Exodus Stations #4

The Photographic Archive
of the Quai Branly Museum
A dialogue with Christine Barthe

Marta Jecu February 2018 Quai Branly Museum

Catarina Simão and Marta Jecu: Let us start by talking about the history and the content of the photographic collection, about how you concretely worked with these images, and about how they are stored and organised? What is the history of the Quai Branly photographic archives passing through various French institutions?

Christine Barthe: Before working at the Musée du Quai Branly, from its foundation in 2006, I worked at Musée de L’Homme from 1992, and participated in the transfer of the photographic collections from one museum to the other. The phototheque of the Musée de L’Homme had an important collection of photographs especially rich in the early years of photography from 1840 to 1870, inherited from the National Museum for Natural History. The phototheque created and preserved the system for organising the material from the opening of the museum in 1937-1938, and continued to accumulate (without materials) using the same principles in a more or less organised way. This phototheque was in fact a commercial agency (in existence since 1938) – a place where one could consult and order reproductions of photographs. In 1992, there were some projects initiated by the Ministry of Culture to finance the restoration of these images, as the Musée de L’Homme was part of the Ministry of National Education. The historic collection of images was indeed very important (with more than 600 000 photographs), but the conditions for conservation and security were catastrophic and we invested our work mainly in these conservation and security emergencies over a period of several years.

The phototheque was representative of the research of the 1930s: the wood drawers with stored images were organized geographically – by continent, by country, and then by ethnographic themes: countries, maps, landscapes, clothes, social life. The information was meant to be easily accessible, standardised and rationally organised for the purposes of the commercial agency, but in addition there were also stocks of images which did not fit into any category, placed on staircases and in wardrobes. We had prints of the 19th and 20th century, but also photos of drawings, which revealed a very clear vision of how to produce and to reproduce an image of “folks without history” – according to their geographic location, but without their history. The collection, as it was still organized in the 1990s, was a result of the role photography played in the development of the discipline of anthropology, since photography’s invention in 1840.

Since the invention of photography, the politics of France has been to make it available for public use, contrary to England for example. In 1939, France publicly organised a media and political event, in which it declared that the French state offered its photography to the entire world, even though the first inventors of photography were not only French, but concomitantly photography was invented in other countries too. The fact that France appropriated photography as a political process of diffusing photography into the world had immediate consequences: the first photographers who left Europe to explore distant cultures were departing very often from France. This phenomenon explains the fact that photography gained a new accessibility, which reflects itself in the uses given to photography at the Musée de l’Homme, and then launched its absorption into different sectors of activity – maybe faster than in other countries.

The Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro (which was founded in the Trocadéro palace of the 1878 universal exhibition and which functioned between 1882-1936), received the ethnographic collections hosted previously by the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle. Starting in 1841 the French state ordered, produced and required images for anthropological projects – which led to the fact that photography accumulated very early and very quickly in the museums. The period 1840-1870 was a big time for photographic activity. The directors of the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro were also directors of the anthropology laboratory at the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle. In 1928 the third director, Paul Rivet, combined the two positions and created a new museum: Musée de l’Homme, which was open from 1929-1938.1 This new museum brought together the photographic collections of the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle and the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro. The new photographic techniques using film in the 1930s generated a new expansion of photography, which nevertheless decreased in the 1950s-1960s after the War.

C.S., M.J.: What is the typology of the images in this collection?

C. B.: There is an amazing variety of images. The first images from the 19th century are images of people and objects, while the objects in the 19th century are skeletons and skulls. There is an amazing fund of daguerreotypes of skeletons. At this early point there are not yet any travel images and the images are taken of people who were brought to France. The unifying point of these early and very different images is the fact that they were turning to look towards foreign lands.

C.S., M.J.: Are the images not connected to the exploration missions initiated by the Museum?

C. B.: It is much more than that! The anthropologists used and recycled photographs from everywhere, for example even from images from the Citroen Mission, which were actually meant to show that the Citroen cars can travel anywhere in the world. Today the museum continues to acquire images.

C.S., M.J.: What is your role in this process?

C. B.: The museum initially had a geographic interest which often eclipsed all the other criteria. The images were organised so that they were rapidly accessible and best served the function of a catalogue of images for a commercial agency, therefore the dates and the author were rarely marked down. My work involved changing the logic. Due to conservation problems we could not mix all the photographic techniques and maintain the geographical criteria. We initiated a logic which aimed to trace the history of these objects: the history of the photographer or the donor, the provenance or the production.

C.S., M.J.: How did you manage to add the criteria of historic classification?

