Cartes postales du bagne

site visit #14. musée de Nouvelle Calédonie

Musée de Nouvelle Calédonie, Nouméa
19 July 2018

There are a number of museums located in Nouméa which provide a wider history of the territory. We decided to start with the Musée de Nouvelle Calédonie as it provides a wider perspective on the history and geography of the territory as well as the surrounding Pacific regions. The ground floor is dedicated to Kanak objects and their more recent representation by local artists. These representations are defined in terms of a ‘parcours iconographique’ or ‘picture path’.

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The museum claims to have the second largest collection of Kanak objects after the Musée Quai Branly in Paris. This seems at once wrong but also perhaps inevitable. It also raises the question of who and what a museum is for and what different groups of visitors can learn and appreciate from seeing objects in glass cases. One of the main criticisms toward the Musée Quai Branly is its often apparently thoughtless juxtaposition of objects from different periods and regions with different uses or symbolism based on the similarity of their shapes or aesthetic. (See, for example, Edward Rothstein’s critique in The New York Times)

The space in the Musée de Nouvelle Calédonie avoids this perhaps carnivalesque approach and time is taken to carefully explain different objects and their function. Upstairs the space is given over to objects from nearby regions including Australia, Melanesia, Polynesia, Micronesia, allowing for some comparison but without reducing this to cacophony.

There are a few references to the bagne made in the museum and these within the context of a small corner displaying interactions of the Kanak population with the colonial administration including most notably the Kanak revolt of 1878. A commemorative cane which was given to Edmond Hayes, Director of the Pénitencier Agricole.

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Perhaps the most important item related to the bagne is a statue of a Kanak man carved by a bagnard on Île des Pins. The label reads:

‘La sculpture dite «en mie de pain » présentée ici comporte l’inscription «fait au pénitencier de l’Ile des Pins en 1898».
Le nom de l’homme qui l’a créée, en 1898, reste inconnu mais l’on sait qu’il avait fabriqué deux figures similaires, l’une d’un homme, l’autre d’une femme. Leur propriétaire, un surveillant militaire de l’administration pénitencière à qui ces statuettes ont été données, a tenu à les transmettre à chacune de ses deux filles. Cette statuette a été achetée en 2008 à l’un des arrières petit fils de cet homme.’

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Another item I came across was a painting of a bagnard signed J. Peres. The signage laments that the artwork which was donated sometime in the 1970s or 1980s was not adequately catalogued. It also suggests the bagnard is a forçat rather than a political deportee because he is clean shaven. SF

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