HUMAN SCIENCES

Modern-day ethnologists

Photograph by Claude Lévi-Strauss of a young girl from the Amerindian Caduveo tribe dressed in festive attire. This is the description in his 1955 memoir Tristes Tropiques: “Two styles are current among the women painters: abstraction and the decorative purpose are at the root of both. The one is angular and geometrical, the other free and curvilinear […] The curvilinear style is usually adopted for face-painting, geometry being reserved for the body; though at times each region may be adorned with a combination of the two. […] As a rule the subject and background are interchangeable, so that the design may be read in either of two ways: a positive and a negative.”© musée du quai branly/ photo Claude Lévi-Strauss
Photograph by Claude Lévi-Strauss of a young girl from the Amerindian Caduveo tribe dressed in festive attire. This is the description in his 1955 memoir Tristes Tropiques: “Two styles are current among the women painters: abstraction and the decorative purpose are at the root of both. The one is angular and geometrical, the other free and curvilinear […] The curvilinear style is usually adopted for face-painting, geometry being reserved for the body; though at times each region may be adorned with a combination of the two. […] As a rule the subject and background are interchangeable, so that the design may be read in either of two ways: a positive and a negative.”
© musée du quai branly/ photo Claude Lévi-Strauss

To combine research with museology. To focus efforts on international exchanges and multidisciplinarity. To broaden the scope of anthropology to include other human sciences. Quai Branly Museum, a centre for the arts and civilisations of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas, standing on the banks of the river Seine at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, has successfully risen to all these challenges. Anne-Christine Taylor, head of the museum’s research and teaching department, serves as our tour guide.

French ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss celebrated his 100th birthday on 28 November 2008. Musée du Quai Branly (Quai Branly Museum) in Paris paid special tribute to this figure that helped to shape 20th-century thinking with his belief that ethnology is the social science of the observed. American anthropologist Erik Wolf considered anthropology to be “the most scientific of the humanities and the most humanistic of the sciences.”

Indeed, it is this broader-ranging form of anthropology that ethnologist Anne-Christine Taylor’s research and teaching department addresses. Just as the museum’s founders intended, its scope goes beyond aesthetic emotions to deepen the context and significance of objects representing symbols and traditions from other cultures and civilisations. “It is a flexible structure designed to circumvent all-too-often ineffective institutional situations. Instead of a team of permanent researchers, the department has chosen to host individual or collective projects for limited periods (1).” In association with the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), the museum has created an International Research Network (GDRI) on Anthropology and Art History involving 15 scientific institutions (from Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Mexico and the United States). “The GDRI approach focuses on interdisciplinarity, by endeavouring to widen the spectrum of anthropology and to promote interaction and exchanges between the various human science fields.”

The GDRI sees itself first and foremost as a project facilitator. “A researcher submits a proposal to us. Should he or she wish to include foreign researchers or to meet a particular scientist to discuss the project proposal, this is where we can be of assistance. In parallel, the department encourages budding talent by offering one-year doctoral or post-doctoral fellowships.”

From primitive to contemporary art

Part of the GDRI’s role has been to create a wide-ranging programme of multidisciplinary international symposia and seminars to foster the exchange of theories and methods. The subjects are far-ranging: from cosmology to the study of funerary practices, to surveys of blogs by young people from problem areas, to comparisons between ritual dances and contemporary dance performances. “Comparing cultures from different periods in history heightens visibility and enables us to clearly define an issue that is part of the current climate but is veiled and fragmented. For instance, while many researchers sense that anthropology is related to contemporary art, either they fail to grasp the context or have insufficient resources to give substance to their instincts. This is where we can help them. Our job is to correlate different arts, conceptions of art and aesthetics from around the world in order to reflect on their differences and similarities. That is why, as a museum of ‘primitive’ art, we pay special attention to projects that involve the West, particularly Europe, because such research enables us to analyse the links between our own and other cultures.”

How useful is this approach? For the humanities and social sciences, art (in the original sense of the Latin word ars, meaning knowhow) has become central to the creation and manifestation of collective identities. Practices of this sort turn into specific identity symbols – one example of which is the set of rituals that have developed among football fans (with distinctive clothing, make-up, songs and collective gestures).

“Researchers explore the meaning to be given to objects by focusing on processes of ‘artification’. Very simply, ‘artification’ is a term used to theorise how certain practices or objects become art (why some items are classified as ‘art’ and others as ‘ethnographic objects’). Researchers see it as a means for mediation, a purposive way of influencing others from a distance. The arts have progressed from mere systems of signs to systems of relationships, and have become a means for influencing other subjects.”

Don’t kill cultural transmission

Much of this art broadens the scope of an anthropology discipline that is rooted in the analysis of so-called ‘primitive’ societies. But how are these societies evolving and where can we still study societies that are not ‘polluted’? How far can a 21st-century social context reflect a tradition without corrupting it?

According to Anne-Christine Taylor, we are deluding ourselves if we imagine that any culture is completely authentic at a given time in its history. Societies everywhere have always interacted with others. “What is true is that the balance of power has changed considerably because the phenomenon of globalisation has altered the situation. Many societies continue to be attached to their traditions, though, despite giving the appearance of having adapted to modern life. They pass down certain customs that bear no relationship with the western world. For instance, they may invest part of their identity into evolving forms of expression.”

One example is the Huichol Indians of Mexico. With their complex rituals, this indigenous people has been exposed to other societies for centuries: first the Spanish conquistadores, followed by a string of other invaders, including Mexican government officials and later tourists. The creation of certain types of artefact has always been a fundamental part of the Huichol culture and, today, they are inventing new forms of expression – paintings – that are beginning to be prized by western collectors, but which the Huichols view as a continuation of their traditional relationship with the world.

“So, ethnologists are certainly not short of work… Everything changes: not only the societies that ethnologists study but also ethnologists themselves… We are certainly not witnessing the end of anthropology, or of diversity. The more globalisation there is, the more it encourages the emergence of differences (provided that societies are, at the very least, allowed to retain their lands and the ability to pass down the values they hold dear, especially their language). While some native reservations are like prisons that kill their inhabitants both morally and physically, others, though doubtless fewer in number, serve as sources of renewal. Presentday ethnologists do not confine themselves to societies formerly classed as ‘primitive’. They work on contemporary issues, such as science laboratories or youth gangs… Their focus is the comparative study of manifestations of life in society.”

Christine Rugemer

  1. All quotes are from Anne-Christine Taylor.



TOP

Read More

Container and contents

Quai Branly Museum was designed by architect Jean Nouvel and inaugurated in 2006. It houses artefacts from the civilisations of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the (nonwestern) Americas. Most of these artefacts came from the former Musée de l’Homme in Paris. On show in this resolutely contemporary building, with a stunning plant-covered living wall comprising its riverside façade, are 3 500 artefacts (out of a total of 300 000 or so owned by the museum) exhibited on a single level, enabling visitors to journey through the great civilisations of the world. On a vast multimedia mezzanine floor is a host of free-access exhibits and video installations on specific subjects. This entire collection can be viewed on the Quai Branly Museum website, giving an idea of the vast number and diversity of activities conducted by the Museum.

www.quaibranly.fr



TOP