Daniel J. Sherman Abstract

 The (De) Colonized Object: Museums and the Other in France since 1960

Daniel J. Sherman
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

My paper will present a broad overview of the treatment of objects originating in territories under European control or domination in French museums from the immediate period of decolonization to the present. I will focus on four institutions: the Musée des arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie (MAAO), founded in 1960 in a building constructed as a didactic museum of French colonialism and closed in 2002; the Musée du Quai Branly, which inherited the MAAO’s collections as well as the ethnographic collections of the Musée de l’Homme and opened in 2006; the Musée de l’Histoire de l’Immigration (MHI), which inherited the former home of the MAAO and opened in 2007; and the Musée des civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerannée in Marseille, which opened in 2013 as the successor to a radically reconceived museum of French ethnography. Rooted in theories of museums as productive of narrative fictions that govern their displays and orient visitors, my paper will focus on the way the protocols of French art museums, which I argue predominate in all these museums whatever their self-construction and professed mission, support narratives of universal aesthetic appreciation rather than of critical historical understanding. Each of the museums I will be considering represents a different historical stage in this process. The MAAO was the first state-run art museum in France devoted to African and Oceanic art, and as such influential in establishing the protocols of display for such works. The Quai Branly, together with its precursor (but continuing) installation in the Pavillon des Sessions at the Louvre, which opened in 2000, represents an effort to bring together collections of non-western art – crucially excluding art of the “high civilizations” of Asia, which remain in the Musée Guimet – under the banner of a multi-culturalism and celebration of diversity that Jacques Chirac sought to make the hallmarks of French foreign policy during his presidency (1995-2007). The MHI was conceived as a space of dialogue and valorization for French immigrant communities, but the constraints of its space and the training of its curators made the assemblage and display of a collection, notably including works of art, a central preoccupation. The MuCEM, finally, offers a thematized vision of socio-cultural commonalities around the Mediterranean basin, instrumentalizing and spectacularizing its collection in order to divert attention from areas of conflict. My paper will emphasize the two most recent examples, to which scholars have thus far devoted less attention. I will also discuss larger issues, such as the role of objects in colonial and post-colonial systems, what it might mean to “decolonize” the object, and how museums might incorporate the insights of post-colonial studies into their practice.