What Are They Really Celebrating At The Musée Du Quai Branly, Paris?
“France is both universalist and secular. We need to recognize that [museum collections] belong to the history of our own country, but also to cultures that may have disappeared, or be on the way out, or hoping for cultural revival. We need to take all this into account, but without giving in to a kind of paternalism, confining other people to their particularities and reserving universalism exclusively for ourselves because we’re worried about being “politically correct”. We cannot give in to claims for restitution like those presented to the English for the Parthenon marbles or the Benin bronzes. But what we can do is set in motion international collaboration designed to find viable compromises between different, often incompatible interests, for example, between restitution and the protection of objects
Statement by an official of the Musée du quai Branly.(1)
Trophy Head, Benin, Nigeria, now in the Palais des Sessions, Paris, France. One of the objects looted by the British in 1897 from Benin, Nigeria.
No doubt many readers would have noticed the various announcements stating that the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, is celebrating its tenth year of existence. (2) As will be recalled, the museum was inaugurated by the then French President, Jacques Chirac, on 20 June 2006 amidst much controversy and fanfare, with very important world personalities, including the then UN Secretary-General, Kofi Anan, in attendance. (3)
The impressive structures by the prominent French architect, Jean Nouvel, were criticised by some but on the whole they impressed many. (4) But the architectural discussions were less acrimonious than the controversies relating to the cultural artefacts in the new museum. These artefacts had previously been in the Musée de l’Homme and in the Musée des arts africains et océaniens which saw their importance considerably reduced. Indeed the Musée des arts africains et océaniens ceased to exist and its premises were turned into a Cité national de l'histore de l'Immigration
A more fundamental debate related to the mode of acquisition of the African and Asian artefacts that had been transferred to the new museum. These objects had been acquired mainly in the colonial period through looting and other illegal and dubious methods but had been covered by the colonial government with its might and power against the will of the colonial subjects. The brutal methods used in the acquisition of these artefacts have been fully described in l’Afrique fantôme (1934) by Michel Leiris. Leiris was the recorder of the notorious Dakar-Djibouti Expedition (1931-33) that brought back to France some 3500 artefacts stolen or extorted from the French colonies of Africa and from Ethiopia.
At the time of the inauguration of the new museum, it was argued that it was time to return at least some of the looted/stolen artefacts to their countries of origin. With typical colonialist arrogance and selfishness, the museum and its supporters who have mostly argued that African artefacts are better displayed in Western museums, turned deaf ears to all pleas for restitution. On the contrary, with the help of some African officials and governments, the French acquired even more artefacts by illegal and illegitimate means which by 2006, although heavily criticised, had already become established traditions.
At the opening of the Musée du Quai Branly, we witnessed the strange scene of the French President Chirac pleading for respect for African art and culture. We started wondering to whom this plea was addressed. Apparently the President was speaking to the French who with the British, the Germans, Portuguese and the rest of the Western world have been responsible not only for the deplorable attitude toward African culture and art but also for the continuing depletion of African cultural and material resources over the centuries. What the sympathetic French President did not say, and for good reason, was that the West should return some of the stolen and looted cultural artefacts that now decorate Western museums and private homes.
Figure of a seated male. One of the looted Nigerian Nok terracotta, now in the possession of the Musée du Quai Branly, in the Palais des Sessions, Paris, France, with post factum Nigerian consent even though the ICOM Red List For Africa forbids exportation of such artefacts.
Surely, the first and most elementary sign of change of attitude would be to return some of the stolen artefacts to the owners who are thus deprived of their fundamental human right to keep their cultural artefacts for the development of their culture in their own way and at their own pace. Let there be no mistake about this: there can be no respect for African art and culture without respect for Africans who are the bearers of African culture. Dreaming or talking about African culture without Africans is a dangerous path which many Westerners seem prepared to follow and hence their reluctance for decades to return any of our stolen artefacts. Indeed they seem to have lost all sense of shame or guilt in dealing with or handling objects that were stolen or acquired under dubious circumstance and some Africans make it easy for them. Everybody should know by now that the great need of African art at the moment is not so much respect as the ability to recover our stolen objects and to preserve what we still have from predatory collectors and rapacious museums. Respect would be implied in the return of some of the stolen artefacts.
