The rest of the collection more than lives up to this highly promising beginning. France’s wealth of magnificent pieces from various cultures of Oceania, Africa, Asia and the Americas – formerly hidden away in the still-existing Musée de l’Homme and the Musée des Arts Africains et Oceaniens (the latter in a splendid Art Deco building on the outer edge of the city, which will be turned into a museum devoted to immigration) – can now receive the admiration they deserve. One jaw-dropping piece follows another as visitors wander through the different collections, all housed on the same floor, separated by partitions and linked by a central “river,” a wide path that meanders through the center, set apart by low, amorphously shaped, mud-colored walls.
The results are spectacular. Visitors approach the collection via a sensuously swooping white ramp (a “rite of passage” in architect-speak) and then pass through a dark tunnel before reaching the display area, where they are greeted by a stunning Dogon wood statue (dating from the 10th- or 11th-century) with both male and female characteristics and its one remaining arm reaching toward the sky.
Although Nouvel’s sprawling building has nothing Parisian about it (neither did the Eiffel Tower when it was built), it is a triumph. A few of his favorite touches are immediately recognizable – a “second skin” in the form of a freestanding glass wall along the pavement on the Seine side and light-filtering panels on the Rue de l’Université side (the museum has entrances on both sides). But Nouvel has carefully considered the content and function of the building, using a palette of earth tones and mostly avoiding the use of straight lines (the floor of the “river,” for example, has an uneven surface, as if it were a dirt path). The exceptions are what from the outside look like boxes of different sizes, shapes and colors stuck on the outside of the building on the Quai du Branly side, which turn out to be small side exhibition rooms.
The curators also deserve much credit for the brilliant display and lighting of the pieces, although the labels accompanying the works are, as in most French museums, often extremely difficult to read (when will someone invent a system of that is easily legible without detracting from the art?).
High-tech elements like videos and interactive computer screens are discreetly and intelligently integrated into this setting, providing complementary information about the cultures the works come from.
Three irregularly shaped, red-painted mezzanines above the main floor are used for temporary exhibitions and a mediathèque, where all the various videos and computerized information are centralized.
Outside, the large garden designed by superstar landscape architect Gilles Clément undulates gently underneath the building, which is raised above the ground on pillars Le Corbusier-style. An installation of light elements in plastic poles planted in the ground lights up the underside of the building at night, and a vertical garden covers one wall on the Seine side of the building.
One of Chirac’s motivations for encouraging the creation of this museum was to ensure that he will leave a tangible heritage behind him, albeit a much less extensive one than his predecessor and rival in posterity, François Mitterrand, whose Grands Projets included the Louvre pyramid, the new national library, the Grande Arche de la Défense and the Opéra Bastille. Chirac has even admitted that he would be pleased if the museum was one day renamed after him. Thanks for the museum, Jacques, but no thanks.