In Search of the Sophisticated

Big news in Paris. The new, $296 million Musee du Quai Branly has stirred up a bit of controversy.

On the one side is the man whose dream this was, the man who sees himself as representing the common man and the oppressed peoples of the world, French president Jacques Chirac:

“This museum in some way is the recognition of cultural diversity, of what it brings to today’s world and how it is necessary for the respect of mankind and for peace,” Chirac told a television documentary last week.

“Nothing is worse than the disparaging glances sometimes thrown by pseudo intellectuals on the art, production and talent of others.”

On the other, the elite intellectuals, such as Giles Manceron, a historian who writes on French colonialism, who was quoted in the Wall Street Journal:

What we need to do is to put the art in a universal art museum like the Louvre and not put together continents that are not at all related except for the fact that they were all colonized by Europe.

Oh, and then there are the (inevitable?) ethnologists:

Inevitably, ethnologists have decried the décontextualisation of artefacts that were never designed as aesthetic objects, but for practical, mystical or ritual purposes.

Well, at least they can be happy the museum wasn’t called (as originally intended), the museum of “Primitive Art”! In any case, I’m sure the new Claude Lévi-Strauss Theatre will be showing some great ethnographic films! I hear the man himself was on hand for the inauguration.

More coverage in the NY Times.

UPDATE: More from

3 thoughts on “In Search of the Sophisticated

  1. WHat’s interesting is that you almost never see an art museum that is organized by continent in which Europe and North America are just two continents among the rest. You see plenty of the reverse: Met-like organizations where “art” takes up most of the space and “ancient art”, “non-Western art”, “Islamic art”, “Chinese art”, or whatever have their own rooms. But it’s very rare for curators and museum donors to suppor the idea that there are varied art traditions out there and that the Western is but one (or a dozen) among many. The Trocadero is the only example I can think of, and even there the non-Western was inscribed into the colonial relationship that positioned the work of Western artists as “real” art and the work of non-Western artists as little more than source material for Westerners.

  2. That’s because Western Art Museums (e.g. the Tate) and Ethnographic Museums (e.g. the Pitt Rivers) have different historical origins, shaped by collectors with different goals. It is only interesting to the extent that ethnographic material culture became recast as ‘art’ of a non-Western form, thus making the separation an issue. But in museums with origins in the collections of asthetes and grazers you do get less distinctions – an example would be the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts where neither geography nor culture serve as classifiers. Many of the Royal collections are similarly diverse.

    The collections of the new Musée du Quai Branly were mostly pillaged from the Musée de l’Homme. When I last visited the latter the entirety of the ethnographic displays had been removed and replaced with a maze of cardboard upon which the works of a mid-20th century European cartoonist were mounted. Disappointed, moi? Oh well, at least it may mean another trip to Paris…

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