Following the Forum on African Heritage, the day of study on «the extra-western collections of museums in France», organized by the Ministry of Culture on October 7, highlighted the concrete initiatives of museums in terms of the provenance of collections.

Opening, exchanges, cooperation: it was on the affirmation of these powerful ideas that ended, on July 4, the symposium on African heritage that brought together, under the aegis of the Presidency of the Republic, the main international actors of museums. “Nothing would be more narrow than assigning museums to account only for art created on their soil or by national artists,” said Minister of Culture Franck Riester.

It is this same idea of renewed cooperation that the study day on «Les collections extra-occidentales des musées de France», held on October 7 at the Quai Branly Museum, worked to continue and intensify. Philippe Barbat, Director-General of Heritage at the Ministry of Culture, said: «The actions presented are a concrete translation of the museums' initiatives in terms of research and analysis of collections.

Provenance, identification, cartography... the actions presented are a concrete translation of the initiatives of the museums in terms of research and analysis of the collections (Philippe Barbat)

What resources to identify collections?

The challenge of the first round table, which focused on mobilizing resources for the identification of collections, was to “present the institutions in order to see, within them, how the actions to be carried out are divided,” says Vincent Lefèvre, Assistant Director of Collections at the Department of Museums of France of the Ministry of Culture.

The first institution concerned is the Quai Branly - Jacques Chirac Museum, whose holdings in sub-Saharan Africa and Madagascar alone represent no less than 70,000 objects. «The documentation of the collections is not homogeneous, for some objects the history is missing, others do not have a perfect traceability», says Hélène Joubert, head of the Africa heritage unit of the Quai Branly Museum - Jacques Chirac, who pleads for “a deepening of this history by disconnecting it from moral considerations”.

The same tone in Paz Nunez-Regueiro, his counterpart for the collections of the Americas, which confirms the increasingly important role taken by the analysis of sources: the task is often difficult because of the opacity of the art market. Sometimes it takes several years for reliable information about an object to be available, hence the need for increased collaboration between museums.” A collaboration that can take the form of scientific expertise, actions with customs, accompanying acquisitions and deposits or facilitating contacts between museum professionals and experts abroad, lists Nicolas Garnier, Head of the Oceania Heritage Unit.

20 Years of MQB - Collections Acquisitions

In order to identify the history of certain objects, «cross-repositories can be a solution of the future», according to Pierre Baptiste, chief curator at the National Museum of Asian Arts - Guimet, in charge of the arts of Southeast Asia. Proof of this is the operation at the end of which in 2016 the Guimet Museum deposited at the National Museum of Cambodia in Phnom Penh a head to complete the body of a sculpture of Harihara preserved in situ. The Islamic Art Network in France, launched in 2016 by the Department of Islamic Arts of the Louvre Museum, supports the knowledge and enhancement of the national heritage of Islamic art in the region.

What is the place of a museum of Mediterranean civilizations as a major heritage department when those of the Louvre and the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac already cover the entire Mediterranean area?” , questions Émilie Girard, Scientific and Collections Director of the Musée des civilisations de l'Europe et de la Méditerranée (MUCEM), in Marseille. “The increase in requests for advice to us confirms that MUCEM is increasingly identified as an effective partner,” she said, adding that her “objective is to undertake a consultancy mission based on a methodology based on transdisciplinarity”.

The documentation of the collections is not homogeneous, for some the story is missing, others do not have a perfect traceability (Hélène Joubert)

On the natural history side, the status of collections is particularly complex. As a result of the Rio Convention on Biological Diversity in 1992 and the Nagoya Protocol in 2010, it is now “impossible to take genetic knowledge out of context,” says Nivart. delegated to the movements and acquisitions of the collections of the National Museum of Natural History. A new rule of law that opens up incredible prospects in view of the «1.250 billion specimens representing 80% of the species described worldwide, and among them, 81.6% of extra-western origin» recorded by natural history museums around the world.

Finally, the research programmes conducted by the National Institute for the History of Art are an essential resource to better understand the extra-European collections. Among these researches, several have been cited for their importance in the work of identification: «Vestiges, indices, paradigms: places and times of African objects (14th-19th century), cartography of African objects in France» (edited by Claire Bosc-Tiessé, researcher at the CNRS), «Collectors, collectors and dealers of Asian art in France 1700-1939» or «Paradise lost: colonization of landscapes and destruction of eco-anthroposystems».

Provenance research: issues, tools and best practices

The second important issue is to identify the provenance of the collections. “The current debates are forcing us to question once again how we work on provenances,” says Sarah Frioux-Salgas, head of archives and documentation of collections at the musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac. Whether the collections were carried out as part of official missions, archaeological missions or administrative archives, it is necessary, in all cases, “to document the context in which they were made,” argues Pascal Riviale. In charge of documentary studies at the National Archives, who warned: Everything that is said by collectors must be taken with caution. There is often a tendency to embellishment and appropriation.”

A view corroborated by the Musée de l'Armée, which must set up a new route of discovery of the collections on a wider perimeter by 2025. “Approaching colonial wars without showing the “objects” provided by the colonized adversary is no longer conceivable, except to promote an asymmetrical vision of civilizations,” warns Ariane James-Sarrazin, deputy director of the Army Museum.

20 years of MQB - Survey for acquisition

In some cases, nothing is known about the provenance of the preserved object – neither the work, nor the person, nor the context, are documented. It is then a question of undertaking what is akin to a real police investigation which, according to Emmanuel Kasarherou, deputy director of the heritage and collections department of the musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, has a precise purpose: “to restore a biography to objects whose history has disappeared”. This “X-Yard” is a long-term undertaking, which may require significant resources (including human and logistical resources).

