Posted by: Steve Coplan | July 6, 2006

A human zoo

Whenever a nation with a somewhat dodgy record in subduing and colonizing the inhabitants of distant countries tries to reverse centuries of cultural hegemony, it’s bound to generate some controversy. When a slippery fellow like Jacques Chirac is looking for a gracious exit after a career where his greatest distinction has been holding office even as crisis after crisis unfolded, what better than a museum that celebrates those artistic traditions which colonization most threatened. The name that Chirac initially proposed of ‘museum of primitive art’ (presumably to create a parallel with less loaded terms like Impressionist art) served to be overly provocative, and eventually the authorities settled on the more anodyne and geographically-specific Musee du quai Branly.

I’d guess that Chirac was hoping to make the museum as political as possible, but I see tremendous benefit in elevating something from a ethnographic curiosity to the status of art. Art is art because it expresses something universally human or inspires us to meditate on the human condition. Despite that we know nothing about the artist – no New Caledonian has ever been the subject of an art history thesis – or have much sense of the cultural context, calling this mask art emphasizes what we have in common rather than how far we are apart.

The web site for the museum that has drawn glowing praise for its architecture is predictably incredibly crappy. There are a few attempts to take advantage of the ability to connect to a global audience, notably the ‘thematic explorations’. The music program is pretty cool.
On the subject of ethnographic curiousities – to escape the teeming hordes at the Met, head over to the Oceania exhibition. It’s an oasis of quiet and you can contemplate the Asmat memorial poles.

Here’s what the Guardian and the New York Times had to say.


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