Throne of King Ghezo, Abomey, Dahomey, République du Benin, now in Musée du quai Branly, Paris, France.
During all the years since its establishment in 2006, the Musée du quai Branly, like all the major Western museums, has not seriously preoccupied itself with the important question of returning some of the enormous looted artefacts under its control, some 290,000 objects. It may have organized seminars and conferences where the issues have been discussed, after all the museum has adopted as its official motto -the place where cultures converse- but we know of no single case where it was seriously considered by the museum to return an artefact. (5) ‘Dialogue’ appears to mean the museum chooses topics acceptable to it and to the French authorities. Certainly, the museum chooses its own dialogue partners who are agreeable and not Africans or Asians who would want to have some of the stolen artefacts returned. The hold of Western museums on some African institutions and their officials is a topic that still has to be explored intensively. The necessary dialogue between Africa and the West has not even started. Evidently, the classical effects of some 500 years of slavery, colonialism and imperialism cannot be eradicated in a few decades without serious efforts on the part of the oppressors and the oppressed.
Calls and appeals for decolonization of mind or mentalities have not affected the basic structure of discussions between Africans and Westerners. Many Westerners seem to think that the call for decolonization of mind by Ngugi Wa Thiongo, Decolonization of the Mind (1986) and others is only addressed to Africans and that they are not concerned, as if they were not the prime movers in colonization and the main beneficiaries of the colonial enterprise. We still have in Paris respectable dealers in African art who describe themselves as dealers in primitive arts. A walk through rue de la Seine, where dealers in African art are concentrated, will confirm this. Indeed, one of the dealers has boldly painted on top of his window, ARTS PRIMITIFS.
Whose arts are primitive?
The great contribution of African art to the birth of modern art has apparently not been sufficient to persuade many Westerners to abandon pejorative designations inherited from ethnologists and museums.
Even progressive Westerners have not completely accepted that African artefacts should be returned. They believe the West still has a God-given supervisory role to play hence many support keeping our looted artefacts in the museums and other institutions in the West. These Westerners often hide their true position behind arguments relating to the safety and security of artefacts in African countries. But who looked after African artefacts before they were looted by Europeans? Besides since when is it appropriate for looters or their successors to complain about the insecurity of the place from which they looted precious objects?
Among the impressive African objects in the Pavillon des Sessions is this sculpture of Gou, God of war that the French looted in 1892 from the former French colony, Dahomey, now Republic of Benin.
The Musée du quai Branly, like other major Western museums, has been more interested in consolidating its dubious holdings of looted objects and joined the other predatory Western institutions, including Louvre Museum, Paris, Ethnology Museum, Berlin, World Museum, Vienna, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, Metropolitan Museum of Arts, New York in issuing in 2002 the infamous Declaration on the Value and Importance of Universal Museums By this self-serving proclamation, the major museums declared that the looted/stolen cultural artefacts that have been for ages under their control have become part of their collections and therefore there could be no question of wholesale restitution. There was no official African or Asian response to this provocative imperialist stance which was intended to bury numerous cases of looting and stealing of artefacts.
So what is the Musée du quai Branly celebrating? Ten years of existence? Could a museum with all the precious stolen artefacts of others and the support of the French government fail? Could any group of curators, with years of experience in museum work, provided with some of the best artefacts from Africa and Asia, ever fail?
