From racial difference to cultural diversity
The MET’s foundation was closely associated to two related events: the Muséum ethnographique des missions scientifiques (1877), which displayed collections brought mainly from Mexico and Peru within the framework of archaeological and ethnographic missions funded by the Ministry of Public Instruction - and the 1878 Exposition Universelle, which took place at the Trocadéro Palace. The specificity of this museum, opened in 1882, resided in bringing together – at a single location and within the same conceptual framework – non-European objects and objects from traditional European societies, including the French society. According to Ernest-Théodore Hamy, the museum’s first director, ethnography encompassed “the study of all the material manifestations of human activity.” The notion of race (conceived as a set of permanent physical characteristics – including anatomical features – and intellectual abilities embodied in culture) was deployed to explain both cultural differences between peoples and within humanity itself. The display of ethnic types and material objects visually demonstrated the intermingling of race and culture. Thanks to the double classificatory system by geographical origin and by functional order, the arrangement of the collections in sequential order allowing the establishment of series and the museography (show cases, panoplies and mannequins), the MET made visible the progress of humanity and the march towards Western civilization.
Opponent to racial and cultural hierarchy, Paul Rivet, director of the MET in 1928 and of the Musée de l’Homme in 1938, promoted the notion of cultural diversity with the aim of demonstrating the simultaneity of cultures rather than the succession of cultures. This shift entailed, in museological terms, replacing the universal diachronic history by a “”
The growth of the collections during the colonial period
American collections (mostly from pre-Colombian civilizations and central America) followed by European collections constituted the bulk of the MET’s collections, though the museum also displayed, in the wake of colonial expansion, artifacts from Western and Equatorial Africa as well as from Oceania. Due to
A colonial museum?
The creation of an ethnographic museum in France was supported by politicians as well as by scientists in order to catch up with the other European countries. However, the MET’s state of decay over the years due to the lack of financial support from public authorities, calls into question its actual contribution to the colonial propaganda effort. In a paper published in the Tribune des colonies et des protectorats (1898), the author lamented the way peoples from Central America and Mexico were given primacy over “the natives from our colonies” and hoped that the museum would “contribute to the colonial idea.” While the MET did not directly impact on French colonial policies, it nevertheless conveyed information regarding colonized peoples and societies to the metropolitan public as well as to the colonial agents. It also contributed to promote French metropolitan imagination about colonization thanks to its scenography offering a visual account of the political and social order inherent to colonial rule. From the 1920s onwards, the relationships between a disciplinary knowledge and the legitimization of colonial rule became more concrete, as new modes of governance were implemented in the colonies. While endowed with a critical function, ethnology was deemed to, according to Rivet, guide and foster humane colonial policies. Thus, the MET was due to become an instrument for the mise en valeur of colonial societies by fostering in colonial administration respect for cultural diversity (as demonstrated at the African and Asian departments, where objects were classified first by colonies, then by ethnic groups within each colony). The museological emphasis on cultural diversity –both regional and colonial–was in line with the project, underpinning colonial policy, of a “Greater France.” Created within a colonial context, the MET, which became the Musée de l’Homme (Museum of Mankind), survived the decolonization process and the postcolonial period. However, the Musée de l’Homme’s history is not a continuous one. On the contrary, in the 1990s, the Museum underwent a period of several transformations–if not a complete reorganization–leading to the dismantle of the institution, the reorganization of its collections and to the projects of redesigning the museums of ethnography in France with subsequent changing names. The transformations that occurred in the museum landscape since the second half of the XIXth century reflect the change in perceptions of Otherness. While the MET identified Otherness with exotic societies and popular traditions, the Musée de l’Homme equated Otherness with exotic societies and with so-called traditional European societies (excluding the French one); Otherness was associated at the Musée des Arts et Traditions populaires (Museum of Folk Art and Popular Traditions) with presumed traditional French societies, at the Musée du quai Branly with non-Western arts and civilizations and, finally, at the MUCEM with European and Mediterranean civilizations. It is worth noting that the new refurbished Musée de l’Homme, opened in 2015, kept the 1930s designation as a means of reconnecting with Paul Rivet’s intellectual legacy emphasizing the unity of humankind as well as the diversity of cultures and societies.
Regardless of the changing and varying names, the dismantling of the collections and the redesigning of the museological programs, the embeddedness of the MET’s collections in the colonial past requires an