LIANE HANSEN, host:
It's August and millions of people are crowding the great museums of the world, tramping through New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, wandering from building to building at Washington's Smithsonian Complex, and inching along the corridors of the Louvre in Paris.
But how do these temples of art and culture choose what to display and what not to display? Why are African carvings in one place and Greek sculptures in another? A storm of such questions blew up this summer when the French opened a huge new museum in Paris dedicated to non-European pieces, mostly from Africa and Asia. The issue is so sensitive that the new museum doesn't even have a real name, just an address.
Frank Browning went there, and a few other places, to ask who decides what is in, what is out and how to show it.
FRANK BROWNING reporting:
It's the Musee du Quai Branly, the museum on the Quai Branly. It's a building that itself has stirred global controversy. Darkened ramps snake through soft pools of lights spotlighting exquisite carvings, statues, tools, fabrics and masks, in a long, not-too-tall crescent shaped structure.
The Quai Branly sits beside the Seine, a landmark monument from the radical architect Jean Nouvel. For its opening, (foreign word) Paris was there, prime ministers past and present, Nobel Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, and of course President Jacques Chirac.
President JACQUES CHIRAC (France): (Speaking foreign language)
BROWNING: Chirac launched the plan for the museum over a decade ago, declaring that the Quai Branly would become a single temple that would celebrate all of the magnificent work outside the great European tradition, and that is where the fight started. Critics railed that Chirac was raiding two grand museums, the ethnographic Musee du Lom(ph) and the Museum of African and Oceanic Art, to create a hodgepodge for his own presidential ego.
Stephane Martin is president of the Quai Branly.
Mr. STEPHANE MARTIN (President, Quai Branly): The question that was raised very strongly in the press and in the community in France about this museum being aesthetic or being scientific is, for me, certainly a false issue.
BROWNING: You might ask, is this fight really about lighting and decoration versus scientific and historical explanation? No, it's about power, the power to tell the human story. This war or fight is about how an object is presented: as a cultural artifact, a piece of history, or as a work of art.
Historian Jim Clifford says it's also about how a museum tells that story.
Mr. JIM CLIFFORD (Historian): If we know one thing about these objects is that they don't only tell one story or even two stories.
BROWNING: A mask, a body carving, a knife, even a pot that comes from East Africa or the Andes or New Guinea might have multiple meanings, depending on who is using it or looking at it, and where they came from. Jim Clifford cites how westerners looked at masks in the 19th and 20th century.
Mr. CLIFFORD: In the 19th century, African masks tended to be thought of as fetishes. Suddenly, in the early 20th century - and it was very sudden -artists like Picasso looked at them and said, hey, these are great masterpieces of art. So the cubists and the surrealists after them, in a sense, promoted African objects to the status of great art. Now that was a dramatic change and in some ways a good thing. It brought recognition to objects that had been seen as sort of primitive or savage.
BROWNING: The objects hadn't changed, but the museums and the public who looked at them gave the objects new meanings defined by the rules of Western modern art. To indigenous people today, whether they're from the Amazon or the Yukon, these pieces are not only about art or ritual, but also about heritage. And that immediately raises political issues.
Quai Branly President Stephane Martin says the presentations are, of course, political, because museums are political places.
Mr. MARTIN: A museum can only be the reflection of the social, political, sometimes ethical, sometime scientific issues of the society where the museum is established.
BROWNING: Fair enough, answers Historian Jim Clifford, but imposing an overwhelming architecture of aesthetic stamp on a museum, as Jon Neuvel's design of the Musee du Quai Branly does, narrows how the objects inside are seen. Clifford fears that the multiple ways of seeing a mask or a shield or a knife disappear when they're all housed inside a single art museum.
Mr. CLIFFORD: You may have a dominant story. You may decide, I'm going to present these overwhelmingly as great art, but then maybe in your side galleries or your temporary galleries, you make sure to have spaces so that they can be shown in different ways. And you invite your viewers to deal with the multiple stories that can be told about objects.