We see such celebrations as the self-congratulatory affirmations of the seemingly impregnable position certain Western cultural institutions have assumed as a result of relentless colonial exploitation and oppression of African and Asian peoples, with continuing or permanent after-effects. How otherwise could one explain that institutions holding admittedly looted or stolen artefacts do not seem to bother about the illegality and illegitimacy of their acquisitions? And what about the Asian and African intellectuals and their governments who are supposed to be safeguarding the interests of their peoples?The Chinese at
least have made a survey of their artefacts stolen in attack on the Summer Palace in 1860 Anglo-French imperialist invasion and have made their demands known to the respective governments and museums and to the world. How many African governments and museums have a list of the looted or stolen they would want returned? Zahi Hawass asked for such a list in 2010 during the Cairo Conference on Reparation
What have the governmental cultural institutions and universities been doing about the recovery of the looted or stolen artefacts that can be seen by a short visit to any major Western museum? Are these institutions and their officials that are paid to preserve our cultures interested in the fate of our precious national cultural artefacts? The often repeated claim that we are proud of our African culture does not, at least in this area, seem to be confirmed.
Sure, we hear from time to time that the issue of restitution of looted African artefacts will be discussed. But can we take such announcements seriously or should we consider them as the continuing game of some African representatives and their European counterparts in creating illusions that are apt to keep African peoples and their demands under control?
Commemorative head, Benin, Nigeria, now in Ethnology Museum, Leipzig, Germany.
Take for example the meeting in Benin on February 19, 2013, which issued a document entitled- Benin Plan of Action for Restitution. Despite its title, the document did not deal at all with the issue of restitution. My conclusion after reviewing the document still remains valid: ‘After reading the miserable project titled “Benin Plan of Action for Restitution”, which is no plan of action and does not deal with restitution, can anyone continue to affirm that Nigeria's approach to restitution is working? The British and the French did not even bother to attend the meeting.
German officials have informed their Parliament that in their discussions with representatives of Nigeria there was no demand for the return of the Benin artefacts and there has been no statement from the Nigerian officials to contest or modify theGerman assertion. This creates a strange situation in which the Nigerian public believes its representatives are fighting hard to secure the restitution of Nigerians artefacts as has been demanded from time immemorial by various Nigerian governments and institutions and yet the Germans declare there has been no such demand and Nigerian officials are quite. What is the true position? Why are Nigerians officials silent on this point?
A form of illusion in this area is to act and say the policy of restitution in a given African country is working even though no one knows what the policy exactly is since the policy is described as quiet diplomacy and so not much information is available. However, when noisy students in a European university, such as Cambridge University succeed through demonstration and other forms of agitation to get the University authorities to agree that a Benin artefact, so -called Benin Cockerel, should be returned to Nigeria, a claim is made that this success is a result of the policy of ‘quiet diplomacy’.
The Musée du quai Branly, like all the other Western museums holding looted/stolen African artefacts, can continue celebrating every day as a triumph so long as there is no serious and effective African and Asian pressure for the return of some of the looted artefacts. The museum can create the illusion that it is celebrating the beauty and glory of African and other non-western cultures. It can also invite the Africans in the African Diaspora, used to daily denigration of Africans and everything African in countries where they are not really welcome, to join such celebrations that may uplift their spirits. African musicians and artists will be there in full force. After all, African musicians are happy to seize any occasion to provide exciting music. Clearly it is not their business to worry about looted African artefacts, an issue they expect rightly the authorities at home to resolve. However, Western museums cannot claim they serve the African and Asian Diasporas they have recently discovered.
One of the looted Nok pieces held by the Musée du Quai Branly with a post factum consent of the Nigerian authorities even though the ICOM Red Book for Africa forbids their export outside Nigeria..
The museum may even invite African authorities and owners to attend the celebration, and not having a very strong historical conscience, some may even feel, in the neo-colonial context, honoured and will not raise any objections to the impudent display of looted/stolen cultural artefacts wrenched with violence from their predecessors. This is not surprising since some countries are said to have ceased teaching their own history in the primary schools.
