Museums of cultural dispossession?

Published : Mar 17, 2001 00:00 IST

The two new projects in Paris for museum development may well be a saga of dispossession of the cultural heritage of micro-civilisations.

SPRING in Paris this year will see the first anniversary of one of the most significant new displays of world culture in Europe: the new Pavillion des Sessions gallery in the Louvre, ceremonially opened by President Jacques Chirac in April last year. The ceremony had also heralded Chirac's presidential museum enterprise - the newly-planned Quai Branly Museum - to be built at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. Both projects are devoted to what the French call Les Arts Premiers or 'The First Arts', the 'primitive' arts of Africa, the Americas, Asia and Oceania (significantly Europe is left out).

The Louvre's 'Les Arts Premiers' gallery is certainly a dramatic and sensational addition to one of the world's greatest museums. It also raises a number of issues relating to international museum collections and cultural policies.

In the first instance, it is a stunning display of an extraordinary collection of 'primitive' sculpture drawn from more than 40 countries around the world. Exhibited in spacious rooms in the south-western wing of the Louvre, the presentation is an outsta nding example of a modern version of museum design in its most classic form. Pure, chaste, profound, it concentrates attention on these great masterpieces of human imagination by careful and dramatic spacing and lighting, and the simplest of perfectly de signed glass cases and metal pedestals. The labelling is almost hidden, unnoticed. There is very little direct attempt at contextualisation.

The meaning, significance and cultural experience the exhibits offer lie almost entirely in the reading of the objects themselves. Each is a visual 'text', which any individual visitor (or other culture or epoch) can read in his or her own way. In this s ense, it is surely one of the most evocative presentations of the complexity, depth and 'modernity' of the iconic and plastic vision of various pre-literate societies through time and space, capable of standing side-by-side with the Louvre's other master works drawn from some of the world's great civilisations.

The discourse around this inclusion of 'Primary Arts' in the Louvre is the next consideration. The new gallery is the result of a century-old debate within the Louvre's high command itself and the French intelligentsia. Should the Louvre - "the temple of Western art and its sources" - open its hallowed galleries to 'primitive' art? For those who said "yes", the First Arts gallery was a great victory against classicist Eurocentric parochialism, a debate that had begun in the 19th century. The Louvre had, and still has, a pure line view of civilisation, which presents history as a solemn progression down a grand boulevard: Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greek and Roman civilisations, medieval and Renaissance Europe to Louis XIV and the French Revolution, Napoleon a nd the Second Empire. The establishment of the Les Arts Premiers gallery was a fundamental challenge to this linear concept of history. The victory is very explicitly celebrated in the grand, if somewhat inaccurate, statement that has been inscribed at t he entrance to the exhibition: "Hierarchy no longer exists between the arts any more than it does between peoples."

As Stephane Martin, chairman and managing director of the Quai Branly Museum, in a feature on the internet, the project carries "a political, humanist message... of recognition, of respect":

"They are the artistic products of a group of societies spread over every continent. All too often these works are ignored by the currents of thought of the great empires and the major religions that have structured and provided the historical background to the main civilisations... It was symbolically very important that these works be at the Louvre. It is a way of conveying the great respect that France pays to these societies and their artistic products."

The politics of this intellectual discourse is matched by the intellectuality that informs French politics: the politics of cultural and the culture of politics. This is a tradition with deep roots. It goes back to Francois I, the patron of Leonardo da V inci; to Henri IV, who laid the foundations of the Paris we know today; to Louis XIV, the progenitor of Versailles; and to the grand remodelling of Paris that took place in the 19th century. The Fifth Republic has been eager to maintain and add to this r ecord. De Gaulle's presidency saw no great monuments, but Andre Malraux as Minister of Culture initiated the first serious programme of post-War cultural revival, and the cleaning and revitalisation of Paris.

