When the Quai Branly Museum in Paris opened last June, it was greeted with both acclaim and outrage. For the New York Times, it was nothing less than “an act of dissent that forces us to feel the world again.” Not since Herbert Muschamp called the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao “a shimmering, Looney tunes, post-industrial, post-everything burst of American optimism wrapped in titanium” has the Times been so effusive in its praise. For others, however, the Quai Branly was offensively patronizing, presenting its ethnographic collection as a kind of fictitious Dark Continent hidden within a “mock jungle.” Recently I was able to inspect it for myself.
The Quai Branly originated in 1995, when it was decided to consolidate several anthropological and ethnographic collections in Paris, including that of the recently-defunct Museum of African and Oceanic Arts. These collections had become controversial and were perceived as the spoils and trophies of colonialism. The project was given to the architect Jean Nouvel and endorsed by President Jacques Chirac, who, like so many French rulers, sought to leave his mark on Paris.
Recognizing the non-Western origin of its collections, Nouvel set about designing a non-Western building. He quickly seized on the idea of the building as “a simple façade-less shelter in the middle of a wood:”
In a place inhabited by symbols of forests and rivers, by obsessions of death and oblivion, it is an asylum for censored and cast off works from Australia and the Americas. It is a loaded place haunted with dialogues between the ancestral spirits of men, who, in discovering their human condition, invented gods and beliefs. It is a place that is unique and strange, poetic and unsettling.
His museum is indeed unsettling. What strikes the viewer is its peculiar formlessness, which refuses to present a comprehensible shape or object to the eye. No facade and no surface are similar, and there is no place where one might stand and grasp it as totality. Borne aloft on a series of randomly-placed piers (which could be taken “for trees or totems,” Nouvel tells us), it forms a kind of wobbly trough, as if the spiral of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim had been laboriously uncoiled and pinned to a giant board. The experience inside is equally bewildering, free of all right angles and offering sumptuous free-form contours, clad in brown leather and squirming off into the dimly lit distance.
In the end, the problem with Nouvel’s building is not its anti-form ideology, which is hardly revolutionary at this late date (after all, the Pompidou Centre was built over thirty years ago). It is that he sought to make a non-Western museum for non-Western objects without fully recognizing that there is not one non-Western art, but many. (All that they have in common is the prefix non-.) And to be sure, he has made an ostentatious show of negation (no parallel lines, no palpable shapes, no uniform materials) without offering an affirmation of any sort.
This formal incoherence is of a piece with its museology. The great museum displays of the past were indeed condescending in their neat divisions between civilized and barbaric peoples, which produced, respectively, objects of aesthetic or of merely ethnographic interest. But they did produce systems of order, categorizing objects by their workmanship or function. The Quai Branly offers no such comprehensive taxonomy. Objects are sprinkled in loose clusters, with minimal explanatory material. The display is exquisite in the soft lighting and the aesthetic isolation of each object (no cumbersome taxonomy of axe-heads here), but instead of treating the object as an anthropological artifact it is now treated as a showpiece in a Tiffany’s window. It is not clear which is the more condescending.