Thursday, June 8, 2023

How to Ruin a Great Museum


It is not often that you get to see the after-effects of the murder of a museum. Yet my visit to Paris brought me to the living remains of what had been, in my opinion, the best anthropological museum in the world. And, the guilty party has proudly placed his name on the remains left behind.

Trocadero Gardens and Palais Chaillot. By Dennis Jarvis from Halifax, Canada, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1937, as part of the Universal Exhibition, the Trocadero Gardens and the Chaillot Palace opened. The Palace housed several museums, including the Musée de l’Homme (Museum of Man). Designed by Paul Rivert, the mission of this museum was to present and define humanity, its evolution, its unity and its variety. The Musée de l’Homme was unique in its anthropological presentation is several ways. First, it was not organized geographically, but by social customs. For example, one gallery was devoted to music, and presented instruments from all over the world. They were arranged by the type of instruments: Strings in one section, woodwinds in another. Drums from around the world together. A different gallery showcased costumes, but again, they not arranged  geographically, but by themes like masks, feathers, etc.

More importantly, the Musée de l’Homme was truly a study of world cultures. That is, it included European and historically European cultures along with those of Indigenous cultures from the Americas, Africa, Asia and the Pacific Islands. This was a major break with the ethnographic practices of the time, and of today. Every other anthropological museum I have ever visited presents only the non-western world, organized by European eyes. Rivert, and the museum he designed, gave us all human cultures as equal and interconnected.

In 1996, Jacques Chirac, a center-right politician, was elected president of France. He wanted to continue a tradition of spending money on creating new museums in Paris. This tradition helped to bring us the Pompidou Center (contemporary art) and the Musée d’Orsay (Modern Art), among others. Chirac set his sights on the Musée de l’Homme. He secured funding to build a new museum, the Musée du Quai Branley - Jacques Chirac. He made sure that the leadership had a particular view of anthropology. They took the collection and rearranged it to mirror anthropological museums around the world. Artifacts were grouped by their geographic area of origin, and all European references were removed, as if Europe was the default, and above study; disconnected from the rest of the world.

On the plus side, the Musée de l’Homme did also get a renovation, and become a fascinating repository for the study of the biological development of humans. There are displays that explore the ways that males and females are similar and different. There was a discussion of cultural linkages, but to a much smaller extent than had been before.

Day of the Dead display



The Musée de l’Homme hosted the second on my list of Picasso exhibitions to visit. Titled Arts & Prehistory, the exhibit delved into the connection and inspiration that the discovery of prehistoric paintings had on Picasso and his work.

Buffalo totem

Carving of a Face

Ibix carved out of bone

Femme Lançant une pierre

models of the Venus de Lespugue

Woman sitting in a armchair

Reclining Bather

Blue Acrobat

One other highlight was the walk from one museum to the other. It is a short walk (1.1km) and takes you through the Trocadero Gardens and past the Eiffel Tower.

I have to say that it has been a long time since a museum has angered me. I had always held the Musée de l’Homme as the best anthropological museum. Seeing the changes, and all the connections and the world view that was thrown away, was more than disappointing. It was infuriating.


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