In the shadow of the Tour Eiffel, skirted by the Seine, there is a museum dedicated to world culture. “This museum is the result of the merging of two older collections. The first came from the Museum of Ethnography at the Trocadero, the oldest French institution dedicated to Africa and other parts of the world created in 1878. The second collection was the colonial museum. Created during the colonial exhibition of 1931, and later changed into the Art museum after the colonial period. Those two collections came together at the Museum de Quai Branly, which opened in 2006” says Helene Joubert, head of African collection at the museum.
“The museum gathers objects from extra European countries. The idea is to create a dialogue between European culture and other cultures; to pass along knowledge of other cultures through objects. The African collection is mainly pre-colonial. The objects we have reflect a ‘traditional’ Africa”, she continues.
How do you introduce these objects to visitors?
The objects we have are presented with multimedia: films, documentaries, pictures and audio comments to document the meaning of these objects. We try to explain if these objects are still in use, what is their meaning for the people who created them, etc. We want the visitors to realize that the object give a vision of Africa that corresponds to our contact with those cultures and peoples. It is obvious that African cultures go beyond what we show both in time and scope.
What is the interaction with visitors?
It is a big challenge. The general public has little comprehension of Africa, starting with geography. We give information about countries, and peoples. Progressively we enter into deeper themes like the relationship with ancestors, initiation, notions that are not obvious to our culture. In many ways, when we think of our western culture, we realize we have many points in common with the African way of dealing with life. At the same time, there is a big divide and it is not always apparent to people what beliefs, rites and behaviours mean. We notice that many do come back to see the displays. They cannot absorb everything in one go. Here we deal with four continents, and so the public visit a little at a time.
The displays are complex and visitors can interact with what they see. During my visit, school children were shown around by a lady who engaged them with traditional storytelling. The museum all runs many projects like conferences, colloquia, events that focus on specific issues. The public is quite appreciative of temporary exhibitions and cultural events, and volunteers precious feedback. This allowed the curators to change the displays so to convey their message with ease.
Who is coming to participate to your events?
It is difficult to say. What I have noticed is the presence of scholars, students, many people either African or of African descent. There are also people who were clearly not specialized, but interested in learning more. Most of our events have a familiar taste, so people are not intimidated. People are attentive to what is going on.
The aim of the museum is to foster cultural exchange. What do you do to create a contact between European culture and the African cultures?
We make our exhibition hit the road. When we opened the museum we had an exhibition focusing on a type of headdress from Mali. This exhibition was small, using what we had in our collection. The display travelled back to Mali and was hosted by the national museum in Bamako. Malians were very receptive, happy to see objects that were going back to where they were created. Another exhibition was dedicated to Presence African, an exhibition of the publications of African authors. This exhibition had few objects, but many documents and photographs of early African authors. It travelled to the university in Dakar, in Senegal.
Did something surprise you?
We have been surprised by the attendance, compared to the attendance of the two former museums. Those were practically visited only by specialized people. With a new presentation, we attract two million people a year. This number has not dropped in time, which is unusual. We realize that each temporary exhibition attracts huge number of people. There is interest in the general public. People appreciate and respond to the diversity of the projects we run. The Museum has become an important feature in the museum landscape in Paris.