Probably one of the fortunate aspects in being interested in African affairs is the fact that unfortunately, most people are not interested in African affairs. So it’s often the case that you can visit exhibits and museums that have a focus on African without having to worry about crowds.
Such was the case with the musée de Quai Branly in Paris. While the museum sits at the foot of the Eiffel Tower in a very lovely modern building constructed just for the museum and has a multitude of cultures on exhibit, it is quite easy to pop in to for a nice look around. There are basically no lines and you mainly share the museum with a few random people and the occasional school group who seem to mostly focus on the featured exhibit halls.
While there are exhibits from the Americas, Asia, and Australia, I was most interested in their Africa exhibit. Obviously the most famous museum for African art and culture outside of the continent is the Africa Museum in Brussels which shows most of the items that the Belgians
stripped “collected” from the continent. But, having not been to Brussels yet, I don’t really have much to compare with, although the Quai Branly is quite respectable as it is.
While the collection doesn’t cover every single country in Africa, it covers the west and central regions quite well in addition to touch of items from East Africa. Works range from the always ubiquitous masks, to jewelry, to clothes, to fertility dolls, to this massive obelisk type sculpture from Cameroon that sits near the entrance to the Africa section. Overall, I have to say that while many of the pieces were ones that I’m already familiar with, there were quite a few new ones that made it interesting (such as the obelisk.)
A section that I noticed most people missed, but is definitely worth taking some time with, are a series of sliding doors that display a hundred different small pieces that are primarily jewelry items, but also some general beadwork. While they don’t have the impressive lighting of the larger works, they’re still quite nicely display and more to the point, this method allows one to get quite up close with the work to really see the craft that people put in to them. And this is probably one of the best facets of the museum in that these truly are museum quality pieces on display. They aren’t the chintzy pieces you find these days that are made for tourists as most seem to have been gotten in the very early 20th century if not in the 19th century.
The other big takeaway from the Africa section of the Quai Branly is that one can see how the art and craft varies massively between even the smallest regions in a country. It goes further to emphasize the ridiculous natures of today’s country borders in Africa that were forcibly carved up by the colonial powers.
If you’re in Paris and want to take a breath from the aggressively camera-riden throngs at the Louvre, Orsay, Montemarte, and Eiffel Tower, head on over to the Quai Branly. You might even experience something you may have thought you’d never see in Paris: French tourists.