Post-Colonial Museums ... How the French and American Models Differ

Culture Watch

Mr. Lebovics is a Professor of History at Stony Brook University. He is the author most recently of Bringing the Empire Back Home: France in the Global Age (Duke University Press, Aug. 2004).

Two new museums dedicated to a “postcolonial” representations of captured heritages are opening soon. With the dedication on 21 September of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington , the United States will formally honor its Amerindian patrimony with a striking building designed by Douglas Cardinal, a Canadian Métis, who was architect of the Canadian Museum of Civilization. The undulating stone façade quotes the mud architectural style of the American Southwest. It has been built on the last free space on the Mall, near the Capitol. The building stands next to the nation’s most popular museum, the Air and Space. So it is situated between American rule and American might. Here the heritages of many of the Amerindian nations of the New World will go on display. The landscaping uses only indigenous American trees, plants, and rocks; tobbaco and corn will be planted every summer.

Still under construction, another grand modern museum will open (2006) in Paris to honor the arts of the peoples once part of the French colonial empire. Jean Nouvel, France’s greatest architect, designed the handsome glass-walled building. The Musée de Quai Branly (its name for the moment) is being built also in a precious and coveted plot, on the last big usable plot along the left bank of the Seine. It is going up next to the Eiffel Tower, near the Orsay and diagonally across from the Louvre on the other side of the Seine. The Assemblée Nationale is not far away. Grasslands, plants, and trees from areas whose cultures are on display will surround the building. Visitors will enter from the river side through a dense jungle-like grove of trees.

The contents of both new museums come from collections assembled under conditions of colonial domination.. Most of the NMAI collection was acquired by George Gusav Heye who travelled the Americas collecting literarily tons of “primitive” art and artifacts. The objects on display at the museum on Quai Branly had been collected in the French colonies by naval officers, missionaries, and anthropological expeditions. They were first put on display in the ethnological museum of Paris, which in during the Popular Front in 1936 took the more promising name of Musée de l’Homme. Some years ago, the Heye Museum in New York closed and its collection was put into storage awaiting the construction of the new Washington building. Meanwhile, the US Customs House in lower Manhatten displayed, and will continue to display, some of the Heye collection as a kind of teaser and outpost for Washington. Last year the Museée de l’Homme closed its doors as an ethnographic museum as did the Museum of African and Oceanic Arts (the museum left over from the 1931 Paris International Colonial Exposition of 1931). Their collections are being readied for the opening of the Quai Branly. Meanwhile, with great resistance from its guardians of French classicisms, some one hundred “primitive” masks and statues—each one an aesthetic masterpiece--have been put on display in the Louvre, also as a kind of foretaste of the new museum. Clearly, the French are taking some of their inspiration from the Rockefeller wing of the Metropolitan, the new Washington museum, and of course from the Canadian Museum of Civilization.

Here these remarkable parallels stop. The planners of each new museum have followed different strategies to try to move beyond the power relations which brought these art/artifacts into the national patrimony. Washington is creating a place of living memory. Paris will celebrate great artistic achievement. Justice by pluralism and justice by egalitarian assimilation: the American Dream versus the ideal of the French Revolution.

Since 1990 the director of the Washington museum has been R. Richard West, Jr. a Southern Chayenne. Many senior staff members are Amerindians as well. The NMAI cost 219 millions. Congress paid about half and required that the rest be made up by private donations. Amerindians contributed about 33 million, with some especially big contributions of tribes owning successful gambling casinoes. Native Americans were consulted all through the creation of the museum. Some 2,000 grave objects, including the human remains that Heye had plundered, were given back early in the planning. Religious and tribal restrictions against display will be respected. After hours, but also during the day, Indians will be welcomed to perform ceremonies with or before objects in the museum and at its collections research center in Suitland, Maryland. This latter facility was designed according to Native American ideas about what should be higher than what, what needs the sunshine, and the like. For ritual needs, Indians may burn the tobacco and sweet grass planted by the museum. Emphasis will be both on the sad and yet noble history of Amerindian peoples in the Western hemisphere. But, above all, the NMAI will remind visitors of the existing vibrant cultures still lived by the estimated 30 to 40 millions native peoples of North and South America.

