Totemic figures from Oceania on display at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, a museum devoted entirely to non-Western art.
PARIS — The other day Stéphane Martin, president of the new Musée du Quai Branly, was in his wedge-shape office with the picture window overlooking the Seine. Dapper, charming, with the weary politeness of a busy executive who has better things to do, he fetched the latest salvo against his institution, a book by Bernard Dupaigne, and casually tossed it across the table.
The most ambitious museum to open in Paris in 20 years, dedicated to non-European cultures, Quai Branly provoked a ruckus from the instant President Jacques Chirac came up with the idea for it more than a decade ago. It was his monument to French multiculturalism and, perhaps, to himself.
Two beloved Paris institutions had to be dismantled, the Musée des Arts Africains et Océaniens and the ethnographic department of the Musée de l'Homme, France's sublime natural history museum. Anthropologists, not to mention more than a few people who loved going to those museums, were furious. The familiar aesthetics-versus-ethnology question came up: Will religious, ceremonial and practical objects, never intended as art in the modern, Western sense, be showcased like baubles, with no context?
Given the current political climate, Quai Branly's eventual opening, after years of delay, seemed almost as if it had been scientifically calculated to ignite the maximum debate.
I couldn't tell whether Mr. Martin was being helpful or if he actually enjoyed the fuss. What did he think of his museum? I asked. He thought it was a "neutral environment" with "no aesthetic or philosophical line." I thought he was kidding.
He wasn't. If the Marx Brothers designed a museum for dark people, they might have come up with the permanent-collection galleries: devised as a spooky jungle, red and black and murky, the objects in it chosen and arranged with hardly any discernible logic, the place is briefly thrilling, as spectacle, but brow-slappingly wrongheaded. Colonialism of a bygone era is replaced by a whole new French brand of condescension.
The dismay was obvious when I met museum directors, curators, anthropologists and art historians at a conference in Quai Branly, just before the museum's opening. For about an hour everyone on a panel talked about the need for better, more flexible museums, which seemed to me an obvious euphemism for the problem here, which nobody mentioned — until a scholar, Christian Feest, smiled, raised his eyebrows and tilted his head slightly.
He couldn't help, he said, pointing out the elephant in the room: How would Quai Branly overcome the obstacle of its own design? That shifted the atmosphere, as if tension had been released, and during the break I intercepted several African and American curators and a French art historian who all shook their heads and confided, as if revealing a private embarrassment, that Quai Branly was a missed opportunity and an inexplicable enterprise. An Australian architecture critic then sidled over and nodded toward Jean Nouvel, the museum's architect, who had been mobbed the day before at the press opening. Now he was standing alone. Everyone was passing him by on the way to hors d'oeuvres.
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.
Museums, whether they call themselves art museums or not — and Quai Branly at least rejected loaded words like primitive or art for its title — classify what they show to give objects particular meanings, to fix their relationships to viewers. If you're in the Metropolitan Museum, you know that an Italian altarpiece or an African mask is supposed to be visually striking, beautiful even. If the same objects are across Central Park at the American Museum of Natural History, they illustrate points about religion or ritual or handicraft or materials.
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.
"Everything in a museum gets beautiful," Mr. Martin told me. "The priests of contextualization" — he was talking about those people who think Western-style aesthetic appreciation is another form of colonialism, obscuring history and ethnography — "are poor museographers." That was right. Endless wall texts, films and digital gizmos either bore visitors to tears or treat them like idiots with short attention spans.
But context is necessary at places like Quai Branly — objects need to be explained somehow — so in the end it all comes down to tact, which is the measure of a museum's judgment.
At Quai Branly, half the time it was impossible for me to find out what an object was. Some of the labels weren't finished yet, but the ones there were hard to find, obscure or comically vague. The Asian displays are "based on geographical and cultural sequences," one label said, whatever that meant. Computer touch-screens, embedded into odd leather-covered pods with benches, are often far away from the objects (lest they disturb the architectural effect). I tried to learn more about a bunch of kachina dolls, some 19th century, some mid-20th, one Zuni, the rest Hopi. (I picked up that much only because a friend identified them for me; there was no label.) But no luck. Everything about the place gradually discouraged the desire to find out more.
The legacy of Duchamp has turned everything in a museum into a readymade. It's no longer possible to look at a Yoruba voodoo object as purely functional, rather than also (perhaps) terrific looking, or to see a Michelangelo as merely beautiful, rather than also as a product of a moment, a society, a religious tradition. Even if it were possible, it would be terribly unfashionable.
