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New Paris Museum Highlights Cultures Outside Europe

Lisa Bryant

A major new museum in Paris dedicated to art from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas opened its doors to the public Friday. The Musée du Quai Branly aims to give art from these regions the same respect as art from the West. The museum also raises fresh debate about France's colonial legacy.

The $330 million Branly museum is a key achievement for French President Jacques Chirac, who first promoted the project when he took power more than 10 years ago. During the inauguration ceremony earlier this week, the French president described the museum as a rejection of colonial assumptions of Western superiority.

Hierarchy in art, culture and people no longer exists, Chirac said at the event, attended by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and other visiting dignitaries. Rather, he said, the Branly museum will celebrate equality among the world's different cultures.

French and tourists packed the new museum on its opening day Friday. Many waited hours in line to get in. The museum is open free of charge for the first three days.

Overlooking the Seine River, the new museum was designed by French architect Jean Nouvel. Its treasure trove of art includes masks and spears from Papua New Guinea, costumes from Vietnam and sculptures from Mali. But museum head Stephane Martin says the museum doesn't seek to represent the worlds entire artistic heritage.

In remarks broadcast on Radio France International, Martin said the Branly museum is simply a look at the world by scientists. It represents a French collection of non-European art. It says things about the men and women who produced this art - but also about the French and Europeans who acquired this art as scientists and colonizers.

France's colonial legacy remains a matter of debate in France. A law last year to teach the positive aspects of French colonialism in schools - alongside the negative ones - stirred uproar here. And last year's riots by mostly ethnic African youths fed the debate.

The Branly museum has also attracted controversy. Some critics believe the museum should have put more emphasis on explaining the negative aspects of French colonialism. Others argue that by showcasing only indigenous art, the museum risks reinforcing stereotypes of Western versus other civilizations.

Even naming the museum proved controversial. Organizers first considered names like the primitive arts museum. They finally opted for the more neutral Branly - the name of the street the museum was built on.

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