Named as head of the Musée du quai Branly after a six-month transition period, the former director of Noumea's Tjibaou Cultural Centre talks about the meaning he sees in his appointment, restitution, the search for provenances and contextualising the collections.
Musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac ©Photo Thibaut Chapotot
Does the appointment of a curator to head the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac confirm the burial of the Savoy-Sarr report?
This report could not serve as a guideline, but it was an appeal to our conscience. We need to go into the history and documentation of collections in more depth, particularly in terms of provenance and biographies; research shows that some situations are not necessarily black and white, but more often than not grey.
But even the restitution of objects to Benin announced in 2017 has not yet taken place, because there is no suitable venue for the works.
Its principle is based on the violence of this plundering. Whatever they say, there are museums in Africa where the works could be exhibited. For instance, the Museum of Black Civilisations in Dakar, which I visited in September 2018, meets all international standards. And it shouldn't be limited to museums alone: there are institutions like the "Route des Chefferies" in sub-Saharan Africa. We need to find points of connection and international cooperation.
France had also promised a major Euro-African conference: that still hasn't happened…
There is a dialogue in Europe, but the dialectics of each history and different environment need to be factored in.
The media have talked about the quai Branly's new "Kanak president", and the "Kanak Emmanuel Kasarhérou"… Isn't that rather irritating?
It's an accurate but oversimplified term. I am the first president of the museum from overseas, from outside. The diversity of its collections should be reflected in those who manage it. In New Caledonia, at any rate, the move has scored a bull's eye! But the formula does not take account of a multi-faceted context: I grew up in a rich and varied environment.
The museum has aroused some violent polemics, mainly the accusation of moving away from the scientific mission specific to the Musée de l'Homme (Museum of Mankind). Is this chapter now behind it?
This story has long weighed on the institution. The Tjibaou Cultural Centre, which I directed, also had to struggle with these questions, which are legitimate. Culture is a living sphere based on knowledge of the past. In Noumea, we had to deal with extremely high levels of tension. But a person like Tjibaou placed culture at the pinnacle. This mission is one of the chapters of the Matignon Agreement: the opening of the center, the museum, the linguistic academy. Today, New Caledonia has turned the page. The inhabitants have understood that they have to work together: in an island system, you know that you will always come across your neighbour.
On its site, France-Inter announced that you wanted to "list all the Kanak artifacts in the world". Hasn't that work been going on for some time?
Yes, through Roger Boulay, with whom I have worked. It's a Caledonian project that arose from the Matignon Agreement. From 2011 to 2015, mainly in France, the US, Australia and New Zealand, we looked at seventeen thousand objects, wrote five thousand descriptions, and took thirty-five thousand photographs. We have added nine thousand biographies, because the history of these pieces also involves the people who found them. This database has existed since 2015 in the Museum of Noumea.
But we have also experienced enormous frustration because there is so little information. For instance, there are very few indications of provenance. Some objects in the reserves had not been studied for one or two hundred years! We have tried to breathe new life into them by establishing a relatively limited corpus of typological icons, and restoring objects' significance as heritage. Knowledge of an object turns it into shared property. The Musée du quai Branly needs to broaden this research on provenance, which was not necessarily a priority for our predecessors.
How do you retrace origin or symbolism when they have been lost?
Who is talking? To discover the different meanings of objects they need to be seen by specialists, by the people that produced them. It's collaborative work, where language often plays a role. Memory enables objects to be reappropriated.
With the risk of distortions in the oral tradition…
Yes: we need to stay open-minded and consider several theories. This distance is also essential with accounts by missionaries and anthropologists, who described their own visions of this material culture.
Does the Pavillon des Sessions at the Louvre, which focuses entirely on the aesthetic effect, still have a meaning?
It is still a very powerful symbol of recognition in a universal dimension. It may seem simplistic to base everything on aesthetics, but it is also a way of reaching out to more people, before tackling the complexity of the vocabulary. At the Tjibaou Cultural Centre, for example, we have sought this meaning and vitality through time. But the public always needs to be touched by the works.
The Quai Branly is based on a highly controversial museography, but one that seems hard to alter.
It is always possible to provide information through mediation, whether human or electronic. But we mustn't go overboard; too much information can kill an object, and the museum galleries need to preserve the spectacular look for which they are famous.
"Ethnology will astonish you", a two-day program on offer since 2013, is a powerful initiative introduced by your predecessor. Do you intend to maintain it?
It's been a great success and should continue. I'd like to focus even more on scientific research, which helps us to see works differently.
Allocating a private individual like Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière a space where he can present exhibitions as he likes has roused some incomprehension in your colleagues.
It's an ongoing story with a very great patron. His donation, a reference collection of extraordinary breadth, can be presented in one half of this gallery. The other half is open to temporary shows around a scientific program, also supported by Marc Ladreit de Lacharrière, which will help further studies on the history of collecting and the place of non-Western arts in art history. But it's not a question of carte blanche, the programming of this space depends on the technical and scientific expertise of the museum's teams. The public will tell us what they think.