The musée du quai Branly contains the collections of its double inheritance: those of the Museum of Man (musée de l'Homme) and of the National Museum of African and Oceanian Art (musée national des Arts d'Afrique et d'Océanie). This dual heritage, which justifies the dual supervision by the Ministry of Research and Teaching and the Ministry of Culture, positions it right in the heart of issues linking scientific research and artistic exhibitions. During the course of the twentieth century, these issues were elaborated on by thinkers who were associated with these institutions, such as Paul Rivet, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Michel Leiris and André Malraux.
According to the Decree of December 9, 2004, the mission of the Teaching and Research Department of the musée du quai Branly is to “contribute to the development of fundamental and applied scientific research relating to the collections for which the museum is responsible, as well as the societies from which they originate.”
As such, it aims to have anthropologists, archaeologists and art historians work together to question the modes of creation, circulation and patrimonialization of non-European artifacts, from their technical, ritual and commercial uses to their modes of collection, exhibition and conservation in museums.
The diversity of the collections of the musée du quai Branly (anthropomorphic statues, technical tools, decorated human remains, photographs, books…) and of their materials (wood, stone, paper, skin, plants…) thus provide a support for an interdisciplinary reflection on the modes of conservation and enhancement of these documents originating from non-European societies.
Supported by an array of grants awarded by the institution (grants to begin and finalize theses, post-doctoral grants, grants for research on the collections), research at the musée du quai Branly is disseminated through a vast program of international symposia and partnerships with university institutions that provide in situ teaching. The musée du quai Branly also participates in three Laboratories of Excellence (Création, Arts et Patrimoine, Passés dans le Présent and Patrima) in order to contribute to strengthening the ties between academic research and heritage institutions.
If it is not a research laboratory in the classic sense, the Research Department is above all a federative structure designed to facilitate interactions among researchers from varied horizons. Thus, between 2006 and 2014, the International Research Network “Anthropologie et histoire des arts” [“Anthropology and the History of the Arts”] brought together fifteen universities in France and abroad, on the initiative of the musée du quai Branly and with the supervision of the CNRS, to work on the issue of artification and placement in museums.
The Research Department has been directed successively by Maurice Godelier, Emmanuel Désvaux and Anne-Christine Taylor. Its current Director, Frédéric Keck, is interested notably in issues related to the disconnection between biological artifacts and cultural artifacts. A determining criterion for the constitution of the collections of the musée du quai Branly during the last two centuries, this classification can today be analyzed by following the methods of the Anthropology of Science. If the distinction between nature and culture is not relevant in most non-European societies, it remains to be seen how this distinction has informed the European view of objects originating from these societies and has modified their trajectories in the collections.
The museum, in the same way as a zoo or a nature park, thus becomes a place where several forms of relations between humans and non-humans can be seen. The study of the collections of a museum enables us to question the ecological transformations underway outside the museum, which become well thought out and intensified as a result of conservation conditions that are conducive to the enhancement of the collections. If it provides a material archive for scientific research on the past, the museum also opens possible futures in the public reflection for a common world.