"It makes me think about my child, who doesn't know about these things, and about the children born here who have never left," said Mavoungou, 35, during a recent visit to the museum. "It will help them know where they are from."
For Mavoungou and others like her - immigrants, working-class families, young people - Paris's
Musée du Quai Branly, which opened in June, has arrived like a small revolution. Even as debate continues over its architecture and the conceptualization of its displays, word is getting out in immigrant communities throughout France that the new museum celebrates the patrimony of their cultures as art. And so far, people who typically would not set foot in a museum are coming in strength, says Stéphane Martin, Quai Branly's president.
Martin, who spends time every day talking with visitors to the institution, is convinced that it is attracting a new audience. "All you have to do is walk through the
museum" to see that the proportion of people from immigrant communities is bigger than in other French museums, he said in an interview. "There are also lots of young people in couples who have not come with a club or an institution or an association, but on their own initiative, and it is very moving to see their response to the collection."
For many of them, the museum comes as a revelation, and an emotional journey to places left behind. As they stroll through its winding walkways, they say it stirs a quiet pride in their origins, an impulse to communicate a sense of identity to a new generation, and amazement that such fragile, handmade objects have managed to survive at all.
"It reminds me of my childhood in the countryside, near the Senegal River - all the musical instruments, the clothes," said Amadou Achard-Sy, 40, who left his village in the north of Senegal for France 23 years ago. "It is important for our son to know this too," he added, walking slowly through the collection with his French wife and their 8-year-old son. "This museum, it's the proof that this culture is being taken into account."
Kahina Boudaa, 19, caught the train from the Paris suburb of Nanterre with seven friends to visit the museum. Her parents, immigrants from Algeria, gave their permission.
"We don't usually do this, come up to Paris and go to a museum," said Boudaa, who said she was amazed to find an intricately carved Algerian chest on display. "You see things from the Incas, from southern Africa, but we are not used to seeing things from the Maghreb in a museum." Her friend Nour Sahib, 19, born to Iraqi parents in Normandy, added: "I'm sure there are things from Mesopotamia here too."
Gathering statistics on ethnic background has been outlawed in France since after World War II, but on Aug. 1 the museum started to collate figures on the cultural affinities of its visitors in order to piece together a picture of its audience. Results are not yet available. But by his own calculations, Martin estimates that about one quarter of attendees come from what he considers a new museum-going public.
"I sense there is a difference," he said. Already the proportion of tourists is lower than at other Paris museums, about one third compared with 70 to 80 percent at the Louvre and the Musée d'Orsay. Of the other two- thirds, he said, "about 60 percent are habitual museumgoers, and 40 percent are a new public who are coming because the museum speaks especially to them."
Some young people are drawn by their immigrant ties to Africa, Polynesia or other diasporas, or by the collection's resonance in popular subcultures.
The first major museum to open in Paris since the Centre Pompidou in 1977, the Quai Branly was expecting 2,000 to 2,500 visitors a day. It has averaged 4,500 since it opened June 23, and it tallied 30,000 during its extended inaugural weekend.
The Musée d'Orsay has taken note. Though the museum welcomes many more visitors - 10,000 on average per day, roughly half that of the Louvre - Marc Plocki, head of visitor services there, said that the new arrival appeared to have lured away 8 to 9 percent of the Musée d'Orsay's attendees in July, most likely from its local, not tourist, numbers.
If the survey results support Martin's estimates, the Quai Branly will have taken a big step in broadening France's museum-going audience.
"We feel more comfortable here," said Sofia Guenache, a 15-year-old of Algerian descent, when asked why she had chosen to visit Quai Branly and not another museum like the Louvre.
Martin says visitors are attracted by both Jean
Nouvel's design - "which avoids the idea of the museum as a neo-Grecian temple on the top of a hill" - and by the dramatic nature of the displays and the prestige given to the collection.
"This has nothing to do with the way Degas's statue of the ballerina, or the Venus de Milo, are presented on a pedestal or at the top of a staircase," he said. "Young people are sensitive to these things"
Martin said he wants the museum to act as a bridge between the West and the rest of the world. "We eat Thai, our tattoos are Polynesian, we dress African and do our hair in Antillais style," he said. "All that means that the notion of cultural purity on which many former ethnological museums rested makes no sense today."
Claire Ayedzame, 24, a student from Gabon, said people of her generation knew about the pillars of Western culture, but "this place is an adventure into the unknown." She was touring the exhibits with Herbert Mitch Ogouma, 27, who lives in Strasbourg. "Everyone knows the Mona Lisa - but they don't know what a Fang mask is from West Africa," Ayedzame said.
Other visitors, meanwhile, expressed sadness at seeing some of the spoils of France's colonial past.
"Whether for beauty, value or curiosity, all of the objects that belonged to us and to our ancestors were pillaged," said Khady Senghor, 57, who runs an African art gallery in Dakar. "What is positive is that they have assembled all that in one place."
Fato Bidaye, an architectural designer from Senegal, living in Tunis, was visiting the museum with her three children. She said it was impossible to see such objects in Africa now. "It makes me realize that on the African continent there is nothing left, and that everything that was a treasure can be found in this museum," she said.
Its novelty is part of what is drawing visitors in such numbers to Quai
Branly; but it is their diversity that also struck Emmanuelle Messika, a museum employee of Tunisian, French and Polish descent. "I have the impression that there are more people from other backgrounds here than at the
Louvre or the Centre Pompidou," she said. "You could almost say that something is starting to shift in France."
see also the BBC Branly video