In any case, it seems undeniable that «field surveys are a means of documenting collections and forging links between ethnographic, historical and contemporary heritages», claims Elise Patole-Edoumba, director of the Natural History Museum of La Rochelle, taking the example of projects developed by the museum in Indonesia and Côte d'Ivoire.

With the construction of the X, which is similar to a real police investigation, it is a question of giving back a biography to the objects whose history disappeared (Emmanuel Kasarherou)

Alexandre Girard-Muscagorry, curator, in charge of non-Western music and cultures at the Cité de la musique, Philharmonie de Paris, discusses a particular case: that of Victor Schoelcher. The father of the abolition of slavery was also – we know less – a lover of music, a specialist in the work of Handel, who brought back, from the different places of the world that he travelled to document the situation of slavery, musical instruments. “He used to write comments in the instruments,” notes the Conservative, who says that the conservation issue today is twofold. It is first of all a question of articulating the different sources of information, but also of preserving the inscriptions by means of preventive conservation. This project invites a global study of Victor Schoelcher’s collector’s gestures».

What are the digital challenges for mapping and cataloguing extra-western collections?

We document an object in every possible way, through a file, of course, but also through intangible data, sound recordings,” says Marie-Paule Imberti, in charge of the collections of the Americas at the Confluences Museum. in Lyon, about the field missions that the museum conducts in the Brazilian Amazon. “We are working on common data interoperability tools with the Toulouse Museum,” says his colleague Marie Canonne, who was commissioned by the museum to process scientific archives. Interoperability: for Lucile Grand, Head of the Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac Museum’s Media Library, a pioneer institution in this field, this is indeed a “major challenge for institutions that are still too little accustomed to maintaining a digital dialogue.” To agree on thesauri, to determine the level of description to which one wishes to reach, requires to be inventive and collaborative. Interoperability opens up a huge field of possibilities.”

20 years of MQB - Documenting the collections: the contributions of the media library

Responding to the need to have «a space of census of places and people who have extra-western collections», the directory of professionals Kimuntu was constituted 11 years ago explains Emilie Salaberry-Duhoux, director of museums of the city of Angoulême, one of its initiators. The museums that are part of it, about 230 today, provide a brief description of the collections, which encourages contacts.” Last year, its update led to a collaborative work on the mapping of African objects alongside Claire Bosc-Tiessé, a researcher at the CNRS. This mapping is a research aid. Funds have been identified in 200 museums, the bibliographic recollection has allowed us to arrive at a first overview and to better understand how it was possible to bring out an African heritage in France,” she explains.

What is the contribution of collaborations to the knowledge and valorization of collections?

To gain a better understanding of the collections, collaborations with other museums or institutions often provide decisive insight. This is the opinion of Yves Le Fur, Director of the Heritage and Collections Department of the Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac Museum, for whom they make it possible to «provide additional information and, often, go beyond autocensures». No trace of self-censorship for the SAWA (Wayana-apalaï indigenous knowledge) project in Guyana. Regular meetings around the objects preserved by the musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac and sound recordings of the Nanterre Laboratory of Ethnology and Comparative Sociology, led to the launch of the WATAU portal, which can be consulted on a wide range of media. Fabienne de Pierrebourg, curator of heritage at the musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, said: «We wanted to take into account the words of the people of origin».

20 years of MQB - Life behind the scenes

Other projects could only develop from such collaborations. This is the case with the rich collection of Alaskan artifacts donated by Alphonse Pinart to the Boulogne-sur-Mer Castle-Museum, which has been responsible for “a close collaboration between Kodiak communities in Alaska and the museum since the 1990s,” says Kandot. its director, noting that these operations “have contributed to cultural renewal on Kodiak Island.”

The Toulouse Museum and the Champollion Museum in Figeac and the Fenaille Museum in Rodez have created an exhibition around Easter Island. Proposed in three complementary places, «each respecting its own editorial line» as Anne Maumont, editorial manager in the Culture Department of Toulouse Métropole, points out, it was an opportunity to Aurélien Pierre, Director of the Fenaille Museum, adds: “to present a vast state of knowledge” about the Pascuan universe.

This is also the case with the reopening of the Aquitaine Museum, whose collaboration with the Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac Paul Matharan, Chief Curator of the Museum’s Regional and Non-European Ethnographic Section, said: “The vast policy of showcasing the 5,000 pieces of art from Africa and Oceania testifying to the city’s port history.”

In the case of extra-western collections, there is a duty to promote both scientific and ethical values. I plead that we do not make the choice between the two (Eric de Chassey)

In order to deal with the subject of provenance, it is necessary to call upon various skills, it being understood that there is no absolute truth discourse. Moreover, this question is inseparable from that of representation. In the case of extra-western collections, there is a duty to promote both scientific and ethical values. I plead that we should not choose between the two,” concludes Eric de Chassey, Director General of the National Institute of Art History.

20 years, the acquisitions of the musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac

20 years of MQB - the exhibition

Major or significant works, more than 78,000 historical and contemporary pieces have joined the public collections since 1998, when the Quai Branly Museum was created. Selected by a dozen curators and museum professionals, 500 of them have been selected for the exhibition «20 ans, the acquisitions of the musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac» shows, unveiling for the first time the behind the scenes of the museum’s acquisition policy. Acquisitions made as part of the sumptuous textile collections to the astonishing vomitive spatulas used by the Indian shamans of the Greater Antilles to purify themselves during a ritual during which they inhaled a hallucinogenic substance to come into contact with the spirits, through the copies of the English-language literary magazine Black Orpheus founded in 1957, the splendors are everywhere on the course. It also offers a good presentation of the documentation and information work around the collections.