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Sunday, 26 February 2012 09:08

Statues Also Die

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France's biggest Mediterranean city - Marseilles - is going to become European Capital of Culture in 2013. For this occasion, a new museum of European and Mediterranean culture (MuCEM) is being built. The project follows a long history of museum initiatives on the part of French presidents. French politicians know best that apart from being places for people to spend their free time, the primary role of museums is to act as ideological platforms for political discourses, and centres for collective memory. Recently, French Minister of the Interior Claude Gueant said in a meeting with students that all civilisations are "not of equal value." Seems like a good moment to ask ourselves how different cultures are represented in European museums and what that tell us about our perception of our countries' identities and values.

Chris Marker and Alain Resnais approached this subject in their classic documentary Les statues meurent aussi (Statues Also Die) (1953), in which they proposed a critical look at the "primitive art" exhibitions of the no longer existing Parisian Musée de l’Homme, the Musée du Congo Belge in Belgium and the British Museum. Marker's and Resnais' critique is directed at the modes of exhibiting and perceiving non-western art, which keeps their documentary relevant even today. Their film was an early step towards modern post-colonial studies.

"When men die, they enter into history, when statues die they enter art history."

The symbolic and political value of museums has been visible in Europe since the French revolution triggered the creation of national museums by turning the Louvre into a national museum. After that, many countries followed the trend of opening private collections to the public. From the beginning, they faced the challenge of creating sites for a common and unifying understanding of history, which was especially urgent for instance in the cases of German and Italian unification in the 1800s. As powerful political instruments, national museums were and still are often initiated by country leaders and France is a perfect example of a country that has systematically followed this tradition for centuries. Just take the most recent French history: the Centre Pompidou was initiated by Georges Pompidou. Valery Giscard d’Estaing committed himself to the development of Musée d’Orsay. Jacques Chirac opened the Musée du Quai Branly and now it appears to be Sarkozy's turn to build up the MuCEM as his project.

"When men die, they enter into history, when statues die they enter art history," says the narrator in Statues Also Die. This sentence expresses the directors' anthropological perspective, which sees "primitive cultures" as holistic and balanced societies in which there is no division between the spheres of the sacred and the profane, where "everything is prayer." In this perspective, every object has its hidden meaning and power as long as it functions within the society that created it. The "rational" classification systems used in European museums reduce those remote artifacts to purely aesthetic material, which leads to the death of the sculptures and by consequence creates a distorted and selective image of a given society. The documentary presents museum displays that take objects out of their contexts and thus submit them to a western sense of aesthetics - a form of aggression which reflects the nations' utilitarian and xenophobic approach to colonies.

The exhibitions proposed by all three of the museums mentioned in the film were classic examples of the descriptive and didactic museology of the 1950s and 60s, using exhibition means to create an image of the "other." This "other" was the colonial flip side of the respective countries and the museums used their image to build national identity by means of opposition and domination. In the 1980s museum trends shifted towards assimilating and promoting diversity. Naturally, diversity became the biggest challenge for museums representing countries with a colonial past.

Somehow, rather than confronting the past and promoting diversity in France, each new museum initiative keeps recreating a model of a divided and unequal society.

Let's take a look at The Musée du Quai Branly (opened in 2006), which took over most of the Musée de l’Homme ethnographic collection. How did it organise its permanent exhibition? It proposed an approach that is usually referred to as "aesthetic" or "polyphonic." The museum constructed a display underlining the unique aesthetic values of the objects which is supposed to undermine stereotypes of indigenous art. But despite the curators' efforts, the museum did not achieve the goal of creating an entirely new type of museum. The Quai Branly limits its permanent exhibition to non-western cultures, promoting anthropology as a science practised by western cultures to analyse and the "primitive" culture and fit it into familiar categories. Similarly, the Cité Nationale de l’Histoire d’Immigration (Immigration History Museum) inaugurated in 2007, provoked much controversy especially as it was located in the Palais de la Porte Dorée - a building prepared for the colonial exhibition in 1931.

Somehow, rather than confronting the past and promoting diversity in France, each new museum initiative keeps recreating a model of a divided and unequal society. So far, Marker and Resnais' critique of "exotic art" exhibitions as a factor reinforcing alienation seems to have been ignored. The new MuCEM is located far from Paris, which had a monopoly on big national museums. The location of Marseilles - an ancient port town and an extremely culturally diverse city - appears to be a smart choice. The new museum is supposed to promote a global approach to European culture, free from the limitations of which older institutions were accused. We'll see next year.

Last modified on Monday, 05 March 2012 19:26
Monika Proba

Monika Proba studied culture anthropology in Warsaw and Paris. She is currently living in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. In Café Cinema she will be tracking images of Europe in classical and modern cinema.

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