Chirac's museum of exotic art panned for being 'racist'

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Jacques Chirac's hopes of leaving a glittering legacy in the shape of a major new museum in Paris were already in trouble yesterday, with critics calling the Quai Branly patronising and racist before it had even opened its doors.

The museum, dedicated entirely to non-Western arts, and set to open next Monday on the left bank of the Seine between Invalides and the Eiffel Tower, has been one of the French President's pet projects since his election in 1995. And it is likely to be one of the few lasting memorials to his decade at the Elysée Palace.

But that has done little to stop critics who object to the idea of categorising African, Asian and Pacific art as separate from Western art. The museum's directors, aware of the potential brickbats, were careful to choose the title Museum of the Quai Branly to avoid any reference to primitive art. "We want to show that this type of art is equivalent to European art. We want to place it on the same level," said Patrice Januel, the museum's director and curator.

However, critics have pointed to the construction of the Vegetation Wall as evidence of the project's patronising approach. The 800 square metre horizontal garden is composed of 15,000 plants of 150 species from China, America and central Europe. Some believe that the focus on vegetation reinforces the preconception that non-Western art is closer to nature and therefore "primitive".

M. Chirac has long claimed a passion for non-Western art, and apparently has expert knowledge in the field. "Just like [former French president Georges] Pompidou had a passion for contemporary art, Chirac is really passionate, he's a true connoisseur of non-Western art," said M. Januel. It was in 1996 that M. Chirac announced plans for a museum "dedicated to arts of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas".

One of France's top architects, Jean Nouvel, has created a futuristic building to rival the Pompidou Centre, and 3,500 tons of steel were used for the metallic structure, which incorporates four buildings each with a distinct style.

M. Januel says that M. Nouvel's project will appeal to everyone.

"People will like it," he said, even those who loathe contemporary architecture, because of the amount of green space incorporated into the design. Members of the public have free access to the garden and roof terrace, regardless of whether they are visiting the museum.

People have also claimed that the Quai Branly has robbed other museums of vital pieces. Almost 300,000 objects are now held at the Quai Branly, originating from the National Museum of Africa and Oceania, the ethnology department of the Museum of Man, and a small number of works from the Guimet Museum, which specialises in Asian art.

But the museum's directors argue that the works will benefit from their transfer to the purpose-built museum, which is literally "built around the collection". M. Nouvel says he conceived the museum's design with the 300,000 works in mind.

"Usually, one thinks of the display after the conception of the building. Here, we did the opposite: beginning with the collection, we constructed the museum around it," he said.

Emphasising its nature as a living museum, contemporary artists have been included in the project. Eight aborigines were flown in from Australia to create a mural and Issey Miyake, the Japanese fashion designer, has been commissioned to make curtains.