Westerners and their museums seem very keen to tell the history of Africans but they do not seem to understand or envisage that Africans might also want to tell their own history, with the artefacts Westerners are illegally and illegitimately holding and also the various archives and official documents they took with them on the eve of Independence. We seem to be very far from the post-colonial museum, with museum officials and others still operating within colonial and neo-colonial categories and often acting as if Independence and the struggle for liberation from imperialism did not take place.
Plaque with two Portuguese Warriors, Benin, Nigeria. One of the looted items of 1897, now in Musée du quai Branly, Paris, France.
‘There are many ways to develop relationships besides returning museum objects. Informally, it also appears that the different kinds of collaboration that are currently in progress are important to Nigerian museums. That might explain why Nigeria has not registered any formal demand for the return of the Benin collections, but has preferred to engage in dialogue and cooperation. It seems that Nigeria is wary of bringing the matter to a head. How does one otherwise explain that the National Museum of Nigeria was willing to lend its extensive and unique collection of Ife art to the British Museum for a special exhibition 2010, without demanding reciprocity?
Wilhelm Östberg, (6)
Kwame Tua Opoku, 28 April 2016.
1. Sally Price, Paris Primitive: Jacques Chirac’s Museum on Quay Branly
University of Chicago Press, 2007, p.124.
2. Quai Branly: Paris’s musée de la différence - FT.com http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/104a7cda-cc2c-11e5-a8ef-ea66e967dd44.html
3. K Opoku, Benin to Quai Branly: A Museum for the Arts of the others or for the Stolen Arts of the Others? http://www.museum-security.org/2007/08/benin-to-quai-branly-a-museum-for-the-arts-of-the-others-or-for-the-stolen-arts-of-the-others/
4. My personal impressions of the new museum have not changed over the years since its establishment:
‘’Personally, I am not very much disturbed by the jungle-like garden that surrounds the museum and the uneven landscape outside. What worries me is the semi-dark atmosphere in the museum as well as the uncertainty about which floor one finds himself. We are used to modern museums where daylight and an airy atmosphere prevail and one does not have to be distracted by the need to watch one’s movements. The spaces in the halls are too narrow. More seriously disturbing is the attempt of the architect and the museum management to create a jungle atmosphere and to present the non-European peoples as living in a jungle with little light and uncoordinated structures and unexpected objects. There is here a definitive intention to present non-European culture as irrational, exotic, and full of surprises and to some extent, dangerous. The dim light is used not to protect the objects in the museum but to reinforce the stupid European and US American prejudice that Africa is a “dark continent”. Even this year I read in an article by Time on African royalty entitled “The Dark Continent’s Royal Remnants”. Do they not know or realize that we in Africa have perhaps more sunlight than the rest of the world? Where then is the “darkness” except in the minds of some Europeans? Should a new museum not contribute to changing attitudes which the museums and ethnologists have been largely responsible in creating? That a famous architect and a group of well- educated French men and women could in this 21st century spend 233 million euros to create an image of Africa which we thought had ended with colonialism shows how deep eurocentrism is and how well anchored the foolish images conveyed by the ethnologists are in the European mind. They could have asked Africans and Asians to contribute ideas for the design of the new museum. The same Jean Nouvel who designed the Institut du Monde Arabe, an elegant building of enlightenment, designed the Musée du Quai Branly, a jungle structure. This perpetuates the European art history distinction of Egyptian culture as high culture and the rest of African culture as primitive culture, following Hegel and the European Enlightenment view that Egypt is not really part of Africa! Are we going to spend this century in fighting prejudices which have no basis in African culture but in European imperialist ideology?
