The museography of the African collections was designed by a working party set up in 1999 bringing together teams from the musée de l’Homme and the musée national des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie. The visitor is provided with two possible approaches: a geographical itinerary, taking him across the continent from North to South, and a more thematic itinerary helping him discover the works according to their use, techniques and creation. This approach takes advantage of some remarkably original exhibition areas – a multitude of “boxes” projecting from the north façade, forming small study rooms devoted to particular families of artefacts or to specific themes, such as divination.
A number of essential features also help to facilitate understanding of the works and their meaning, and of the history of the region concerned and its contacts with other cultures. Items on display are put into context with the help of maps, extracts from travellers’ tales, and a mass of audiovisual and photographic documents available on multimedia equipment.
the different faces of North Africa
The geographical itinerary for the African collections begins in North Africa, with an area laid out in three sections. The first presents urban arts, with an exhibition of superb furniture and embroidery work. The second concentrates on rural arts, with a fine selection of carpets, wooden vessels, pottery and jewellery, alongside numerous other artefacts from the little known Berber culture. The third and last is devoted to nomadic arts and their links with rural civilisations and sub-Saharan Africa.
Connections and transitions between the three sections are made by thematic displays in which, for example, the accent might be on history and prehistory, expression of the sacred (illustrated by Koranic and Hebraic tablets), marriage, myths, or games.
* Journeying in sub-Saharan space-time…
The itinerary continues with the sub-Saharan African collections, largely made up of items from Mali, the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Gabon and the Congo. Two transversals bring together textiles and musical instruments from throughout the continent, classed by technique, along the entire length of the area. The main gallery is crisscrossed by a series of statues illustrating the many various ways in which the human body is represented in this part of the world.
Among other major attractions in this zone are the prominence given to “mask societies” and the evocation of the Dakar-Djibouti mission led by Marcel Griaule, considered as the starting-point for French ethnology. Contemporary arts and cultures are also highlighted by means of multimedia aids creating a dialogue between past and present.
The journey continues over a third section devoted to southern, equatorial and central Africa, and to Madagascar. The Equatorial African collections are of particularly early date, having been originally housed at the Trocadero Museum of Ethnology, and resulting from such famous expeditions as those made by Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, in the late 19th century. Special attention has been paid to acquisition of artefacts for the central, eastern and southern African collection and, finally, Ethiopia is strongly represented by a rare group of exceptionally fine rural frescoes from the Gondar region, collected by Marcel Griaule. This area puts very early forms of Christianity side by side with animist practices.
Cameroun - the Harter legacy
The collection bestowed by Pierre Harter (1928-1991), doctor and leading specialist in the arts of Cameroon, is an invaluable contribution to the museum’s heritage, and has been accorded a very special place within its walls. The legacy comprises around fifty items – masks and sculptures – many of which are truly exceptional. The terms of the legacy stipulate that the collection may only be put on display in its entirety, and has therefore been allotted its own exhibition area in the museum.