Having only one dominant approach is a - well, to be crude about it, it's colonialist. It's you imposing a meaning on this and saying, well, this is the dominant meaning. Does the Quai Branly museum do this? I would say yes and no. I think they're struggling with that problem.
SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC
BROWNING: For Asian curator Christine Ahmet(ph), aesthetics can open the visitor's eyes to stories that are both ethnographic and political, and even contemporary. The past, Ahmet says, is never frozen.
She walks over to a case displaying hand-woven textiles from Vietnam's central highlands, which suffered heavy bombings from American airplanes in the 1960s.
Ms. CHRISTINE AHMET (Asian Curator): You have old ones from the end of 19th, beginning of the 20th century, and a new one, which is exactly the same. If you don't look carefully, you don't see the difference. But the design is not the same. You can see B-52 bombs, rockets, helicopter, of the Vietnam War.
BROWNING: This may be a nod to France's colonial past, but historian Jim Clifford says other museums take a more provocative approach to integrating past and present.
Mr. CLIFFORD: Actually, you only have to go couple of hours on the train to London to see displays which register that kind of contemporary presence much more. Go to the British Museum and go to the Africa gallery and it'll be - it's a very different experience.
BROWNING: When the British Museum underwent a makeover in the late 1990s, everything was brought under one roof, says Chris Spring, African curator.
Mr. CHRIS SPRING (African Curator): From about 1969 onwards, the African collections and also those from Oceania, the Americas and Asia, were displayed in another building. That ostensibly was because there wasn't enough room to display the collections here, which was true in one sense but in another sense was a kind of ghetto-ization if you like.
It was the kind of thinking that this sort of art had its - a different place perhaps from the other great artistic traditions of the world. And it's very important, I think, that those traditions are all seen together, one with another.
BROWNING: The museum also tries to link the past directly to the present. You head down the stairs to the African galleries and immediately confront a contemporary painting from Egypt on the landing. It depicts a series of rail tickets intermixed with hieroglyphs, sphinxes, Islamic calligraphy and even the face of a famous 1950s Cairo pickpocket.
Mr. SPRING: One of the guiding principles that we used here when the African galleries opened was to introduce the African galleries through the works of contemporary African artists who could really explode some of the stereotypes about Africa that many people have in their minds.
BROWNING: Well, let's go take a look.
Mr. SPRING: Yeah, let's go and have a look.
BROWNING: At the center of the gallery's entrance is what seems to be a huge, hanging, shimmering fabric run through with bright strips of color made by Ghanaian artist Ella(ph) Notsui(ph).
Mr. SPRING: And it's called Man's Cloth and it's inspired by their wonderful marrow strip silk weaving of the Ashanti and Eve(ph) and other people of Ghana. But it's actually made of hundreds and hundreds of strips which are taken from the foil wrappers around the necks of whiskey bottles of - brandy bottles, liquor basically.
So he's saying a number of things here. He's talking about the damage that has been done to our tradition in a sense. And there's another element in it. Distilleries were set up in Liverpool to brew liquor specifically for the slave trade. It's taken to West Africa and exchanged for slaves.
BROWNING: Actually woven fabrics are in an adjacent gallery. Museums today, argues Chris Spring, fail if they do not show the ongoing links between ancient life and current life. (Unintelligible) argues placing these objects in the same building as images of war, heroism and faith from the so-called great civilizations brings new life to the entire collection, whether the object is made of Hellenic marble or Yoruban ebony.
No matter what connections a museum tries to forge, Quai Branly President Stephane Martin says curators today have to acknowledge that they're facing an information-saturated public. Today's museum is unlikely to show its visitors anything they haven't already seen in magazines or on TV or via the Internet.
Mr. MARTIN: When you were a visitor of the National History Museum 50 years ago, the museum was the only source of information about that, when you were living in New York. Now it's totally different. The visitor is using the museum as one part of his information source, which he will compare with other sources of information. So what's interesting - or at least what interests me - is to see how much the social function, the social need of a museum in a society has tremendously moved. That's, I think, the big change.
BROWNING: And it's that change that will continue to fuel the fight for years to come over just what a museum should be.
For NPR News, I'm Frank Browning in Paris.
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