A recent book on the subject confirms these suspicions: Benoît de l’Estoile, Le goût des autres:de l’exposition colonial aux arts premiers The success of the museum and its architecture with the French public is partly due to the fact that it corresponds to their expectations and prejudices. One cannot help feeling that images conveyed by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness prevail here. Somebody seems to have taken as a model The Jungle Book. A desire to entertain and amuse is very present here. If the French wanted to give equal recognition to the cultures of non-European origin, there would have been no need to establish a museum where European culture is absent. These works could have been put in the Louvre just as a few non-European works of art were placed in the Pavilion des Sessions of the Louvre. But the great resistance and resentment against that experiment showed how deep the European believe that African art cannot be put on the same level as European art is. There is a clear reluctance to put European art in the same hall as African, Oceanian and American arts. The exposition of these cultures displayed in Quai Branly still displays the stigmata of European slavery, colonialism and imperialism. The new museum inherited not only the works of its predecessors but also many of their prejudices and functions. I do not think much can be done about this except by closing the museum and returning the art works to their countries of origin. Few can escape the basic features of their ancestors. This museum, like Ethnology/Anthropology itself is the fruit of colonialism and imperialism and there is no way of escaping this.’’
’’ Benin to Quai Branly: A Museum for the arts of the Others or for the Stolen Arts of Others?’’, www.museum-security.org/.../benin-to-quai-branly-...
For the controversies regarding the museum, see Bernard Dupaigne, Le scandale des arts premiers-La véritable histoire du musée du quai Branly, Mille et une nuits, Paris, 2006.
5. See Annex below.
6. Wilhelm Östberg, reflecting on the collaboration between Nigerian authorities and Western museums including his own museum, Museum of Ethnography, Stockholm, which staged an exhibition on Benin art, Whose Objects?
Wilhelm Östberg, Whose Objects? Art Treasures from the Kingdom of Benin in the collection of the Museum of Ethnography, Stockholm, 2010, p.68.
Drum end, Mbembe, Nigeria, now in Musée du quai Branly, Paris, France.
How many Nigerians have seen this artefact which school children in Paris can see every day?
Like all the slogans and theories developed by Western museums to hide or defend their illegal and illegitimate holding of the cultural artefacts of others, the motto of Musée du quai Branly,’’ where cultures dialogue’,’ where cultures converse’ là où dialoguent les cultures appears at first sight to make sense but a closer examination reveals serious doubts.
We normally expect a dialogue to be a discussion or conversation between two or more human beings. Can there be a dialogue between two objects? Between a Benin Bronze and a Dogon statute? Obviously, dialogues or conversations are between persons but the Musée du quai Branly has probably wisely chosen to put the emphasis on cultures and not on persons. The opening of the museum and the subsequent period have confirmed that even though African artefacts are welcome and can stay as long as possible in France and other Western countries,, Africans are not, generally wanted. The powerful statement of the incomparable Aminata Traoré, former Culture Minister of Mali, is valid today as it was in 2007 in her article entitled
Musée du Quai Branly : "Ainsi nos œuvres d'art ont droit de cité là où nous sommes, dans l'ensemble, interdits de séjour" Our works of art have the right of residence where we, in general, are prohibited to stay’
The basic contradiction has been expressed by Aminata Traoré as follows:
“At this time when the museum is opening its doors to the public, I
keep wondering to what extent the mighty and powerful will go in their
arrogance and violation of our imagination. We are being invited to day to
celebrate with the former colonial power an incontestably magnificent
architectural monument as well as our own decline and the complicity of
those, African political representatives and institutional authorities who
consider that our cultural objects are better kept in the beautiful edifices
of the North than under our own skies.” (Translation by Kwame Opoku from the French text below)
‘A l’heure où celui-ci ouvre ses portes au public, je continue de me demander jusqu’où iront les puissants de ce monde dans l’arrogance et le viol de notre imaginaire. Nous sommes invités, aujourd’hui, à célébrer avec l’ancienne puissance coloniale une œuvre architecturale, incontestablement belle, ainsi que notre propre déchéance et la complaisance de ceux qui, acteurs politiques et institutionnels africains, estiment que nos biens culturels sont mieux dans les beaux édifices du Nord que sous nos propres cieux’.
