Call the Museum of African and Oceanic Art in eastern Paris, and
you'll find a scratchy recording with a distant-sounding voice at
the other end of the line - a fair representation of the neglect
this museum suffers from.
Dusty galleries and out-of-date displays have been tolerated
there for years. But if a plan President Jacques Chirac announced
earlier this month comes to fruition, African, Oceanic, Amerindian,
and Arctic art (dubbed "First Arts") will at last have a major,
state-of-the-art museum in Paris.
"Every French president has to have his great cultural
undertaking," says world-renowned African art collector Henri
Goldet. "And this is Chirac's." Museum directors, who sometimes
have had to act under direct orders from the president, agree that
culture, like foreign policy, is the personal appanage of the chief
of state. "It's a bit like the ancien regime," says one, "but it's
one way of getting things done."
Under Mr. Chirac's plan, the current Musee de l'Homme, located
on a breathtaking site opposite the Eiffel Tower, will be expanded
to almost double its size, at the expense of the current Navy
museum. The new "Museum of Civilizations and First Arts" will house
some pieces from the Musee de l'Homme, the African and Oceanic Art
Museum's collections, plus $20 million worth of new acquisitions. A
selection of the finest objects will be placed in the Louvre to
serve as cultural ambassadors.
But the project, which emerged after a heated debate in back
halls of the Paris art world, has left many disputes smoldering.
No room at the Louvre
The Louvre, for example. Arguing that "the Louvre cannot ignore
70 percent of humanity," Chirac had originally wanted all new
primitive galleries to be located in the former royal castle. The
president, however, encountered the strong opposition of museum
director Pierre Rosenberg. "The Louvre is a big museum - too big,
in a certain way," Mr. Rosenberg says. "We believe that Paris
should be a universal city, of course. But the Louvre doesn't have
to be a universal museum."
Citing space restrictions and a collegial concern that the new
museum not be stripped of its masterpieces, Rosenberg makes it
clear he will fight against any permanent place for primitive art
in the Louvre. This attitude, which may simply be part of a
good-faith effort to rationalize the sprawling museum, is
criticized by detractors as the old-school traditionalism of a
clique of art snobs who still cannot accept "tribal objects" as
A second dispute has to do with how the objects will be
"This is the eternal war between the university people and the
aestheticians," says collector Goldet. At the Musee de l'Homme,
which has not enjoyed the prestige - or the funding - of other
Paris museums, African art is sandwiched between "Prehistoric Man"
and "The Turkish House. …