The Art of the Congo: The Last Weekend of June Marked the 4th Anniversary of the Opening of the Musee Du Quai Branly in Paris. It Also Coincided with the Opening of the Museum's Major Summer Exhibition, "The Congo River and the Arts of Central Africa". Stephen Williams Was Invited to Paris for a Private View and to Meet with Stephane Martin, the President of France's Greatest Ethnological Museum, and Sent Us This Report

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ON THE LEFT BANK of the River Seine, under the shadow of Paris' principal landmark, the Eiffel Tower, is a remarkable building. It is the purpose built Musee du Quai Branly and it houses a collection of 300,000 historical artifacts from across the world, drawn from the great civilisations of Africa, Asia, Oceana, Australasia and the Americas. Previously, these works were housed by the now-defunct Musee des Arts Africains et Oceaniens, in the Musee du Louvre, and the Musee de I'Homme.

Musee du Quai Branly is also a parting "gift" to the French capital. It has become the habit of the presidents of France to make their mark on the city, to provide a legacy--Centre Pompidou was the Richard Rogers co-designed building that President Georges Pompidou had built to house a major library and contemporary art collection in the city; President Francois Mitterand's was the glass pyramid at the Musee du Louvre, while Musee du Quai Branly was the $265m museum initiated by President Jacques Chirac.

When first unveiled to a less than ecstatic Parisian reception, Musee du Quai Branly's future seemed a little uncertain. Would the capital come to adopt it as its own and, along with the many visitors to the city, develop an affection for its strange, some might even say brutally modern, design?

It would seem they would and they did. Speaking over lunch with Stephane Martin, the museum's president since its inauguration, 1 learnt that the museum is considered a success.

"We have had much bigger attendance figures than we were I expecting," he told me. "And after four years I'm beginning to understand why we've been so successful with our audience. I think that we were very lucky to open at a time when one of the major questions that everyone was asking concerned the connection, the relationship, between the West and non-Western world."

Certainly, externally, the museum, designed by architect Jean Nouvel, is aging gracefully. The last time I had visited, shortly after i opened to the public, the museum exuded a harsh, domineering aspect--but four years later the gardens of tall grasses, trees and shrubs have softened the building's character.


Nevertheless, the museum remains controversial with questions continuing to be raised about its purpose. In one sense, that mirrors the under ainty that surrounds the globalisation process. As Martin observes: "Until maybe 9/11, or let's say the new millennium, most people were thinking that, for better or for worse, the whole world was going in the same direction--which was o be eating Big Macs and becoming Americans. It might take another 100 years, but we were all going to be free-market democrats, etc.

"Then we started to understand that it was a bit more complex than that. Diversity was still strongly embedded. New concerns for the environment and sustainability encouraged people in the West to look again at how other civilisations, how other cultures, were attempting to improve their relationship with the world. Some of these non-Western cultures were clearly a little bit more successful, or at least had some interesting solutions. So I think that we were lucky to open at that time--at a time when there was a growing interest and respect for other cultures."

Under Martin's presidency, the museum has begun to take a much more proactive approach to involving its visitors. It tries hard not to simply be a repository of objects for viewing.

For example, the museum's free anniversary celebrations featured the screening of World Cup soccer matches, films, guided tours, workshops and children's games. There was also a gala concert of Congolese rumba that, marking the 50th anniversary of DRCongo's independence, celebrated the rich music that has so strongly influenced contemporary African music.

Fleuve Congo

As for the museum's major summer exhibition, Fleuve Congo (River Congo), the 2. …