Friday, June 23, 2006

Architecture, Johnny-come-lately

Today, Paris' new museum will open to the public. The Musée du Quai Branly is already being studied as an attempt to rethink institutions dedicated to non-western art and culture. On the one hand, it attempts to fulfill Chirac's 1995 promise of "a great institution destined to house so-called primitive art." On the other, to keep that institution at the center of public life by making it a regular destination in the life of the city, on par with the Centre Pompidou.

On both points it has been received with loud enthusiasm and quiet concern. The base for its collection comes from the fusion of two institutions whose purpose was less than noble: ananthropologyl museum and a museum of oriental art. Both were products of France's imperialism, and although they work towards different ends, they emphasized the primitiveness of non-western societies. However, Quai Branly strives to overcome the limitations of such institutions. Indeed, Chirac's purpose was to restart non-western studies without the baggage of the past. And in its design and protocols, the institution has attempted to undo the exploitative relationship that characterized its predecessors, making "a place for the confrontation of the cultures of the world, an open window to diversity." Jean-Yves Marin called it "an authentic postcolonial museum"--not just bringing the older collections back on display, museum officials have actively encouraged the participation of scholars and researchers from those regions represented in the museum. Despite the careful planning and the extent of international collaboration, the museum will probably attract blanket criticism about the West and its oriental obsessions.

The other point concerns the design of the museum itself. Already compared to Bibloa's Guggenheim and Berlin's Jewish Museum, the lead architect, Jean Nouvel, has said a lot about architecture's relationship to contemporary culture. And it's not necessarilypositivee:
Nouvel: architecture is the petrification of the cultural moment. This moment supposes that one is interested in something other than architecture: "We cannot invent architecture without the autonomy of architecture." ... Architecture is the last art to express itself after all the others, but it shows itself more than the rest.
Nouvel places his designs within intellectual currents that have already crested: "structuralism, Lévi-Strauss, Foucault, Deleuze."

As much as his opinion would doom the long term success of the Musée du Quai Branly, the architectural space will be determined more by its use than the ideas that guided the architects. Its success will be determined by its ability to overcome prejudices against it: that the museum caters to special interest, or that its collections are inferior to the paintings in the Louvre. To that end, designers have loaded the institution with numerous facilities to encourage people to make regular visits; "primitive art" should become more familiar, less exotic, less peripheral.

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