Honest Review: The Olmecs at the Musée du Quai Branly

The Olmecs - Musée du Quai Branly
The Olmecs, exhibition, Musée du Quai Branly, 2021

Planned for 2020 and victim of successive lockdowns in Paris, the exhibition The Olmecs and the civilizations of the gulf of Mexico reopens at the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris until October 2021. The museum has always been the object of sharp criticism since its opening in 2006: the museology, the mediation, entirely based on ethnographic backgrounds are still too anchored in colonial roots. It’s fifteen years later. What’s going on now? The collections have not been reorganized, and the exhibitions follow one another. Let The Olmecs be our case study. An honest and uncompromising review.


“A museum is a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment.“

Definition of the Museum, ICOM.

Let’s face it, this review is not going to be gentle. In my opinion, there is no such thing as a complacent look in criticism, as long as it remains what it is: the opinion of one person. Here is my postulate: if my look is acerbic, it is because I esteem museums highly. Guardians of memory, tools of transmission, temples of knowledge… Museums, in my eyes, should be examples of places of information, accurate, and avant-garde observers of the fundamental problems of a given time and of societal changes. Museums should be institutions that would never get tired of being in constant questioning. One should not go to museums to satisfy one’s desires, and museums should not have to appeal to the “general public,” a concept that justifies all shortcuts by assuming that people are stupid and by belittling all scientific discourse – it is called “popularization,” a synonym of “simplifying the content”.

When I go to a museum, I hope to come out more informed, to have sharpened my knowledge on a theme, to have questioned what I know, and to have enriched my critical eye. I expect of an exhibition or a visit to be turned upside down, to question what I thought I always knew, what I took for granted, to be overwhelmed by information, by beauty, modernity, aesthetics…, or, at least, one of these things. I think museums deserve to exist and be carriers of world change, not to crash into the slimy morass of complacency. My expectations are high.

View from the exhibition The Olmecs, Musée du Quai Branly, 2021

Many museums today have unfortunately lost this purpose, this avant-garde requirement. Some of them are phenomenally behind in the exhibition of their collections, in the scientific updating, and in the accessibility of information. Strangled by diplomatic and political pressures, by budgetary issues -money money money- museums bend under the yoke of profitability, of popularity, a real Tantalus’ torture.

Perhaps I am too demanding. Perhaps one could go to a show simply to enjoy it. This hypothesis is quite valid. However, in my everyday life, I find it more interesting and stimulating to position myself as constantly questioning everything I see, believe, and think I know. I try to always ask myself “why?” “how? “who?”, “is this normal?” This is my own opinion. But I believe that these last decades have shown us the strength of a new generation that wants this questioning, this change of paradigm, that calls for it loudly.

View from the exhibition The Olmecs, Musée du Quai Branly, 2021

The exhibition

The exhibition simply titled “The Olmecs,” currently on display at the Quai Branly Museum, actually showcases multiple Mesoamerican cultures starting in the first millennia before the Common Era. That is to say, nearly three millennia of history, all classified more or less by themes. The program is ambitious, and already it irritates me that to secure its success based on popular imagination, the curators named “The Olmecs” an exhibition that in reality presents less Olmec works than non-Olmec ones, continuing to put everything in the same basket under the pretext of creating a selling title. I feel like I’m going to see a bad peplum movie with a teaser poster. It seems to me that it would never occur to anyone to call an exhibition “The Romans” and to talk so much about Celtic art. Are these shortcuts really relevant? Isn’t there enough to say about one or the other? Allow me to doubt it. Let’s be demanding; let’s ask ourselves why.

When I visit an exhibition in order to judge it, I would like to take a survey at the end and ask the visitors: what did you actually learn?

Entering the exhibition, the first caption we read mentions the conquistador Cortes. Again, I know I’m annoying, but is this really necessary? Do we have to address colonization and the apparently indestructible figure of Cortes every time we talk about the American continent in Europe? Of course, whether we like it or not, colonization is part of the continent’s history, and we should not pretend that it did not exist. But in a scientific exhibition on the art of a people who, by the way, has no historical connection whatsoever with the said gentleman, is it necessary? The effort to get out of the eye of the conquistador should have been made decades ago.

