrophic” exhibition design of the new Museum, wanting to see white walls instead and a traditional approach to presentation.

The Weekly, for example, wrote at the time that the “cave-like” interior of the new Museum, its windows darkened with foliage, might encourage visitors to arm themselves with “small torches” when visiting particularly the permanent exhibition. “Visitors are encouraged to construct their own itineraries,” the paper wrote, in the absence of any particular storyline, and the “viewing circuit is arranged rather like an obstacle course, with exhibition cases set at odd angles to each other and in the middle of the space rather than aligned along the walls.”

Visiting the Museum again on its tenth anniversary, there is a lot more light, even if many areas have had to be kept in darkness because of conservation requirements. In 2007, the Weekly commented on the “pot luck” character of the permanent exhibition, with “an 18th-century astrolabe from Morocco, fragments of a 9th-century minbar from Tunisia, and Moroccan ‘pilgrimage gourds’ dating from the 12th to 14th centuries” being lumped together in a display case labelled “examples of Hispano-Mauresque art,” for example. Maybe this is what Nouvel meant by “cohabitation”.

However, overall today one emerges, as perhaps those behind the new Museum always intended that one should, refreshed and astonished by the objects on display, even if there is a nagging feeling that one understands very little about them. Maybe this is the great value of the Museum’s permanent collection – to awaken curiosity, to stimulate the desire to find out more, and to impress upon visitors the enormous range, variety, and ultimately mystery of the objects on display, humbling any presupposition that “sticking them on pedestals with tasteful lighting” is an appropriate way of presenting them.

DIALOGUE OF CULTURES: The Museum’s Jacques Chirac exhibition begins by reminding visitors of changing European attitudes to non-European cultures, quoting the 19th-century French politician Jules Ferry on Europe’s “duty to civilise the inferior races,” among other ways by colonising them, before examining the mixture of admiration and appropriation that modern European artists brought to artefacts from non-European societies.

Sub-Saharan African traditional objects in particular, then termed “primitive art,” were discovered by European audiences in 1919, the exhibition says, when the first exhibition of such materials was held in Paris. There was still confusion over how they should be viewed. While the gallery in which the exhibition was held described the objects as works of art, ten years later at the International Colonial Exhibition in Paris in 1931 they were seen as anthropological items illustrating the societies that produced them, and six years after that they were denounced at the Nazi-organised “Degenerate Art” exhibition in Germany on the grounds that they had “perverted” European art.

Whether appropriation as “primitive” or rejection as “degenerate,” such attitudes gave way after the Second World War to a new emphasis on “dialogue” and “diversity,” the exhibition says, with the feelings of superiority that had widely marked European attitudes to the non-European world before the War being replaced with a new emphasis on cooperation.

The French writer André Malraux, later a trail-blazing minister of culture, published Le Musée imaginaire in 1947, designed among other things to put the world’s different cultures on an equal footing, and the distinguished French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss published his Tristes tropiques in 1955, discovering alternative logics to western ones and later famously developing his theory of “bricolage” (or DIY) in his La Pensée sauvage (The Savage Mind) in 1962.

These things are noted in the exhibition, which plots them against institutional developments, such as the foundation of the UN cultural organisation UNESCO in 1945, and events in the life of Jacques Chirac. These parts of the exhibition can feel like leafing through old photograph albums, some of them personal (1950 – Jacques takes his school-leaving exams), but most of them public and consisting of mostly long-forgotten news items, some of them of limited interest (1967 – Chirac is elected an MP), and the records of interminable official speeches (2001 – Chirac makes a speech at UNESCO).

Foreign visitors to the exhibition may find themselves bemused by the attention paid to Jacques Chirac (Jacques who, one can imagine some of them asking), and even if they are not bemused they may be bewildered by the Museum’s solemn celebration of a still-living politician. Should not hagiography on this scale have been financed by the Chirac Foundation rather than by a public-sector institution, they may find themselves asking, before perhaps concluding that this is the way such things are done in France, even if they would not be imaginable elsewhere.  

