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Quai Branly New Museum in Paris Inches toward reality

The Louvres Museum in Paris France, but soon you'll find the Arts Premiers department on the Quai Branly

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By ALAN RIDING  September 6, 2004

Read also : New museum for Arts premiers Tribal art has finally entered the Louvre

                $20.5 million for an Islamic art gallery at the Louvre museum in Paris.

Alaskan Mask from the future Museum at the Quai Branly in Paris
Hugh Dubois/Musée du Quai Branly
An Alaskan mask for the Musée du Quai Branly, expected to open by the Seine in 2006.

PARIS, Sept. 5 - Primitive art has not lacked admirers here. A century ago Picasso and Brancusi were inspired by African masks and statues. Thirty years later André Breton fell in love with tribal carvings from Oceania. Today dozens of Left Bank galleries specialize in the exotic creativity of distant lands. Yet in the museums of Paris, primitive art is still the poor relation of Egyptian, Greek and Roman antiquities and European painting and sculpture.

All this is about to change. A $265 million museum devoted to the indigenous art of the Americas, Africa, Asia and Oceania is rising on the banks of the Seine beside the Eiffel Tower. Within a year the Musée du Quai Branly, as it is known, will begin receiving the 270,000 objects in its collection. And early in 2006 President Jacques Chirac is expected to inaugurate what is already considered the principal cultural monument to his 12 years in office.

The project would never have occurred without Mr. Chirac's affection for African and Asian art or without his resolve to make a political gesture to the third world. He started planning it soon after he became president in 1995, and construction had only just begun when he was re-elected to a five-year term in 2002. That the museum will eventually take 11 years to be realized is a measure of both its complexity and the opposition it stirred.

The first tiff stemmed from Mr. Chirac's conviction that primitive art should be treated on a par with Western art: he demanded that the Louvre Museum also display primitive art. Its director at the time, Pierre Rosenberg, objected strongly, arguing that the Louvre was not a universal museum. But Mr. Chirac had his way. Managed by the Musée du Quai Branly, four galleries in the Louvre now present 120 masterpieces of African, Asian, American and Oceanic art.

"The history of the world is not just the history of the Mediterranean and Europe," said Stéphane Martin, the director general of the Musée du Quai Branly. "Our ultimate aim is to give non-Western art its place."

But finding a physical place for it proved difficult. Since the existing Museum of African and Oceanic Arts was deemed too small, the next idea was to evict the National Maritime Museum from the Palais de Chaillot. But the French Navy resisted until Mr. Chirac opted for the five-acre plot on the Quai Branly, where a convention center had been planned. Local residents then went to court to block the project, alarmed by the prospect of five years of noise and dust. They lost.

 
Naming the museum posed other difficulties. The tag of primitive art was discounted because, today at least, "primitive" sounds pejorative. The Museum of Early Arts was considered, but only pre-Hispanic works are truly ancient. A presidential commission suggested the Museum of Man, Arts and Civilizations, but that was a mouthful. Finally, the museum's address, the Quai Branly (pronounced kay bran-LEE) was picked. One day, though, it may well be called the Chirac Museum.

There are precedents for both options. The Georges Pompidou Center and the François Mitterrand French National Library are named after former French presidents, while the Musée d'Orsay is on the Quai d'Orsay and the Louvre, well, is in the Louvre Palace. But in the case of the new museum, a nondescriptive name was also helpful. The Musée du Quai Branly wants to display what it has, rather than pretend to offer an encyclopedic vision of primitive art.

Although it will have spent $28 million on new acquisitions by 2006, it will inherit the bulk of its objects from the former Museum of African and Oceanic Arts and the ethnographic department of the Museum of Mankind. Their collections, reflecting France's colonial history and the quirks of individual explorers, were not built systematically. Further, the Guimet Museum's separate collection of South-East Asian, Chinese and Japanese art will not be affected. But for the Musée du Quai Branly, the issue is less what to show, than how to show it. Most primitive art was created not as art, but for religious and ritualistic purposes. Thus, an art-versus-science debate has long divided experts, with the Museum of Mankind, for instance, unhappy to imagine its collection presented outside its ethnographic context. Yet increasingly European museums display works of primitive art principally on their aesthetic merit. Mr. Martin said that while the objects will be presented here with "theatricality,'' the new museum would also explore links between primitive art from different climes and different eras.

"Ethnographic museums of the 1930's were created for people who did not travel," he explained. "The Museum of Mankind was based on the idea of showing the cultures of the world, of showing the interaction between man and the world. Today people do not seek a description of the world. They want more of a dialogue.'' 

The challenge for Mr. Martin and his team is not just to move collections into a new building but to develop a new concept for a 21st-century primitive art museum, arguably the first of its kind in Europe since colonialism ended. Experts have been working since the late 1990's to define its artistic, research and educational functions and to plan exchanges with museums in both the West and the third world.

The ultra-modern Quai Branly building, designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel, should further these aims. "The project has changed very little since it was unveiled," Mr. Martin said, "because we worked for over two years defining our needs before the design competition was organized."

Mr. Nouvel's narrow 560-foot-long building, running parallel to the Quai Branly, will be set in a small forest with the idea of quickly transporting visitors to a different world. The building itself stands on two "feet," with a large ground-level passageway enabling the gardens to continue uninterrupted. From a small atrium, a long curving ramp leads to the main gallery, which will display some 4,000 objects divided into four geographical areas.

The collection is particularly strong in works from African countries and Pacific islands that were long under French colonial administration. It includes stone, wooden, terra cotta, ivory and metal masks, figures and ceremonial instruments. From the Americas, the pre-Hispanic collection is smaller, but the museum does have significant works of Native American art. One question, which will not be answered until Mr. Chirac leaves office, is whether the treasures in the Louvre will eventually move to Quai Branly.

The museum will also offer ample spaces for temporary exhibitions, which will form an important part of its program. Some will be thematic, like "What Is a Body?" or "D'un Regard à l'Autre," which might be translated as "Viewing the Other," a sort of mirror game between first and third worlds. Others being planned, like the art of New Ireland and Paracas, will be organized with foreign institutions.

Education and scientific work will not be overlooked, not least because half of the museum's $14.4 million annual budget will be covered by the Ministry of Research. (The Culture Ministry will pay the other half.) The main building and three annexes include not only an auditorium for lectures and performances as well as numerous classrooms but also space where researchers can handle and study objects from the museum's underground storage rooms. These objects, many of which have been locked away for decades, have now been cleaned, disinfected, repaired, photographed and cataloged.

For the moment, with cranes and earthmovers and scores of construction workers occupying the site, the future must still be imagined. But Mr. Chirac's dream now seems certain to be fulfilled. And it is a dream that also involves using the museum as a symbol of France's openness to the third world. In fact, to science and art, Mr. Chirac has now added politics as one of the essential ingredients of primitive art. 

Copyright 2004 found at:  The New York Times Company

Read also : New museum for Arts premiers Tribal art has finally entered the Louvre

                $20.5 million for an Islamic art gallery at the Louvre museum in Paris.

 

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Omhoog
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Ouverture Branly
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The Tribal Arts of Africa
Author: Jean-Baptiste Bacquart

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