A French Postcolonial Museum or Mission Impossible? The Politics of Postcolonialism at the Musée du Quai Branly and Mucem

Author: Anna Seidl

Seidl, Anna, 2022 A French Postcolonial Museum or Mission Impossible? The Politics of Postcolonialism at the Musée du Quai Branly and Mucem, Flinders University, College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

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Since their inception, modern museums have played a role in establishing identity. Museums have represented one’s own culture and other cultures, and have often been used to convey messages of national identity. However, the types of identity messages that museums convey about self and other have changed over time in response to changing social and historical conditions. As countries have moved beyond colonialism and began grappling with what it means to be a postcolonial society, this has necessitated some significant rethinking around the form and pur-pose of museums. There are definite difficulties in the creation of a postcolonial museum, due to the philosophical underpinnings and the history of the institution.

These tensions inherent in creating a postcolonial museum are particularly interesting in the case of France. Museums hold a uniquely important role within French culture. Moreover, France has a very significant colonial history and holds political values that are sometimes at odds with the tenets of postcolonialism. This thesis therefore seeks to examine the portrayal of other cultures in contemporary post-colonial museums within France, considering the strengths and limitations of, and possible approaches to, the application of postcolonialism to the museum institu-tion.

The first chapter gives a theoretical and contextual background. It considers the museum’s historical background, as well as its role in society as an institution of power-knowledge through its ability to define and to perpetuate norms and behav-iours. The chapter then considers how postcolonial writings contribute to the issue of knowledge and identity construction. This chapter concludes by considering how postcolonialism can be applied to the museum context. The second chapter illus-trates these points using the case of France as an example. France highlights par-ticularly clearly the museum’s links to national identity construction and the chal-lenges postcolonial museographic approaches can pose in particular political con-texts.

The subsequent two chapters provide case studies of the Musée du Quai Branly and Mucem, two museums that treat postcolonial relationships. Overall, this thesis finds that in neither case is a postcolonial museum successfully created. Both fail to give an effective representation of other cultures. Musée du Quai Branly falls into the trap of excessively exoticising the Other, while Mucem takes an overly assimi-lating approach. However, in both cases, the institutions’ postcolonial agendas have been diluted by messages of national or regional French identity and have faced competing and sometimes contradictory demands of other French local or national political goals.

Keywords: postcolonialism, colonialism, France, Musée du Quai Branly, Mucem, museums, French identity, Marseille, Paris

Subject: Languages thesis

Thesis type: Masters
Completed: 2022
School: College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences
Supervisor: Christèle maizonniaux