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The Musée du Quai Branly

Art? Artifact? Spectacle!

Herman Lebovics

Designed by Jean Nouvel, the Musée du Quai Branly, the just-opened museum of African, Amerindian, Pacific, and Asian cultures, covers a city block on the Left Bank of Paris's museum row. Both in landscaping and internal layout, Nouvel wished to frame the building within his understanding of the cultures on display inside, but also within its setting in the metropolitan capital. Objects collected in the imperial age now are displayed in what French officials see as the postcolonial era. But how were the pieces on display to be shown: as works of art or well-made cultural artifacts? Nouvel took the lead in evoking a vision of the cultures on display that is closer to Joseph Conrad's dark tales than to enlightened contemporary scholarship and museology on these societies. Neither an art nor an ethnography museum, the Musée du Quai Branly is a spectacle about the societies of the global South.