New Quai de Branly Museum in Paris
By Nina Zivancevic
A brand new Parisian "composite" and "bridge" museum which sees itself as a French "museographic, scientific and cultural institution dedicated to the dialogue between cultures and civilizations" has barely opened its doors to the public when the series of harsh, critically oriented articles started barraging the international press. The 40,600 square meter colossus, consisting of several buildings, a huge garden, 3 suspended galleries and an enormous terrace, all supported by a powerful metallic megastructure was conceived in 1995 by the French president Jacques Chirac who, following a long pharaonic tradition of French presidents, desired leave a powerful testimony to his 12 year reign of the country. By creating a multi-faceted cultural institution of such scope, Chirac not only wanted to compete with Mitterand's impressive National Library building as well as with Georges Pompidou's Center, but he also wanted to emphasize his political stance which, according to him "desired to see justice rendered to non-European cultures otherwise present in French cultural heritage." By executing the 10 year long works of this new cultural and scientific institution, Chirac had but one idea on his mind -- to put an end "to a long history of disregard by giving just consideration to art forms and civilizations (of Africa, Asia, Australia, Oceania and of the Americas), too long ignored or misunderstood." At once museum, cultural center and a body for research and teaching, the museum of Quai de Branly, located just across from the Eiffel tower, was constructed to be a rejection of any proclaimed hierarchy in the arts as it is meant "to celebrate the universality of human spirit." In the press kit which I got prior to my visiting the museum, it was also announced as "a school of multiple disciplines, that is, an invitation to look upon the Other with greater knowledge, greater respect and with greater openness of mind." In his presidential preface to the museum's guide, Chirac has also mentioned the fact that "throughout its history, France has always sought to instill universal values, but it has also learned the value of otherness." If these words came from any other politician in France, I admit that I would have been very careful whether to believe them, or simply I would have not. Coming from an ancient communist regime where people such as Lenin and Stalin flashed such lofty words of cultural encouragement left and right but then too readily failed to fulfil their promise, I was always quite sceptical to observe the politicians "eager at establishing the universal values of respect towards the Other." However, as these words were coming from the mouth if not the heart of the president who said "no" to the U.S. intervention in Iraq, I rushed down to the Rue de l'Université, to the most luxurious section of Paris, to see the new architectural wonder designed by the famous Jean Nouvel. I was equally hoping that all the treasures from the ancient Museum of Mankind, those from the museum of Asian art, Guimet, as well as the priceless objects transferred from the previous Museum of Africa and Oceania have found a decent and improved housing in this new climate of mutual respect and improved technology. And although I did not like the overambitious notion of so many "non-European" cultures (read the whole world!) jumbled together in one single space, no matter how large it could be, (out of my own respect for each cultural diversity), I still rejoiced at the idea of going to the place where according to the architect Nouvel, "everything served to draw the emotions out of the tribal artefact", the place "marked by symbols of forest and river ... of death and oblivion, ... vibrant and spiritual", a sanctuary for censored works produced not so long ago in Australia and America. I wanted to reach such a place in France where "the ancestral spirits of those who awoke to the human condition and who invented gods and beliefs ... dwelled and conversed", the place which was both strange and unique, "poetic and disturbing." And finally when I arrived at such a place, I noticed a huge metal colonial building which was surrounded by a lake, African reeds snuggled inside the bush, and I remembered the sight of Kaduna river in north Nigeria where buffalos grazed and Fulani women washed their linen. The colonial building stood in such a contrast with the surrounding lake, no buffalos and Fulani women whatsoever, and I thought that I understood everything, even my desire to quit university where I studied cultural anthropology 20 years ago. I need not enter this building, I said to myself although the architect promised the visitors "a farewell to structures, fluidity, frontage joinery, safety staircases, railings, false ceilings, projectors, pedestals, showcases and wall clocks ... " However, I entered the expensive sanctuary where the artefacts from various continents competed with the photographs of people who were using them, of those faces behind the masks which were exhibited along the corridors of a museum which was, alright, beautiful. In a gaudy glass tower in the middle of the museum comprising of 4 different buildings, there were 9500 various musical instruments, but there were no living people to play them, no griots or poets to tell us stories about the events in which the musicians came to be separated from their instruments. The idea that rules the organized tour of the museum was also gone: a guardian at the very entrance of the museum had warned me that it was healthy for me or any visitor there not to have any curatorial guidance on the premises, "you see," he said, "the idea is for you to feel a bit like an explorer and to lose yourself in a maze with no boards in it." It was easier said that done, as the continents sort of merged together and melted in my brain and I find myself busy trying to sort out African Ashanti dolls from the American Indian Katchina ones. A small task for a daughter of a former director of Museum of Mankind in Belgrade; but I was just wondering if I brought my children or a larger group of people, where would I start and how would I go about explaining the history of all civilizations in there ... ? Well, I don't know, as much as I don't know if all that investment was really necessary to boost up the curators' ego which was not even generous enough to tell us the primordial story about the birth of each of these respective civilizations ... There were reminders everywhere telling us that indeed much money was invested in this building, money which could have been given to the starving people in Asia and Africa. Another artefact of waste: there's so much water being constantly splashed over the museum's artificial hanging gardens which cover the frontage of the museum ... In this needy "non-European" world which is dying of thirst and hunger, was there a real need to invest more than one million euros of the backers' money into the garden "which covers 18,000 square meters enclosing the museum and creating an impression of wild profusion ... a perfect natural setting for the collections"!!? Is all the money in this world used to create merely an impression of caring for the population and cultures who really need it? I think that the real controversy being created in relation to this, or any other museum lies right there -- in our unwillingness to admit that under the cloak of so called caring about preservation of a certain culture and/or civilisation or so called "Other" we often try to hide our guilt about basic human neglect for the very phenomenon we pretend to care about. And there is no room in any museum in this world that will exhibit this sort of hypocrisy of a naked human heart.