Kundi Ngbaka, Democratic Republic of Congo, Wood, plant fibers, skin, pigments

 - Click to enlarge, open in a new window
© musée du quai Branly
la réserve des instruments de musique - Click to enlarge, open in a new window
la réserve des instruments de musique © musée du quai Branly, photo Nicolas Borel

four exceptional collections

To incite the interest of the public and of scientist alike...
The musée du quai Branly houses four remarkably rich and precious collections, which it conserves, manages and documents with a dual aim in view. Firstly, they must be presented to the general public through regular rotation of artefacts in the permanent collections area and during temporary exhibitions; secondly, they must serve as useful and accessible resources for students, teachers and researchers worldwide.

the museum’s textiles collection

The museum’s textiles collection comprises over 25,000 items representative of the astonishing range of materials, processes, uses and forms employed by mankind throughout the world.

Most date from the 19th and 20th centuries, although a number of archaeological and historical fabrics, of American origin in particular, are also included. The fullness of the collection illustrates the aesthetic choices made by different cultures, and bears witness to the contacts, borrowings and innovations made across time and space.

A vast range of fibres has been brought together: vegetable (cotton, ramie, raffia, and various types of bark phloem, such as this red variety used for a Chilktat ceremonial cape from British Columbia), animal (from varieties of silkworms, fleeced animals, porcupines, birds, shellfish, etc.), and sometimes mineral (precious metals).

Weaving (Quechua woman’s headband from Charazani in Bolivia or Li woman’s skirt from the Chinese island of Hainan), whether in professional workshops or in the home, brings into play the know-how handed down from one generation to the next, integrating new procedures along the way – the same being true of dyeing, appliqué, embroidery and other techniques.

Whether for everyday use or for special occasions, whether sacred or profane, fabrics are an essential part of human life – in home decoration (carpets, tapestries, covers, bags, etc.), as aids to religious expression, and as clothing.

They signal regional and social expression, and serve to express race, age group, rites of passage, and hierarchies within a particular society, as well as the relationships between men and gods, and between the living and the dead.

the photographic collection

The museum’s collection of photographs contains some 700,000 items, both historical and contemporary, around 580,000 of which come from the musée de l’Homme and 66,000 from the musée national des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie, the remainder being new acquisitions.

The oldest photographs in the collection date back to 1841, not long after the process was first known.

The 1840-1870 section of the collection is one of its strongest points, and includes an exceptionally fine series of daguerreotypes evidencing the earliest use of photography in the field of anthropology, and whose authors – soldiers, moneyed travellers, and scientists – came from a wide range of backgrounds.

Images from the 1920s and 1930s correspond to the early development of French ethnology, with professional photographers accompanying ethnologists with increasing frequency.

Strong points geographically speaking are America – Mexico, Peru and Brazil in particular –, Equatorial and West Africa, Polynesia, Melanesia, Indonesia and Vietnam. Many of these photographs were collected in the 1930s with a view to creating a documentary record. They now constitute true collections, as much for their rarity as for the number of items reflecting their authors’ particular viewpoints.

In this regard, many photographs are to be displayed in the museum’s first exhibitions. A hallmark collection, both in France and throughout the world, its patrimonial richness is a resource easily accessible to researchers through the Iconotheque (whose catalogue is partly available on Internet) and the precious collections consultation room.

The collections workshop has enabled the reconditioning of around 220,000 photographs and digitisation of over 200,000 of them.

the musicology collection

One of the museum’s cross-disciplinary themes is that of music and the instruments that create it.

This museographic choice is a result of the richness of its musicological collections.

The collection of musical instruments, which was inherited from the musée de l’Homme and the musée national des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie, first began to take shape in 1878 and increased its size over the years through acquisitions made by succeeding French ethnological expeditions.

Today it comprises some 9,500 items from a variety of eras, 4,250 from Africa, 2,150 from Asia, 2,100 from America (including 750 items from the pre-Columbian period), 550 from Oceania and 450 from Insulindia.

All families of instruments are represented – wind, stringed, drums, and “idiophones”, whose rigid bodies are made to vibrate by concussion, shaking, scraping, etc.

Several approaches are employed for presentation of the collection at the musée du quai Branly.

Housed in a transparent Glass Tower, the reserve collection of instruments is visible from the museum reception hall, while over a hundred instruments are on display in the permanent exhibitions area. In the sections devoted to American, Asian, Insulindian and Oceanian arts and cultures, and in some of the Africa display cases, musical instruments are on exhibition alongside other artefacts, contributing to the realisation of extra-musical museographic concepts.

Music is also presented through a trio of multimedia systems.

The East and West Music Centres in the collections area comprise two 30 m2 surfaces providing a collective musical experience produced by a multimedia system combining sound spatialisation equipment with projection of immersive images. There are eight multimedia programs to choose from, plunging the visitor into the midst of an evening of seduction among the nomadic Peuls of Niger, for example, bathing him in the vocal polyphonies of the Bedzan pygmies of Cameroon, or surrounding him with the processional music of Nepal…

The aim of the third sound system is to immerse the Glass Tower in a cloud of musical whispers, a perfume of sounds if you like, to bring aural presence to the mystery of the instruments kept there and to remind visitors of the true purpose of the Glass Tower’s contents. 

the history collection

The musée du quai Branly has a Historical heritage unit, inherited from the historical collections of the musée national des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie, along with collections of graphic arts and paintings by French artists, many of which came from the ethnology laboratory of the musée de l’Homme.

The collection has been enlarged by a number of acquisitions made over the last five years, and now numbers almost 10,000 works of very considerable diversity: paintings, engravings, sculptures, travellers’ notebooks, and more.

The variety of techniques is matched by the variety of subject matter: dioramas dating from the 1931 Colonial Exhibition, watercolours of Oceanian landscapes painted by sailors at the turn of the 19th century (and those by Paul Gauguin, a score of whose prints and drawings are in the museum’s possession), Orientalist paintings, sketches made by explorers of North and sub-Saharan African landscapes, and fanciful images of American Indians as they were imagined in the 18th century.

All these works are important pieces of historical evidence, informing us of the development of Western concepts of the Other according to place and period. They are also an inescapable reminder of the fundamental role such images continue to play in our imaginary life. In this regard, the extensive iconography the museum possesses on representation of slavery is a rich resource for educators.

Because of its historiographic nature, this collection is not meant for direct exhibition along with the other main collections. It is, however, one of the main sources for the many multimedia programs provided for visitors, and items from it will be loaned out regularly or displayed in temporary exhibitions.