C. B.: Mainly according to the photographic techniques of the 19th or 20th century. It is very interesting to see how a system of producing scientific images needed to neutralise the image, to erase the information about its author. What we do now to find this information again is to go from the most general to the most specific. Regarding the 5000 images of the Dakar Djibouti Mission we differentiated the temporal phases of the travel by taking into consideration, for example, information from the journal of Michel Leiris and could therefore identify scenes of certain ceremonies at particular times. The first digitalised inventory of the Musée de l’Homme (1995-6) was of the photographic collection (for 100.000 items). We replaced the index cards in the wood drawers with digitalised indexes, which were transferred in 2004 to the future Quai Branly with a total number of 600 000 images. In contrast to this, we kept the inventory of the objects in the Musée de l’Homme in paper indexes. We kept the trace of this ancient system of classification as it was interesting from a historical point of view – even the images from the 1960s were in the same order as in the Musée de l’Homme. At this moment, regarding the physical classification, a large part of the collection is classified in the historical logic (author, donor) and another part remains in the old geographical order, waiting to be reclassified. The reclassification is a question of time and schedule. As I already said, the digital inventory keeps the history of classifications.

C.S., M.J.: How did the images indexed with round stickers work? What is the meaning of these colourful stickers?

C. B.: The corner sticker has a geographical significance and the left sticker has a thematic significance – physical anthropologiy, ethnology, prehistory – the three big laboratories of the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle. In the case of the thematic stickers the orange colour signifies ethnology, light blue signifies prehistory and brown means physical anthropology. The geographical stickers demonstrate a mnemonic and clearly racial colour system: black is for Africa, yellow for Asia, red for the Americas, blue for Oceania and green for Europe (although images from Europe were not their main interest). There are also double stickers: red and black for the Caribbean and red and white for North-America.

There is a third category of stickers in the right corner, which is important for the commercial function of the phototheque, which refers the usage and rights of the images (dark blue, red and white stickers showing if the reproduction of the images is allowed and if the payment for image reproduction goes back to the museum entirely or is shared with the donor or the photographer). These three sticker categories corresponded to the classification criteria of the images in the 1930s.

C.S., M.J.: What areas of work are you involved in with the photographic collection today?

C. B.: This collection is in constant movement and I am completing or reinforcing specific interests of the overall collection with new acquisitions, both with 19th century and contemporary creations. The question of how we talk about the contemporary world in terms of photographic collection was essential when the Museum Quai Branly opened in 2006.

The essential feature of 19th and 20th century photography is the view of European photographers upon the foreign world. In consequence, we reversed the perspective for the contemporary world. As photography is a medium that is now widely accessible for everyone all over the world, it is important to follow what is being produced in this moment elsewhere. It is astonishing how little the French audience knows about foreign photography.

C.S., M.J.: What was your policy of acquisition in this sense?

C. B.: When we build a public collection, it needs to be defined mainly in relation to other French public collections. In this sense it became obvious that artists who work outside of Europe or the United States are under-represented in French collections, so there is a potentially enormous piece of work to be done, to know more and to acquire more images, both from the 19th and 20th century.

C.S., M.J.: When you described your work in the Quai Branly Museum you talked about a ‘photography catalogue’ and now we talk rather about a ‘collection of photographic objects’. I know that for you the distinction between photography and the ‘photographic object’ as related to a use and a new perception is very important. Could you please explain it further?

C. B.: Objects and photographic objects don’t have a fixed identity: the photos that have been identified at the Musée de l’Homme as images to be reproduced in the framework of a commercial agency, are images that had a different life before. In the 1990s, when I started to work with these images, there was a global movement to reconsider photography which made it imperative to treat photographs, for example technical or medical photography, as collection items, as historic objects. My work inscribes itself in this vision. With the new Quai Branly Museum, a new structure of museological departments was created in which the photographs entered the museum as object-collections. In this process a 19th century print, for example, stops being understood as a utilitarian object and is regarded as a unique object. The new museum was structured in ‘heritage units’, with a digital inventory using museum software: there were geographical units, along with transversal units concerning textiles, musical instruments, a department for globalization and the department of photography. These changes were the consequence either of institutional decisions or functional changes that were introduced progressively. Despite the fact that common sense does not associate photography with objects, since they are easily handled by anyone, in a museum it is necessary to reinforce at which point photography is identified as an object, as an image, as representation or as iconography.

C.S., M.J.: What about the distinction between the idea of ‘archive’ in relation to the concept of ‘collection’?

C. B.: For me the notion of archive comes from paper, masses of paper and the logic of structuring is to organise this big body of material into smaller categories, from the general to the particular. On the contrary, the museum object is made to be treated as unique, unit by unit. That is why the notion of archive seems less suitable to identify and treat objects in their particularity, even if it is a very efficient way to deal with masses of items.

The interview between Christine Barthe, Catarina Simão and Marta Jecu was held the 8th February 2018 at the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris

1The Palais de Chaillot, a new building still in existence today, replaced the ancient Palace of Trocadero on the same site.