Call the Museum of African and Oceanic Art in eastern Paris, and you'll find a scratchy recording with a distant-sounding voice at the other end of the line - a fair representation of the neglect this museum suffers from.
Dusty galleries and out-of-date displays have been tolerated there for years. But if a plan President Jacques Chirac announced earlier this month comes to fruition, African, Oceanic, Amerindian, and Arctic art (dubbed "First Arts") will at last have a major, state-of-the-art museum in Paris.
"Every French president has to have his great cultural undertaking," says world-renowned African art collector Henri Goldet. "And this is Chirac's." Museum directors, who sometimes have had to act under direct orders from the president, agree that culture, like foreign policy, is the personal appanage of the chief of state. "It's a bit like the ancien rgime," says one, "but it's one way of getting things done."
Under Mr. Chirac's plan, the current Muse de l'Homme, located on a breathtaking site opposite the Eiffel Tower, will be expanded to almost double its size, at the expense of the current Navy museum. The new "Museum of Civilizations and First Arts" will house some pieces from the Muse de l'Homme, the African and Oceanic Art Museum's collections, plus $20 million worth of new acquisitions. A selection of the finest objects will be placed in the Louvre to serve as cultural ambassadors.
But the project, which emerged after a heated debate in back halls of the Paris art world, has left many disputes smoldering.
No room at the Louvre
The Louvre, for example. Arguing that "the Louvre cannot ignore 70 percent of humanity," Chirac had originally wanted all new primitive galleries to be located in the former royal castle. The president, however, encountered the strong opposition of museum director Pierre Rosenberg. "The Louvre is a big museum - too big, in a certain way," Mr. Rosenberg says. "We believe that Paris should be a universal city, of course. But the Louvre doesn't have to be a universal museum."
Citing space restrictions and a collegial concern that the new museum not be stripped of its masterpieces, Rosenberg makes it clear he will fight against any permanent place for primitive art in the Louvre. This attitude, which may simply be part of a good-faith effort to rationalize the sprawling museum, is criticized by detractors as the old-school traditionalism of a clique of art snobs who still cannot accept "tribal objects" as true art.
A second dispute has to do with how the objects will be displayed.
"This is the eternal war between the university people and the aestheticians," says collector Goldet. At the Muse de l'Homme, which has not enjoyed the prestige - or the funding - of other Paris museums, African art is sandwiched between "Prehistoric Man" and "The Turkish House." Director Henry de Lumley insists that to strip primitive objects of their cultural context and display them purely as art denatures them.
"Go to the Dapper," he says, referring to a small private museum that mounts one or two prized African exhibits a year. "You'll find beautiful pieces, magnificently presented, with good lighting. I can show you the same objects in our cupboards here. They're lined up on shelves, just as they were found by explorers and archaeologists. And you'll see that same mask, for example, covered with cloth, or bits of string. It was painted, there are nails in the wood. All that has a meaning. But an art lover will take the nails out, tear off the scraps of cloth, fill in the holes, and wax the wood to make it glow. And the object will have lost much of its meaning."
Mr. Lumley imagines a gallery where such a mask is shown in its most pristine form next to a similar one with the "gris-gris" left on. Then they could go to a hologram room next door, where three-dimensional images of African dancers would fill the air, wearing the same masks, and moving to the sound of drums and lutes.
Most specialists, however, see the polarity of this debate as a sign of the lingering discomfort primitive arts inspire here.
"If you compare what we have in Paris with the National Museum in Washington or the African department at the Met," says Laure Mayer, author of several books on African art, "there's just no comparison.
"People in the past who went to Africa could see the bad sides of African life," she explains. "They could see the poverty, the lack of cleanliness, the bloody sacrifices of domestic animals, and they reduced the African mind to that."
Role of politics
Few of those concerned by the new museum ignore the politics behind President Chirac's plan - Africa being a linchpin of his foreign policy, and African protesters now making headlines with a bitter fight against French immigration policies. Some call Chirac's project sheer demagoguery: a wink in the direction of certain sub-Saharan dictators he counts among friends. Others insist that such a museum would contribute to the understanding of non-Western peoples by the increasingly inward-looking French.
"The more I study African art," says Ms. Mayer, "the more I feel friendly toward African people I meet in the street or sit next to in the subway. I don't hesitate to talk to them. And that's not the case for many people in France."
Whatever the motivation behind the project, specialists express hope that it be done "right." It's high time, they say, that Paris - which claims to have discovered primitive art - honor it with a museum worthy of the name.