French presidents of the Fifth Republic have a thing about museums. Towards the end of their tenure, they tend to announce lofty ambitions for major new museums that will enrich the cultural landscape of Paris- and not least, cement their legacy in it. It started with Georges Pompidou and his radically-designed museum of modern art. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing gifted us the Musée d’Orsay. François Mitterrand launched a number of projects, but his most important was the enormous Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Nicolas Sarkozy famously failed at the Maison de l’Histoire de France he proposed on the site of the Archives Nationales, and François Hollande’s talk of a museum of slavery sadly petered out.
But perhaps the most famous, political and controversial Presidential museum project, the one most tied up with the identity of its benefactor, is the Musée du Quai Branly.Jacques Chirac, President of the Republic from 1995 to 2007, is a paradoxical figure. Having led the UMP (now the Républicains) party, he is firmly right-wing, and his anti-immigration stance makes him far from my favourite person. But ironically, despite his unwelcoming views of “foreign” people, he has always been fascinated by “foreign” art, collecting objects from First Nations and tribal communities around the non-Western world.Chirac long dreamed of launching a prestigious, high-profile museum in the heart of Paris that would place the arts of communities from Asia, Africa, the Pacific and the Americas in spaces to rival the prominence of the d’Orsay or the Louvre.Sounds great, right? I am the first to champion increased visibility of non-Western arts, histories and cultures in Paris. And the Musée du Quai Branly, which opened to much media attention in 2007, is very good at a number of things. The building is remarkable, a Jean Nouvel creation that is both unique and striking, and ingeniously tucked away among its gardens next to the Eiffel Tower. The centre puts on some brilliant events, especially at its cinema. And the Quai Branly fosters an active research culture, funding a number of postdoctoral positions in anthropology and related fields every year.
And yet the Musée du Quai Branly is problematic and dogged with controversy. This began before the museum was even built, when Chirac suggested the title of Le Musée des Arts premiers, or the patronising “Museum of Primitive Arts”. The museum’s original collection was drawn from two key Paris institutions with chequered pasts: the Palais de la Porte Dorée and the Musée de l’Homme, formerly colonialist museums which, when they lost their collections to the Quai Branly, had to reinvent themselves as the museums of immigration and anthropology respectively.
When the Quai Branly opened, it was quickly approached by representatives from New Zealand, who demanded the restitution of precious mokomokai Māori heads held in the Quai Branly’s possession. The museum resisted, but thankfully returned the mokomokai in 2010. In 2018, Benin was finally successful in reclaiming 26 of its precious bronzes which had been taken from the African nation by France during colonisation. But what is most striking to me is the museum’s exoticist approach to representing other cultures. Objects are suspended in dark spaces under spotlights, items from wildly different contexts presented together in ways that feel forced and a little too evocative of the old-fashioned practice of the cabinet of curiosities. My work demands I take a critical eye to French museums that represent cultural diversity. But I am the first to admit that the Musée du Quai Branly is a very important place, one with great potential, set in a remarkable environment. It’s just that it is also politicised, and not always in palatable ways. It’s important for us to know, and see, and question, and critique. As it is with anything our presidents do, I suppose.