Monument 1, 1200-1900 BC, Cruz del Milagro, Veracruz, Mexico. Museo de Antropología de Xalapa, Universidad Veracruzana. 49 P.J. 4023

Among the things I missed in this exhibition, one can mention the formal characteristics of the works on display, the history of art, strictly speaking. Wall texts remain for the most part very basic, explaining under how many layers of dust an object was found. But not how, for example, two statues exhibited side by side can differ from an almost geometric stylization to a delicacy of forms and engravings. The representation of the ancient civilizations of the American continent remains stuck in archaeology. Certainly, it is a fundamental cornerstone of the history of an object and its context, but this tendency continues to position these works as somehow beside art history properly -whereas one can write a foot-long essay on the butt cheeks of a Rubens’ figure, or the toes of a Caravaggio’s saint.

I am disturbed by the fact that one feels constantly obligated to put archival photos of excavations to illustrate the art of the ancient Americas. As if it was necessary to celebrate the work of archaeologists of the last century, most of whom held racist, supremacist, and Eurocentric views. I am convinced that referencing the works of today’s scholars would be much more innovative. There is “history” in “art history”, yes. But do we highlight archaeologists as much when addressing Neanderthal flints? I am disturbed that not one descendant culture or contemporary indigenous community is mentioned.

I am frustrated that many labels still mention the “mystery” of the civilizations, the “unknown” motifs. I am sorry that the exhibitions continue to deal with huge periods of time and nearly five different civilizations in some 100 square meters, which inevitably leads to a conflating mix and a rushed overview of each theme.

El Adolescente del Tamuin, Huaxtec, 900-1521, Mexico. Museo Nacional de Antropología de Mexico.

Checking facts

This vitriolic criticism does not mean, of course, that the whole exhibition should be thrown out of the window. The works, for the most part, are exceptionally striking and well presented; some of the loans having never been exhibited in France. Some of the object labels, especially the longer ones, are well done and informative, and there are some notable museographic efforts, such as for Tamtoc’s Mujer Escarificada, a true masterpiece. The same goes for the explanatory videos that punctuate the exhibition, which are well constructed.

Moreover, my criticism is made in full knowledge of the problems that museum curators face today in the making of an exhibition. One should not ignore that the result of an exhibition is far from the reality of the initial conception of the person who thought it. Politics, budget, mediation, spaces, a whole bunch of insurmountable limits hinder curatorial work and weigh heavily in the decision-making process. In addition, factors of accessibility of information and word limits come into play. So many choices that are political choices, but not easy ones.

Mujer Escarificada, Tamtoc, 220 AD, Museo Nacional de Antropología de Mexico.

What do we want?

In our current society, which advances at the speed we know, we get the feeling that museums are bogged down in practices established hundreds of years ago, and have frozen in time. Since the pandemic, some institutions have suffered nearly a year’s closure in total. I would have liked to see an innovative, revolutionary reopening, a new POV, we would have dreamed that this forced pause would give way to a new paradigm placing the cursor far from the old anchored reflexes of colonialism, museography, mediation, that the museums would join the demands of the people for a radical change, an entry into the 21st century.  What is the role, the position of the museum today, in action and not in the written definition of the ICOM. I believe that it is time to witness radical changes in our societies and in the institutions that are their guardian temples.

I am hard on the Quai Branly. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t go there. But for a museum of such magnitude and fame, I push myself to be accordingly demanding. With great power comes great responsibility. I would like the institution to be honored by a modern, innovative vision, a force of proposal.

For the rest, I invite you to go to see the exhibition with your own eyes.

More information

The Olmecs and the civilizations of the gulf of Mexico
Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, Paris
From October 9, 2020 to October 3, 2021Cora Falero Ruiz (Scientific Advisor, Museo Nacional de Antropología, México, United Mexican States) and Steve Bourget (Archaeologist and curator at the Americas Department, musée du quai Branly- Jacques Chirac).
The exhibition is organized in collaboration with the Secretaría de Cultura, México and the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH).
Official website

Photo credit : © Agathe Torres

2 thoughts on “Honest Review: The Olmecs at the Musée du Quai Branly

  1. Thank you Agathe, great review which makes me want to visit even more than before, with a critical view and an open eyes to all this beauty!

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