Displaying anthropology and popular culture

The politics of culture at the Musée du Quai Branly:

Displaying anthropology and popular culture (2006-2011) by Gaëlle Crenn

Te Marae, Te Papa, 5-6pm 26 May

The museum is a place of contested definitions of what “culture” means for the society in which it is embedded. Through its exhibitions and programming, the museum expresses not only what kind of culture is considered legitimate but also what is the place and the sense of cultural experience in the lives of people. Going beyond the controversial debates over aesthetic versus anthropological presentation that surrounded its birth, this seminar examines how a sense of “culture” has been redefined at the Musée du Quai Branly (MQB) during its five years of existence. By analysing its exhibitions and programming, I discuss the ways in which the MQB has created and enhanced its identity through a series of redefinitions of what “culture” means.

First, the programming has built a definition of culture that allows the museum to address actual questions of identity (and not only of otherness) in the national context. Second, the temporary exhibitions program (especially “Jardin d’amour”, “Upside down. Les Arctiques”, and “Artistes d’Abomey. Dialogue sur un royaume africain”) has introduced new cultural practices into the museum, which aim to go beyond the opposition between aesthetic and anthropological perspective. These exhibitions create a space for discussion about museum practices (for example, displaying contemporary creations vs past heritage; creation vs transmission; arts premiers vs contemporary art; scientific or artistic curation; anonymous artefacts vs “authorized” and signed works), and consequently change the conceptions of “culture” that are proposed to visitors.

One of the major impacts on the conception of “culture” is due to popular culture entering the museum. Like many other museums – Te Papa with the “Lord of the Rings” exhibition being a prominent example – the MQB has presented temporary exhibitions dedicated to cultural industries’ productions, such as “The Century of Jazz” and “Tarzan!”. According to Kevin Moore, in his seminal work Museums and Popular Culture (1997), the presence of the popular raises fundamental questions for the museum: Who are they for? What culture do we want them to represent? And who is “we”? Popular culture addresses the status of the museum as a place of cultural distinction (Bourdieu). Moreover, the core ability of the museum to capture and render through exhibitions the pervasiveness and myriad variations of popular culture is at stake (De Certeau). By examining these exhibitions, I seek to understand how museums deal with popular content, how the definition of the museum as a place of cultural experience is modified, and how the relationship between the visitor and the institution can be affected. My goal is to try to understand how pop culture changes the museum and to discuss the relevance of such presentations for the museum.

If the museum offers a space where the sense of cultural experience can be experienced and reflected upon by visitors, one of the final issues is to better understand under what conditions the museum’s offer can effectively enlarge and enrich their cultural experience.

 About the speaker

Gaëlle Crenn completed her PhD at the University of Quebec at Montréal in 2000 on the topic of the construction of the environment as heritage at the Biodôme, an innovative environment museum in Montréal. Since 2002 she has been a Lecturer in Communication Studies at the University of Nancy, France, and a member of the research laboratory in Communication studies CREM (Centre de Recherche sur les Médiations) in Lorraine (a Region in the East of France). Working within the framework of communication studies, she specialises in museum studies, with a specific focus on contemporary forms and uses of museums and heritage. She is currently on study leave at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney where she is conducting research for a project titled “Displaying popular culture”. Her other research interests within the museum field include museums and social minorities, the use of social media and ‘hot topics’ in museums.