After fifteen years of silence, the ethnographic collections find their place once again in the gallery of continents. As cultural exchanges are deepened, the Museum of Rouen invites indigenous peoples to contribute to a section of its galleries by selecting objects from our nineteenth- and twentieth-century collections, bringing life back to them.
FROM THE TEMPLE…
The Museum’s ethnographic objects come from donations from inhabitants of Rouen, mariners, rentiers, industrialists and traders. Since 1883, when they were first exhibited to the public, the way in which they have been presented has followed the main nineteenth-century schools of thought. First of all, the evolutionist perspective saw them being presented as the last testimonies of tribes considered as surviving relics of prehistory, who became extinct due to their inability to adapt to our civilisation. They were sometimes presented as trophies of war, a heroic testimony of a bloody battle with the indigenous people, with the white man emerging victorious.
Finally, they were shown as valuables collected on the basis of European aesthetic and artistic criteria.
TO THE EXHIBITION…
Today, with the gallery of continents, indigenous peoples are given the floor to enable them to present the Museum’s collections to visitors as representative objects. As these communities have never been so present on the international stage, we give carte blanche to indigenous artists so that they can provide their interpretation of the Museum and its collections.
The Gallery of Continents: the sustainable and responsible Museum in relation to ethnographic collections
The notion of a sustainable and responsible Museum is dependent on a simple principal: it means employing everything that makes up the institution’s heritage, including its history, its very extensive international collections and the place’s spirit, as a force to constantly question the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries. For example, by launching the process of returning the Māori head back in October 2007 we wanted to show that the ramifications of museums’ actions on society go way beyond the confines of the museum world.
Returning the Museum’s Māori head was never seen as an end in itself, but rather as the first chapter of a story and the wish to build strong links with indigenous communities and the New Zealand authorities. In concrete terms, this is done by promoting the institution’s ethnographic collections in an innovative way.
The Museum of Rouen has significant ethnographic collections that were acquired in the nineteenth century. During the inventory, we noticed that we only have the life and work of the donor from Rouen or France, and in no way do we have the original meaning of these objects in terms of the culture that produced them. We also decided to work directly with the communities from which our collections originated, and to give them carte blanche in their promotion to enable them to be ambassadors of their cultures.
Within our collections, each community chooses the objects that they consider to be important with regard to their own culture. The communities set the themes, edit the texts and artistically enhance this cooperative work within the Gallery of Continents.
The continent of Oceania
Since 2011, we have worked on ethnographic collections relating to Oceania by establishing links with the Te Papa Tongarewa National Museum in Wellington, New Zealand, and Māori communities. They have chosen the objects, decided upon the exhibit’s direction, and taken the floor to explain why such objects hold importance within their culture. The museum experience for this continent is the work of Māori artist George Nuku, who presents the collections with his perspective and sensitivity.
We continued our efforts on the Oceania continent by welcoming Huli chief Mundiya Kepanga from Papua New Guinea. Since 2007, the friendship between the Rouen institution and the Huli people has been rooted in exchanges relating to heritage, death and indigenous claims. For Mundiya, who constantly risks his life in his country, heritage is reserved for the rich. His culture and traditions are gradually disappearing thanks to the activity of globalisation. On behalf of his village, he also offered us a full set of his decorations in 2012. Today we are working on setting up a humanitarian project in collaboration with the University Hospital Centre, the School of Medicine, and the Regional Area Training of Health Professions (ERFPS) of Rouen, with the aim of bringing drinking water to the village.
The continent of Asia
With the same objective in mind, we have been working on Asian ethnographic collections since 2014. We are working directly with Indonesia, Surabaya and two Indonesian artists, Agus Koecink and Jenny Lee. They decided which objects would be presented, co-writing the themes and texts whilst enjoying complete freedom in terms of highlighting the continent and designing its staging within the gallery.
According to the same principle, in the near future the Museum will present the ethnographic collections of both the Americas and Africa within the Gallery of Continents.
The Gallery of Continents has an incredible atmosphere as each artist has been able to use their own art to display the objects as “ambassadors” and create a multicultural feeling. In this way, the Museum becomes a real living space and forum for debate, where visitors encounter a Māori delegation in discussion with an Indonesian artist and a Papuan chief. This is the philosophy of a sustainable and responsible Museum. As society evolves, so does the museum.