By my lights, the Musee du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, on the left bank of the Seine not far from the Eiffel Tower, is a nearly perfect museum. More commonly referred to simply as “the quai Branly,” it is a sprawling celebration of ethnographic objects and the people and cultures who made them. Designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel, the museum is exuberant, overwhelming, almost intentionally chaotic, and a compelling case study in how architecture and exhibits can be mutually enhancing. I am here to sing its praises.
The visitor experience is constructed as a journey along a conceptual a river, echoing the Seine running alongside the site. It begins as you pass through a tall glass wall baffling the museum from the traffic on a busy boulevard, meanders through a series of outdoor gardens, and flows seamlessly into the building and the exhibition spaces themselves. There are few closed “galleries” and walls, only open displays (cased and uncased) and turnouts of various sizes off the winding central circulation pathway. We rise through three levels of displays exploring four vast geo-cultural regions: Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Oceana. The synergy is along them deliberate and palpable. After awhile it is impossible not to feel a profound sense of cultural interconnectedness.
I especially liked the deliberate layering of displays, so that views of objects in the background inform your experience of those close at hand; the wonderfully playful little architectural moves, like a framed view of the garden outside integrated into a display of Dogon artifacts, or the Algerian latticework screen panel mounted in front of a real window; the surprising, ephemeral, understated soundscapes and video programs; and the occasional glimpses of visible collections storage occupying the vertical circulation core, gently reminding us that what’s on display is truly only the tip of the iceberg.
And finally, inevitably, a few caveats. This is a collections-based museum and the collectors were, for the most part, white European men. Although it embraces diverse cultural perspectives, it makes no pretense – as many current ethnographic exhibitions now do – of having been curated by its objects’ makers. It gleefully mixes time periods, presenting ancient and contemporary objects side by side. It makes no attempt to differentiate between objects’ functional and esthetic value, honoring both and effectively dismissing the tedious debate about “art” vs. “culture.” It blurs lines, crosses boundaries, and delights in the tension that arises when different cultures intersect. It is an experiential ecotone, awash in interactions and unafraid of contradiction. For me this is all to the good, but it won’t be to everyone’s taste.