A Heart of Darkness, Notes on the Michael Kimmelman Article

Quay Branly

Responses to an article in the New York Times ‘A Heart of Darkness’ by Michael Kimmelman, Published: July 2, 2006. Here is a link to the article:  A Heart of Darkness by Michael Kimmelman


In the article the author describes his visit to the then (2006) newly opened Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, his dismay at the theatrical spectacle that greeted him, but a spectacle …”brow-slappingly wrongheaded” and where “Colonialism of a bygone era is replaced by a whole new French brand of condescension”. The display designed with the theme of Jungle or rather, in the words of the Architect Jean Nouvel, the conceit of a “sacred wood,” where people would discover objects “liberated from Western architectural references such as barriers, showcases, railings.”

It seems to me that the main issues Mr Kimmelman has with the museum are the theatricality of the Museum’s design, its derogatory or ‘colonial’ flavour and the lack of proper referencing and order. To him it is unintelligible without labels and with the exhibits seemingly exhibited randomly. He dislikes the way that the museum has adopted the theatrical approach and perhaps sees the use of dark colours, the black leather, wood and the ‘Spooky’ atmosphere as a derogatory statement or cliché of primitive ethnic cultures. He says “If the Marx Brothers designed a museum for dark people, they might have come up with the permanent-collection galleries”


Although initially agreeing with the critic’s responses, I found myself questioning the idea that there could be a right or politically correct way to display ethnic artefacts, or any artefact for that matter.

The suggestion here was that the objects in this museum formed a kind of primitive heterotopia (Michel Foucault), Kimmelman says ‘Think of the museum as a kind of ghetto for the “other,” a place where ‘everything is meant to be foreign and exotic.’ He is annoyed that he cannot find any information about the exhibits and so to him ‘The place simply makes no sense. Old, new, good, bad are all jumbled together without much reason or explanation, save for visual theatrics.’ Perhaps what is really happening is that Kimmelman does not have sufficient acquired knowledge (perhaps of the form and particular design elements) of the objects, or any sub-conscious understanding or habitus (born from an immersion in the cultures on display) to enable him to assimilate them into his internal culture bank, his own personal ‘wunderkammer’. He has no narrative and therefore simply cannot relate. By Contrast he then visits the Louvre ‘Pavillon des Sessions’ where a more traditional museological approach is taken. Kimmelman describes this as a ‘setting of pure aesthetic bliss’, he goes on to say ‘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.’ He then describes in detail actual artefacts with dates ‘I lingered over a 19th-century Zulu spoon from South Africa …An 18th-century Mbembe sculpture, from Nigeria …I discovered it was part of a drum made from a hollowed tree, according to the large plasticized text panel’ . To him everything in Quay Branly except for the architecture was a blur and yet he could picture nearly everything he had seen in the Louvre.

So does the fact that Kimmelman couldn’t engage with the displays in the Musee Quai Branly in the way he wanted make them poorly curated and in balance the displays in the Louvre well curated? The fact is that all kinds of people visit museums and for all kinds of reasons and, although there are trends in curatorship such as there are cultures and sub-cultures in societies, you will never engage everyone. I am tempted to say museums should adopt unique and individual approaches and not try to follow any specific guidelines or politically correct methodologies but the word should implies an obligation, and to what? given the diversity of artefact and audience. Instead I will say that I personally enjoy the multiplicity of the museum environment, I even love it when museums choose unusual routes of display even if I cannot immediately understand them. By the same token I also love to read about the objects in a display and develop a linguistic scheme around a given subject. This helps me deepen my understanding and position the work in my internal wunderkammer. Some people like accompanying textual or audio narrative and some find it irritating. To say that a museum or gallery should adopt either one or the other approach as defined by Quai Branly vs The Louvre, is to deny individual choice. If text is there you don’t have to read it, and, if there is no text and you find the environment disturbing, as Kimmelman found with Quai Branly, then you don’t have to go there. I am not saying by this that curators should not enter a dialogue with the public or audience and find out what they would like to see, as this can be beneficial if not necessary.  If for example we are talking about a gallery that is funded by a particular community then of course the community will have a say. What I am suggesting is that there is room for different types of musem or interactions that will appeal or educate different groups of people and that homogenising display into something that will be ‘all things to all men’ I believe to be not only undesirable but practicably impossible.

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