Even if we accept the possibility of dialogue or conversation between artefacts, and allow the objects to represent metaphorically their countries of origin, provided we do not offend in the choice of object, we may have a dialogue, for example, between Benin Bronze and Peruvian dress. Is this the dialogue that the world needs now? Did anyone ever suggest that things are not in order because there is no dialogue between Nigeria and Peru?
The dialogue that the world needs urgently is between Europe and the non-Western world but the West is absent from the Musée du quai Branly which has only artefacts from the non-Western world. Or do the officials of the museum represent the West? Dialogue of cultures without the culture that has dominated the world in the last 500 years, organized the slave trade, colonized other peoples in Africa, Asia and America, wiped out whole lot of peoples if it thought it necessary for its domination? Obviously, this would be a peculiar dialogue. But this reveals and shows the nature and purpose of the original collections of the museums from which the Musée du quai Branly inherited the looted artefacts: to show Europeans those considered to be backward or primitives peoples, to study such peoples and also to entertain the European public in the process. The element of entertainment has been largely preserved in the activities of the Musée du quai Branly. See K. Opoku,Tarzan and the western imagination of Africa Comments on a dubious racist exhibition at Musee du quai Branly,France Afrikanet.infohttp://www.afrikanet.info/menu/kultur/datum/2009/10/12/paris-does-tarz
My comment on this horrible exhibition which surprised us by its racism was as follows:
‘‘What kind of dialogue did the museum which describes itself as “the place where cultures dialogue” expect? Can one expect a meaningful dialogue from an exhibition where Africa is not presented as it was or is but as imagined by Westerners who had never been to Africa, such as the creator of Tarzan? Are Africans expected to discuss the ridiculous image of their continent presented by a racist American or the horrible ideas of those with no experience of their continent but bent on presenting it as land of savages and creatures inferior to Europeans and closer to apes than to men?’’
No wonder then that the museum is very popular with French natives. The Musée du quai Branly serves the French public the exoticism they seem to need as has been established in a journal that proclaimed the museum had dethroned the Louvre in the popularity contest of French museums Comment le musée du quai Branly a détrôné le Louvre
The French journal adds that in such a museum, an important element is the enthusiasm of the public for ethnology/anthropology and adds that it is all dark,’ noir’:
"Ces musées sont noirs de monde" s'enthousiasme Jean-Christophe Castelain, rédacteur en chef du "Journal des Arts", "les grands-parents emmènent leurs petits-enfants et tous se régalent !" ‘Grand-parents take their grand-children and everybody enjoys herself’.
Western museums with looted/stolen artefacts, previously called Ethnology Museums, can change their names into’ world museums and adopt different modes of presentation but so long as they are bound to their original primary function of demonstrating Western superiority, they will face insurmountable contradictions
There could be a useful dialogue between the West and the non-Western countries regarding immigration, for example, at a time when the West seems to be at loss about what to do with the massive immigration into Europe. Some act as if this were the first migration in the history of mankind. An army, Frontext has even been set up to keep asylum-seekers at bay.http://frontex.europa.eu/ Some have interned the asylum seekers in camps reminiscent of the Nazi period and have actually shot at the visitors. Everywhere walls and frontier fortifications of the past have become fashionable and one is amazed how quickly Europeans forget their recent history up to the time of the Berlin Wall. They seem to have forgotten all the human rights they preached to many countries some of which have had more refugees than the Western States.
What dialogues has the Musée du Quai Branly initiated on such important issues where they could have useful lessons for all? Have they tried to reveal the links between the countries of origin of migrants and the origins of the looted/stolen objects? Have they tried to explore why the French government would readily grant ‘asylum’ to cultural artefacts from countries where there is war but not to persons coming from the same area? Until this decision, we thought asylum could only be granted to human beings.
Disclaimer: "The views/contents expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of Kwame Opoku, Dr. and do not neccessarily reflect those of Modern Ghana.