June 24, 2008

Musée du Quai Branly, Paris

When the Musée du Quai Branly first opened two years ago, it generated a great deal of controversy (here in the NY Times, here in the London Review of Books, and here in a piece by an obsequious Nicolai Ouroussoff in the Herald Tribune). The primary criticism was that the museum inappropriately decontextualized aboriginal art–unsuccessfully answering the old question of whether the objects on display are works of art or cultural artifacts.
In a way, the museum punts on this question (which is what Ouroussoff perversely likes about it) by creating a building which use earth tones and organic shapes to create a new "context" for the objects, which are spotlighted almost like exotic birds in a post-post-modern river and forest. I loved many of the objects--they are beautiful and beautifully lit (mostly).  But I also had no idea which region I was in (Is this Oceania or Americas?), never did find the interpretive kiosks, was annoyed by the ever-so-long ramp to the exhibit level that offered neither artifacts nor interpretation, and couldn't find the exit when I was ready to leave. But this isn't about me.

A few observations:  
  • Unlike many new US museums, Quai Branly doesn't seem to be set up to be a venue for parties and other events.  The lobby is small and unassuming and the exhibit area is cramped–there is no good place for a party. The focus is on getting people in and out of the formal exhibit area.
  • Ticketing is outdoors (fine in June) and has only three stations.  Capacity control appears to take place  in the ticket queue.
  • The visible storage cylinder that runs up through the west end of the museum was ignored by everyone.  Dim lighting and densely packed artifacts did not draw anyone's attention.
  • I couldn't help thinking "This is what the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian might have been without the Indians."  (And I won't elaborate on that comment as it would be a much longer post.)
  • I liked the building. Despite its bulk, it was inviting and functional.
  • The "architecture to exhibit area" ratio was very high–this was not an efficient museum.
I came away wondering "What exactly were they trying to accomplish here?"  If, as some suggest, the museum is largely a monument to Jacques Chirac, then it is certainly successful. Perhaps because it is a monument, Quai Branly is clearly a new "destination museum" for Paris. As a destination, I think the museum is successful–the combination of unique building and exotic artifacts provides an experience unlike any other in Paris (or anywhere else, for that matter). Quai Branly is different enough (and centrally located enough) that it may well have a happy life as "that interesting museum over by the Eiffel Tower." But, given the richness of the collections and the scale of the investment, it seems like it could have been much, much more.

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