The day after we spoke, I spotted Mr. Martin at the back of a photograph on the front page of The International Herald Tribune. In it Mr. Chirac and Kofi Annan, the secretary general of the United Nations, both tall and snappy in blue serge suits, were greeting Chief Laukalbi from Vanuatu and his nephew, Jerry Napat, shirtless in straw skirts. Mr. Chirac, leaning down, looked as if he was pointing at the chief, or maybe he was shaking his finger. His posture was exactly the top-down one that the museum's galleries take.
Georges Pompidou had his center. François Mitterrand left behind I. M. Pei's pyramid, the Bastille Opera and the new National Library. So Mr. Chirac's grand projet is this $300 million megamuseum-cum-cultural-center, aspiring, as he put it during the museum's inauguration, to the notion that "there is no hierarchy among the arts just as there is no hierarchy among peoples."
No hierarchy, except that at the Pompidou you find Western artists like Picasso and Pollock; at Branly, it's Eskimos, Cameroonians and Moroccans. No hierarchy, but no commonality either. Separate but equal. What links Vietnamese textiles with contemporary Aboriginal paintings with pre-Columbian pottery with Sioux warrior tunics with Huron wampum? Only the legacy of colonialism and the historical quirks of French museum collecting, which Quai Branly's design blithely plays for entertainment.
Mr. Nouvel says he used the conceit of a "sacred wood," where people would discover objects "liberated from Western architectural references such as barriers, showcases, railings." A spiral ramp, light and open, segues into a darkened tunnel that delivers visitors to a realm where the walls are black, the floors red, and everything's very, very dark, except the objects, installed by global region willy-nilly, under spotlights. Windows are scrimmed with photographs of trees to evoke the underbrush. A pathway (Mr. Nouvel calls it the "river") meanders between curvy leather walls, a motif continued in those leather-clad pods with the touch-screens and the benches. He calls this motif the "snake."
Jean-Pierre Mohen, the director of collections, has explained that the jungle theme is meant to seem mysterious and chaotic, but, like the jungle, to slowly reveal its logic, symbolizing the complexity of non-European societies that are closer to nature than we are. It is the old noble-savage argument. Heart of darkness in the city of light. Whatever. The atmosphere is like a discothèque at 10 a.m.
The critic Walter Benjamin, who remarked that "there is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism," said he could not "contemplate without horror" the works we call "cultural treasures."
That was going too far. Cultural treasures are souvenirs of conquest but they are also occasionally souvenirs of exchange. Souvenirs are objects whose value derives from the narratives we assign them, stories we tell ourselves and others to explain where they came from and why they matter to us.
Quai Branly's story is the spectacle of its own environment. Spectacle becomes its attraction. I have no doubt that, as an attraction, it will be very popular. The museum is expecting more than a million visitors annually.
But I stopped into the Louvre after the conference. Several years ago Mr. Chirac overruled objections from Louvre officials that their museum was for European art, not a universal museum, and he ordered the Louvre's Pavillon des Sessions turned over to 100 historic works of African, Asian, Oceanic and American art. They were installed in a setting of pure aesthetic bliss.
The galleries, nearly empty the day I went, are spare, serene and beautifully lighted, enshrining each object behind almost-invisible sheets of glass. Every work is given the dignity of its own space, which seemed to me a metaphor for how to treat all civilizations. There were amazing Eskimo masks and Cameroonian and Nigerian maternity figures, nothing quite like what I'd recalled at Quai Branly. I lingered over a 19th-century Zulu spoon from South Africa, slender, abstracted into the shape of a woman, its rim blackened by fire, with an arched neck and graceful little cones and half-circles for breasts and buttocks. An 18th-century Mbembe sculpture, from Nigeria, of a squatting man, hands on knees, gazing out with his chin up, made me want to learn more.
I discovered it was part of a drum made from a hollowed tree, according to the large plasticized text panel that visitors are invited to pick up near the entrance to the gallery and carry around. This drum had spiritual powers, the text said, and would announce great events or warn villagers when trouble was coming.
After I left the Louvre, I could picture nearly everything I had seen there, but Quai Branly, except for the architecture, was a blur. The Pavillon, prizing aesthetics above all, clearly isn't the only way to show things, but it's true to its purpose, and it works. Quai Branly doesn't — if success means something beyond novelty and theatrics.