Musee Quai Branly

Added on by Timothy Brown.

Getting close to the summer Paris program's end now and the range of work we won't see is daunting. In spite of an ambitious agenda and the group's noteworthy stamina. One month in Paris simply isn't enough to do much more than conduct a quick survey. But I recall saying the same thing when I was running the semester-long programs here. In fact, four months was about right to develop some familiararity with Montepulciano, not a very big place.

Last week we were at Jean Nouvel's Musée Quai Branly. It was my second visit since it opened and the most striking change was the greater density of the plantings. Now there is some sense of the potential for the buildings to recede somewhat into the gardens’ lush landscaping. This second visit also reinforced several of my earlier less-positive impressions.

One is that Nouvel seems to have been trying very hard to provoke some stale and generally inert body into a reaction against the idea of a free-wheeling architecture. Trying really hard. The plethora of materials, the long elaborate entry sequence, and the general exuberance that may somehow symbolize youthful energy. I find the museum to be a fairly strong project and one that succeeds on most of its terms (especially in integrating landscape and architecture). But the feeling that we should somehow be scandalized persists. I’m not even sure who the stand-in for the stale body would be since the museum was pretty lavishly funded by the state and benefits from official sanction via every imaginable channel. Nonetheless, the driving force of the design would seem to me to be a tantrum of sorts; even though no one said little Jean couldn't have the ice cream cone.

The other impressions I recall had to do with the interiors mostly. The theatricality serves the individual objects well but its relentlessness begins to dull the overall reception of the extraordinary collection. I felt as if I was in a Disney version of what an anthropological museum should be. Worst of all is the pervasive darkness. Naturally, one needs very low levels of ambient light to create the dramatic spotlighting of the objects under glass, but after two hours I was dying for some light. I wondered if the hanging boxes were meant to be light controlled but the area devoted to displaying light sensitive objects ate the entire floorplate. Finally, I just can't understand the French love of tiny, packed, airless museum spaces. Too much beautiful work badly crammed into too little space, jammed with too many people, and filled with warm, humid, very stale air. slide show