Quai Branly is headed by a highly-trained administrator, Stéphane Martin, who, on loan from the French state, served some years as a fiscal advisor for a one-time French colony in Africa before returning to work in the management of the Pompidou. Anthopologists play only a minor role; there are very few specialists in France of any sort in the cultures of African, Oceanic, Amerindian, and rural Asia. Very few representatives of the cultures on display have played, or are intended to play, any role in the museums constitution. The museology is directd by Germaine Viatte, an art historian trained in contemporary art. If what he did as director of the museum of African and Oceanic Art allows predictions, he will emphasize high modernist display techniques: pristinely cleaned art objects, exhibited in walk-around glass cases, and beautifully lit to highlight the aesthetic properties of the pieces. Information on the case will tell visitors of the materials used, appoximate date, and region or society of origin. Perhaps if the artist is known, his or her name will be given. In various spots in the museum—probably on computer terminals—more geographical, cultural, and historical information will be available. Serge Gruzinski, an historian of Latin American, has recently joined the planning staff to insure that proper attention will be paid to the cultural mixing, the métissage, which has eclipsed the old and invidous ethnological vision of pure cultures in sublime isolation.

A comparative evaluation of the two projects is not a no-brainer. We Americans have come to accept honoring fellow citizens of different ethnic origins by valorizing their specificity, i.e. their separateness but equalness. So while honoring the indigenous peoples of the Americas, the Museum of the American Indian, also celebrates the jostling pluralism of American life. The French, although mindful of the great mixity of cultures, nevertheless, want to hold on to some idea of social solidarity. For they know that, in the long run, pluralism yields to mixing. The US wants to show the world that it values difference. Despite our claims to multiculturalism, Europeans find important aspects of American life remarkable uniform—foods, dress, entertainments, suburbanization, and the way of life. Yet, difference—province against Paris, colonies against metropole, nationalism against internationalism, classicism against the avant-garde—has always been a source of creative tension in supposedly centralized French history.

With the creation of the Louvre Museum during the French Revolution, France positioned itself as the heir and keeper of Europe’s cultural patrimony. An important function of its new musem of non-Western art is to proclaim France as the principal Western friend of the cultures of the South. But will highlighting the admittedly great art of peoples living today in poverty and turmoil be enough to mediate a new amity? Four million Muslim descendents of immigrant workers from the colonies living today as unintegrated minorities in France discourage an easy aesthetic solution.

Our Museum of the American Indian in its way will compete for the same role in the world. Great art, the French hope, will close the era of colonialism. Great recognition, the US government hopes, will close our own age of despoilation. Richard West hopes the NMAI will bring a long awaited reconcilation. But what of the broken treaties, the massacres, and the distrupted cultures which spawn continuing pathologies. Will the musuem also tell the story of alcoholism, drugs, and enduring poverty among Native Americans, and of the Indians’ own efforts to change all that? Jacqueline Johnson, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, also wants better understanding and warmer relations. But, asked as to whether this act of cultural recognition resolves the serious conflicts between the Indians of American and the State, she promptly responded to New York Times (19 August) reporter, Elizabeth Olsen, “of course not.”

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Vernon Clayson - 9/15/2004

I find it amazing that no one ever responds to articles involving Native Americans. Apparently the subject is a non-issue. Could it be because their proud culture doesn't allow them to cast themselves as victims as do so many of the so-called minorities? Native Americans in the states are at best paternistically humored for holding on to their quaint culture, eg., when do the Indians dance? Too many think of Native Americans as the small population in the 50 states but they neglect to recognize that the peoples from Middle and South America, being largely descendants of indigenous people, are also Native Americans and they are migrating in large numbers, they work and don't think of themselves as victims. The times they are a-changing.