Inside the Musee du quai Branly

So far I’ve spent all my time on this blog talking about the adjunct building that houses the MQB conservators’ workshop and is the site of the Australian Indigenous Art Commission’s (AIAC) works. That was certainly the prime draw for the Australian mob and its international cohort (i.e., people like me). But what of the Museum itself?

There was a fair amount of controversy in the newspapers about this aspect of the opening as well, since there were relatively few indigenous Australian artifacts or paintings on display in the galleries of the Museum; I remember hearing the number 104 batted around somewhere. There was much curiosity and many conflicting reports about what would actually be there. 

The Museum was still in an unfinished state on opening day, but here’s what we saw. When you enter from the gates in a huge glass wall on the Quai Branly side of the complex of buildings, you walk through what will someday be a lush and spacious garden, past the outdoor amphitheater where the opening ceremonies were held, and into the ground floor of the Museum. You are then directed up a long, spiraling walkway that wraps around a glass column in which hundreds of musical instruments from around the world are displayed. This ramp winds on and on in semi-darkness, illuminated occasionally by videos projected onto its floor or displayed in its walls. Disconcerting and a bit disorienting, but in the end, this seemed like a flashy and profitless bit of trickery. I certainly wasn’t going to stop and pay much attention along the way–too far to go, and too great a risk of being run down by the folks behind me in line.

Having negotiated the dark slope of approach (one wag made comments about Raiders of the Lost Art), we emerged into the main gallery itself. All the collections are displayed in one long, continuous, leather-bound, and very dark space. Small islands of display cases grow in the darkness, inviting you to lose your way, turn a corner and discover something surprising, or isolate yourself from the crowds to contemplate a piece. At least that’s the theory I heard propounded. In fact, it struck me as a museum in which the architecture comes to dominate rather than serve the collections, but I’m willing to suspend judgment for a while, as the project is clearly still unfinished. This fact was brought home forcefully when we arrived at one end of the long exhibition space to see the Australian collection.

What’s on view from Australia can be broken down into four categories:barks, poles (including mimi carvings from Maningrida), artifacts such as shields and woomeras, and contemporary paintings. I should note right from the beginning that the decision to include contemporary paintings (mostly acrylic) is quite extraordinary given that everything else we saw on display was clearly in the realm of the “ethnographic artifact.” Just as the AIAC pays homage in its way to a living and engaged culture (Will Stubbs’ words), so too the Australian collection is singular in its inclusion of contemporary cultural production from an indigenous society. As Stephane Jacob pointed out, there was no requirement that the Musee do this; indeed, it could seem a little out of place. But given Chirac’s massage–that the Museum honors and celebrates cultural differences–I wish there had been more that gave expression to living cultures and art from indigenous people. Still, I’m glad to see the Australian contribution singled out in the way.

The only problem is that you’d have to be pretty savvy in the first place to recognize this singularity, as the Musee does almost nothing–yet–to alert its visitors to the significance of this living, growing, and changing culture.

As the pictures below demonstrate, and to repeat myself,the Museum is clearly unfinished. A couple of the acrylic paintings were completely unlit–literally in the dark–while others are lit by poorly aimed pin spots. There are no labels on the works, so a casual visitor would surely be perplexed by these strange paintings that look out of place amidst a museum full of clearly historical artifacts. Explanatory material of any type is scarce. But these are all problems that can be fixed over time and some of them,like the lighting,obviously will need to be fixed soon. Whether there are plans to provide better documentation for the Australian works in general is anybody’s guess at this point.

The poles and the shields are the two categories of works here that fit most easily into the standard ethnographic museum mode of display, and they look not at all out of place. The shields are set into a curved alcove, are behind glass, and are the victim of terrible lighting. There were so hard to see that I confess I didn’t even make the effort. Since I care about this work, that’s a bad sign; most people may not even notice that this display is there. Here’s a somewhat blurry pictures of the display of poles (the lighting in general made it hard to get any good photos at all).

Aesthetically, this is not so different from what you might see in the Australian Museum in Sydney,except for the fact that it’s far less impressive, and lacks any kind of explanatory material. The latter problem could be fixed; I’m not sure that the former would be.

The barks are a different story altogether, and a more complex one.

This photograph shows about one-third of the barks that are currently on display. They are behind glass, somewhat unevenly lit. This display is flanked at either end by a large bark set at right angles, and also behind glass. One is a rather pedestrian piece from northeast Arnhem Land (Yolngu); the other is a striking work by Mawurndjul that looks to be from the late 80s or early 90s, a horned rainbow serpent. Again, no documentation yet.

The arrangement of these barks has a historical explanation. The paintings were all collected by Karel Kupka in the 1950s and 60s, and were donated by him to the Parisian Musee de l’Homme, whose collections now formthe core of the MQB. Kupka displayed the barks in this sort of tightly packed wall arrangement, and the presentation here is meant as an hommage to him. There is some documentation provided for these works, but how successful it is remains in doubt.

Scattered throughout the Museum are touch-screen displays built into the leather bound islands that form boundaries among the exhibits. There are five different presentations, one of which is devoted to “La Chambre des Ecorces”or the Room of Barks. (The title is a little grandiose, but I won’t argue the point further.) This electronic documentation includes a couple of short film clips, one of John Mawurndjul walking through his country, stripping and curing bark, and painting. The other is footage from a modern Yolngu funeral ceremony and shows a procession of painted members of the community singing and dancing along a road and accompanying a Land Rover in which the relatives and effects of the deceased are being transported to the ceremony grounds.

Additionally, there are brief slides explaining materials and techniques. And for the barks, there is a reproduction of the display partially pictured above. When you touch one of the barks in the electronic display, a little electronic post-it note appears with the artist’s name, the work’s title, and the year collected (rather than created). But there are no stories, no explanations of the imagery. But there’s something there. The downside is that the screen nearest to the display of barks is built into the side of a high-backed bench. It was quite comfortable to sit there and run through the complete array of works. (It was sometimes confusing because the arrangement of the barks in the display and the arrangement on the computer presentation don’t match exactly, so there was an element of hide-and-seek involved.) Still, I enjoyed the whole presentation for about 20 minutes–but during that time no one who walked by had any access to the screen and its documentation. You can’t even really look over someone’s shoulder. As we say in the computer business, still a few bugs in the system.

And finally there are the acrylic paintings. The good news, as I said above, is the decision to collect and display them at all. I’m not aware that the museum’s collection policies include acquisition of contemporary works from any other culture, and we certainly saw none in the gallery. The bad news is that the display is miserable to look at, ill-lit, undocumented, and poorly hung. The selection of works isn’t terribly inspiring either, although they might look better in good light. There’s a Mick Namarari Tjapaltjarri that may be beautiful, but is now invisible. Two early works by Maggie Watson Napangardi are lovely, though not her strongest. The Rover Thomas pictured below is mundane, as is the George Tjungurrayi hidden in the back of the display area. Helicopter, Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, and Kathleen Petyarre are better represented; but many of the other works are forgettable.

There’s not much more that I can say on this score, other than to hope for a speedy correction of the easily correctable. Honestly, I’ve said far more than most people in Paris did, where a lot of eye-rolling was the usual commentary in discussions of the museum’s presentation of Australiana. Whatever one felt about the aesthetics, accessibility, visibility, or promotion of the Australian Indigenous Art Commission around the corner form the Museum’s main entrance,all agreed it was a smashing success compared to what was going on within the Museum’s walls.

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