President Francois Mitterrand who inherited the mantle embellished Paris during his long presidency, with a series of projects and monuments - the Grand Arch La Defense, a modern re-interpretation of the Arc de Triomphe and an extension of the Champs Ely sees so as to double its length; the glass 'Pyramide' in the main courtyard of the Grand Louvre; the Institute of the Arab World, which brought to the centre of Paris the work of Jean Nouvel, the architect now chosen to design the Branly Museum; the new Bibliotheque Nationale at Tolbiac, named after Mitterrand himself. All these were strategically located at the two extremes but at the centre of the great east-west axis of the city. Georges Pompidou added modernist populism to Mitterrand's grand gesture s - the Beaubourg 'cultural area' development and the Pompidou Centre for contemporary arts. President Chirac had to think hard to produce his own cultural monument; the results being the Museum of Quai Branly, a complement and successor to the Les Arts Premiers at the Louvre.

ALL this, no doubt, will add greatly to the culture of Paris and the totality of its already quite extraordinary cultural landscape. But it is this cultural wealth itself that brings us back to the fundamental contradiction which lies at the heart of Les Arts Premiers: the very formulation of that concept, the formation of this collection and the establishment of this gallery and the Quai Branly museum, ultimately present a tragic mirror image: the intellectual dispossession of the very cultures that produced this great art.

At the end of the day, the celebration of Paris' gain is also a requiem for those societies whose resources and achievements have been appropriated for the enrichment of the culture of Paris. This is not merely the raw issue of one culture purchasing, or taking - by the exercise of some form of coercive power or hegemony - the cultural products and treasures of another culture. It is far more fundamental. It is part of a historical process by which modern Western civilisation in the very course of its d evelopment overtook and swamped many of the cultures, especially the delicate, pre-literate micro-cultures that produced these First Arts.

The dispossession is so complete that in many instances the descendants of those peoples who produced these arts can no longer understand them either in their own terms, or in the profound modern way that they are presented and understood in the Louvre. This historical irony lies at the heart of this new gallery.

What is important is not to 'blame' Paris for adding to its wealth (except when it is blameworthy), but to realise that it is incumbent on those of us who value and appreciate its cultural riches to understand the historical processes and historical and human costs they also entail. In a motor accident in which a speeding car knocks down a careless pedestrian, we have the concept of 'contributory negligence', but it is also necessary to fully investigate all the circumstances and the background leading to the incident, to apportion responsibility, not necessarily equally, and to take remedial and preventive action.

How one does this in the case of Les Arts Premiers has to be part of a critical discourse that does not as yet exist. Ultimately, it will also involve the detailed investigation of the history and context of the acquisition of each masterpiece that is on display. This may well reveal an entirely new perspective from which we have to evaluate Les Arts Premiers and the future Quai Branly Museum. That this process has already begun at its most obvious level is seen in a report by the Cambridge-based Illici t Antiquities Research Centre in its newsletter Culture Without Context: "The Louvre has been criticised by the International Council of Museums for opening a new... extension to display art from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas on the groun ds that some of the exhibits could have been looted."

A particular controversy surrounds two Nok terracotta masterpieces that were recently purchased by the Branly Museum directorate and exhibited in the Louvre. The export of Nok terracottas from Nigeria has been banned since 1943. The purchase, therefore, of two unprovenanced Nok masterpieces by a major museum, if true, is a serious impropriety.

But this is only the beginning of a process of historical inquiry whose scope and theoretical basis will have to widen and deepen in the course of time. It will one day surely encompass the question of whether the cultures that yielded the artefacts that now fill great galleries like 'Les Arts Premiers' were masters of their own contemporary fate, or whether hegemonic historical processes had deprived them of fair choice.

An equally important issue is what initiatives these micro-cultures should now develop in order to preserve and repossess their heritage. What responsibilities lie on those of us who possess the cultural capital generated through time by these cultures t o ensure that they too are enriched by the intellectual property that once belonged to them? Is the fact that their voices in this matter are so weak, rarely projected and barely heard, an indicator of the frailty of impoverishment on the one side and th e indifference and 'insouciance' of wealth on the other? The Les Arts Premiers exhibition is certainly a monument to human imagination, but it also leads us to ponder once again Walter Benjamin's much quoted dictum: "Every monument of civilisation is als o a monument to barbarism."


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