The emphasis on Chirac is also surprising because there has been so much over the past ten years that has been worth celebrating among the exhibitions and other activities put on by the Museum itself. Some of these activities have been noted by the Weekly, which wrote on exhibitions on Algerian Berber pottery and “repairwork in Africa” in 2007, on the African-Caribbean cultural review Présence africaine in 2010, on the 19th-century French orientalist writer Pierre Loti in 2013, and on Dogon artworks (from today’s Mali) also in 2013, all exhibitions at the Musée du Quai Branly.


HUMAN AND NON-HUMAN DIALOGUE: Today, too, the Museum is bearing ample witness to the new perspectives it has brought to the French capital, making it an essential port of call for visitors.

Where else in France, or in the world, can visitors browse temporary exhibitions on “Jacques Chirac and the Dialogue of Cultures,” “White Man, Black Man – Representations of the West in 20th-Century African Art,” “Persona, Strangely Human,” and “Art and Society in the Marquesas Islands” as they can at the moment at the Musée du Quai Branly, while at the same time having the opportunity to visit the Museum’s permanent collection and wander through its marvelous landscaped gardens?

“Art and Society in the Marquesas Islands,” the Museum’s main temporary exhibition, is an examination of the culture of these Pacific Islands, today part of French Polynesia, and it is perhaps best viewed by an expert eye. However, “White Man, Black Man” can be enjoyed by all, briefly examining a subject – the presentation of white Europeans in traditional African art – that could be expanded into a much larger exhibition.

European figures and European objects, especially clothes, hats, and guns, were incorporated into Sub-Saharan African art from at least the later decades of the 19th century onwards, the mechanisms involved apparently ranging from parody to imitation.

The German anthropologist Julius Lips, who first examined such borrowings in the 1930s, was tempted to see attempts at caricature in the miniature statuettes of the British queen Victoria or the grimacing, top-hat-wearing versions of king Edward VII, made in the 1890s by the Yoruba people in what is now Nigeria. However, modern writers tend to see other, more complex mechanisms at work in these “inclusions of the white-faced stranger in the African symbolic world,” the exhibition says.

Meanwhile, “Persona, Strangely Human,” a very different temporary exhibition, will appeal to those fascinated by a problem perhaps first raised in its modern form by the British mathematician Alan Turing. Drawing on the traditional philosophical problem of “other minds” – how can I know with certainty that the person I am talking to is another human being and not some ingenious kind of robot – Turing came up with his famous “Turing Test” that he said any kind of machine intelligence must be able to meet before it could be judged as exhibiting intelligent behaviour.

If a human subject cannot tell the difference between a machine and another human subject when interacting with it in natural language that machine must be supposed to have passed the Turing Test of intelligent behaviour.

There is a Turing machine of this sort in the Museum’s “Persona” exhibition, which looks at the way in which human subjects typically seek to detect human-like capacities in machines, animals, even natural phenomena, all of which can be endowed with intentions, memories, and desires, more or less as if they were human.

The Weekly tried out the Museum’s Turing machine, a 1960 computer programme called ELIZA, eliciting what the exhibition called uncanny “effects of presence” from it as if there were a human being behind the screen and not simply a microprocessor.

Weekly: How are you doing?

ELIZA: Why are you asking?

Weekly: Because I am interested!

ELIZA: Is that the only reason?

Weekly: No. I want to know more about you.

ELIZA: Well, why not?

Weekly: Are you still there?

ELIZA: Would you be happy if I were?

As conversations with computers go, this is a bit frustrating. (ELIZA is programmed to “reformulate statements in question form and to produce stereotypical answers”). But could one tell from this that one was not talking to a human subject or to someone on social media?

Jacques Chirac ou le dialogue des cultures, Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, until 9 October.

add comment

  • follow us on