Museums in the US, England, France, and throughout the world are full of objects collected during their respective colonial periods. Museums have been grappling with the colonial legacies embodied in their collections and how to represent them, and no singular answer has emerged. However, at the end of the 20th century, a movement pioneered by Jacques Kerchache sought to provide one answer and to redefine historic collections of Indigenous artifacts as fine art, worthy of the prestigious cases of the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay. This movement culminated in the opening of the French national museum of indigenous art, the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac. This summer, the Penn Museum funded my research to investigate French museological approaches to displaying Indigenous cultural heritage and how these displays affect the way indigenous peoples are represented.
Though materials from throughout the world were accumulated throughout the history of France, the cultural heritage of cultural “Others” was not systematically appropriated by the French until Napoleon Bonaparte conquered Egypt at the close of the 18th century. In addition to the Rosetta Stone, Napoleon and his men took home thousands of objects, including mummies and obelisks. This jump-started a colonial period of collecting that brought millions of objects from French colonies like Senegal, Guyana, Haiti, Tahiti, and New Caledonia to the metropole of Paris.
Many of these objects, and many more from throughout the world, were accumulated in the dusty, decrepit shelves of the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro. Founded in 1878 to house these objects, the museum suffered from a notorious lack of supervision until it was torn down and replaced by the Musée de l’Homme in 1937. The Musée de l’Homme was constructed to brilliantly display the vast ethnographic collections of France for the 1937 International Exposition. Similarly, a museum was constructed on the far east side of Paris for the Colonial Exposition of 1931 to house many ethnographic objects pertaining directly to the French colonies. This museum became the Musée de la France d’Outre-mer (Museum of the French Overseas) and eventually the Musée National des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie in 1990. The indigenous collections of these two museums (Musée de l’Homme and Musée National des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie) were brought together in 2003 for the brand new Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, which opened in 2006.
This new museum took its approach primarily from the vision of Indigenous arts connoisseur Jacques Kerchache. Kerchache had lobbied for a permanent exhibition space in the Louvre for indigenous arts, which opened in 2000, to highlight the fine artistic qualities of many Indigenous objects. This notion—that all arts of the world had equally prestigious artistic qualities—became central to the new museum. In effect, the Musée du Quai Branly became a fine arts museum meant to reflect this ideal.
However, not all museums with ethnographic objects in France have climbed aboard the fine arts train. In fact, very few have. During my fieldwork this summer, I realized that only one other museum seemed to treat ethnographic objects in the same way: the Musée d’Arts Africains, Océaniens, Amérindiens in Marseille. That museum has often been cited by museum professionals as the original model for the Musée du Quai Branly. At the Musée du Nouveau Monde—an art museum explicitly devoted to displaying pieces of and from the “New World”—the staff told me that the museum generally rejects the presentation of ethnographic objects as fine art on the basis that they often were not made to be art.
Based on my experience this summer, this indicates a divide in France, both historically and intellectually, as to how the ethnographic objects should be viewed. On one hand, Indigenous art should not be considered as anything less than high art. On the other hand, the artistic qualities of ethnographic objects should not be fetishized, subsuming their various functions, contexts, and meanings under the glamor of visual appeal.
This debate is further complicated by the fact that many of the Indigenous ethnographic objects in French museums are housed in natural history museums. These museums—like in Rouen, La Rochelle, and Lyon—are mired in the legacy of a distinctly racist collection and research paradigm in which Indigenous peoples’ cultural heritage was collected and displayed alongside animals, dinosaurs, and plants. In lieu of establishing new art museums or “restituting” materials, these contemporary museums now seek to address these problematic histories in the way they present their collections.
In La Rochelle, collectors are highlighted in a way that reveals much about how and why ethnographic objects were collected and brought to the museum in the first place. The museum offers an interesting narrative through which visitors are asked to reflect upon what these objects have meant to the French, both in the past and today. In Rouen, one of the few examples of French museums restituting “artifacts” resulted in a completely new and collaborative approach to curating the Indigenous exhibit. Co-curatorial practices have sought to reorient the narrative to that of and by the Indigenous peoples themselves, rather than just about them. In the brand new Musée des Confluences in Lyon, for example, Indigenous artifacts are used to exemplify humanity broadly as one of many living beings on the planet that seems to disproportionately affect our environments. In this case, contemporary, Western artifacts and narratives have been added alongside Indigenous displays in an attempt to humanize us all on an ideologically equal plane.
Ultimately, what is most at stake in these strategies of representation are the identities of French subjects in colonies on the other side of the world. This summer, I began to familiarize myself with the ways that people are represented in France, particularly through this debate between how and where Indigenous objects should be displayed. Moving forward, I am aiming to dive deeper with a couple of museums to really understand how impactful these institutions, and their positions in the debate, figure in the local French constructions of indigenous identities. This summer provided me the opportunity to familiarize myself with this debate—between those who see Indigenous artifacts as art and those that see them as ethnography. Though this debate is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, my research will continue to investigate the political ramifications of such displays and approaches by museums in Continental France.
Every year, the Penn Museum provides support to Penn undergraduates and graduate students as they deepen their understanding of the human experience outside the Museum’s walls. Follow these blog posts from our intrepid young scholars as they report on the sights and sites that they encounter throughout their travels in the field.
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