Walter has a thread going on this museum as well, over in the art forum.
Link to Walter's thread in the Art Forum -
Today, the New York Times has a pithy review of the place, a review that covers a lot of questions re the display of works originally made in other contexts than as art... (This museum was specifically not called an art museum.)
Registration probably required to read this -
A Heart of Darkness in the City of Light by Michael Kimmelman
A few paragraphs clipped from mid-article..
The place simply makes no sense. Old, new, good, bad are all jumbled together without much reason or explanation, save for visual theatrics. Quai Branly's curator of Asian collections, Christine Hemmet, who was furious about the dismantling of the Musée de l'Homme, took me to find a Vietnamese scarecrow, circa 1970's, on the back of which was painted an American B-52 dropping bombs. She said she had wanted to install a mirror in the display case, behind the work, so the scarecrow's back would be visible. But she was told it would spoil the mise-en-scène.
Think of the museum as a kind of ghetto for the "other," a word Mr. Chirac has taken to using: an enormous, rambling, crepuscular cavern that tries to evoke a journey into the jungle, downriver, where suddenly scary masks or totem poles loom out of the darkness and everything is meant to be foreign and exotic. The Crayola-colored facade and its garden set the stage for this passage from civilization.
After a couple of circuits around the galleries my heart sank. I also started to feel something else: that the debate has missed the point. The dichotomy between ethnology and aesthetics is too simple. It's not possible to draw a line between form and function, which are inseparably mixed in ways that constantly shift.
This doesn't mean that the artists or artisans who made altarpieces and masks weren't aiming for something aesthetically potent or pleasing, even if potency (and beauty) meant one thing to a Renaissance Italian, another to a Dogon craftsman, and it means yet another to an Aboriginal artist who comes to Paris to paint Quai Branly's gift shop.
Paintings and other objects, like people, have careers, lives. These objects have meanings to those who brought them into the world, other meanings to those who worked with or used them, yet others to historians who try to explain them, to curators who organize exhibitions around them. They exist in as many different forms as the number of people who happen to come across them. Objects are not static; they are the accumulation of all their meanings.
Claims of cultural patrimony and calls for the repatriation of antiquities (Italians wanting back ancient art dug up in Italy, Greeks wanting back Greek art) stem from nationalist politics and legal disputes, but they're fundamentally about who gets to assign meaning. A British anthropologist on the panel at Quai Branly mentioned a show of Polynesian art and religion in England. He said the question had arisen, should modern-day Polynesians have say over the show's content?
But which Polynesians? The political activists who might want their idols returned? The religious fundamentalist who might want them burned? They're both native voices. Which gets authority over what the artifacts mean?
John Mack, the British professor who moderated the panel, added that good museums "destabilize the idea of a singular meaning," whether it's "beauty" or "ritual." The implication was that they shouldn't do what Quai Branly has done, which is for the museum to make itself the meaning of everything in it.