As we know from the tribulations of the Museum of Australia in Canberra, establishing a museum can be tricky. Whoever gets to choose what to display, and how it should be displayed, creates a part of our history.
The Musee du quai Branly (MQB), whose sub-title is 'where cultures meet in dialogue', was opened in Paris in 2006. It features indigenous art, cultures and civilizations from Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas and brings together collections from the now-closed Musée national des Arts d'Afrique et d'Océanie and the ethnographic department of the Musée de l'Homme. Its opening received quite a lot of publicity in Australia as not only does the museum have collections of bark and modern canvas works by Australian Aboriginal artists, but the ceilings of the administrative building were painted by Ningura Napurrula
[you can't enter the administrative wing, so this photo is taken from outside the building, through the windows]
The bookshop ceiling also features an Indigenous Australian design
It's a very beautiful museum. And very grand. The design is by renowned French architect Jean Nouvel and initially the building featured 'growing walls' - vertically planted gardens that covered sections of the exterior and were meant to symbolise the organic and 'natural' cultures (very controversial notions) that are contained in the museum. Sadly, the growing walls have proved unsustainable, but the surrounding garden of 'wild' grasses survives most atmospherically.
I got into conversation with one of the young people who have been employed most helpfully to explain the exhibits if you wish. In a wonderfully open way she mentioned that the museum had been very controversial and that some people believed it was wrong to display objects that had been...(she searched for an English word, I suggested 'stolen' and she proceeded)...from other cultures. I don't think the Australian exhibits are at all controversial in this way. The bark paintings and the more modern Yuendumu and Papunya canvasses exhibited are all readily available in Australia - if you can afford them. What is most wonderful about the exhibits I saw, and most troubling, is the extensive and very beautiful collection of Melanesian art and artifacts. French colonisation of the Pacific, as well as exploration, study and trading in Papua New Guinea in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century has resulted in an extraordinarily beautiful collection of objects that are no longer available.
The whole concept of the museum has also been challenged. Though the building is modern and the display superb, it is within a dated tradition of museums that sees different cultures, particularly indigenous cultures, as exotic and 'the other'. It's a beautiful display, rather than a 'meeting' of cultures. So, my visit - which I greatly enjoyed - was a rather guilty pleasure.
ps This was the view as we made our way to the metro station in the late afternoon. Paris is like that...you are doing something else and all of a sudden a famous landmark appears.