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Interview. The French anthropologist Jean-Loup Amselle explains his theory of museums. “All museums, in fact, not just those defined as ‘social,’ cannot ignore what I call ‘the postcolonial duty,’ a kind of obligation to show contemporaries addressing issues such as exploitation, racism, immigration, etc.”

The cage of obsessions

“Every museum should be seen as the theater of a memorial, political and economic competition,” says Jean-Loup Amselle, the French anthropologist and ethnologist, specializing in African cultures (it’s his book Logiques métisses, published in Italy by Bollati Boringhieri, and the pamphlet Contro il primitivismo, published by the same publishing house, where he investigated the mistakes and the fractures of his own sense of discipline).

He takes a confident, radical position with regard to displaying works of art or artifacts in any collection — ethnographic but also contemporary. What counts today — much more than the content that becomes “art” only after it’s moved to the West usually because of a colonial heritage — is the impressive architecture of the museums. It’s their monumental form that identifies and signals the zeitgeist.

He provides compelling evidence of the contradictions that arise between national narratives that compete in the “temples of history” in his latest book Le musée exposé, which the author presented this weekend at a festival in Pistoia.

“The notion of ‘museum’ and ‘contemporary’ seem antithetical a priori,” he writes in the book. “The museum is a storage place, the abode asset par excellence, destined to bear witness to the art and cultures of the past. But this patrimonial impulse has grown in recent decades with the advent of what I would call ‘the storage companies.’”

And if there is no possibility to store all that is contemporary, Amselle will make it so, to render it such that the production, the program or the story is suggested in a given room. Society simply becomes a production brand of future memory.

The creation of a museum takes upon itself a risk: to be the cage, the imposition from above that circumscribes our imagination and that betrays the truth. Yet you have called the new Louvre in Abu Dhabi, which will open in the fall, a “universal” place. Can you explain how?

The Louvre Abu Dhabi has set as its aim to be “the first universal museum of the 21st century in the Arab world.” And, indeed, it is, to some extent that it encourages dialogue — in contrast to an institution like the Quai Branly — between the cultures of the world, including the West. But, as evidenced by the American-Lebanese artist Walid Raad in the cycle of works related to the project “Scratching on things I could disavow,” it cannot be recognized in full because it traps Islamic arts in a museum cage. We are facing a “heterotopia,” as Foucault would say, from which you must try to escape to acquire a clearer meaning.

Often a museum was created because of the obsession of a collector, from his compulsive desire to collect. How can the “individual dream” transport us into a larger dimension, turning into collective history?

If some museums are certainly linked to one or more characters — for example the Pigorini of Rome, himself the heir of the cabinet of curiosities of Athanasius Kircher — then we must emphasize that others — such as the Louvre, the old Musée de l’Homme, Quai Branly or even the British Museum in London — are largely the product of imperial enterprise, where a number of works today are claimed by former colonized countries looted of their assets.

Do you think, then, that the story told in a museum can only be a product of fiction, a kind of themed novel that unfolds before the eyes of the visitors?

As I try to explain in my book, the modern museum is always a work of art built by superstars, just to name a few: Ieoh Ming Pei, Jean Nouvel, Frank Gehry, Norman Foster, Tadao Ando, Zaha Hadid. The public comes to admire it regardless of its content, by what exhibits. And, like any work of art, this type of museum also presents its “proposal”: It wants to weave a story, and this story today is mainly postcolonial. All museums, in fact, not just those defined as “social,” cannot ignore what I call “the postcolonial duty,” a kind of obligation to show contemporaries addressing issues such as exploitation, racism, immigration, etc. If they are based on more classic collections, they can always aspire to their own metamorphosis through temporary exhibitions.

In recent times, there have been a proliferation of “museums of man” (Marseille, Lyon, Milan). What is your opinion?

Unfortunately I do not know about Milan, but I visited the Mucem in Marseille and the Musée des Confluences in Lyon. Both share the same hunting ground; they are partly competing entities. The Mucem, however, I found more interesting because it shows a greater commitment toward a trans-Mediterranean policy, while Lyon has a côté bric-a-brac, cabinet of curiosities, which gives me a state of discomfort.

Each museum room highlights a problem with time: Inside everything appears to be simultaneous. Doesn’t that vision create confusion?

Yes, it’s true. This desire to make everything modern, simultaneously, which infects many museums, causes a fatigue effect: the same that we are experiencing when we wander among the contemporary works of art. These exhibits have a certain appeal, are captivating, but classic places, such as the Musée d’Orsay, should focus on their specificity, in this case impressionism. I’m reminded of a review like “Masculin/Masculin, l’homme nu dans l’art de 1800 à nos jours…” It is the effect of the growing privatization of museums and their need to find donors in order to finance their own existence.

The Museum of Innocence, by the Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, in Istanbul, has no scientific criteria; he sketched a story of pure invention. It is above all a theater of our passions. How do you judge these kind of places?

I find Pamuk’s proposal interesting. And I fully agree with him when he says that museums should tell small individual stories, even if they are fictional, like his Museum of Innocence does. This would allow each museum to escape the rhetoric of large national or imperial narratives, as is the case at the Louvre or the British Museum.

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