Photographers in the Museum: French Anthropology and the Aesthetics of Images (1930–1950)
The revival of French anthropology during the interwar period came with an increased interest in visual sources and in the aesthetic potential of photography. While visual practices were widely adopted by ethnographers in the field, museums of the discipline, the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro (1928–1935) and then the Musée de l’Homme which substituted the first one from 1938, gave an important place to photographs: as documents to be accumulated in a new photo library, spread through scholarly anthropology networks, and, also, displayed to the general public. They also developed an aesthetic appreciation of photographs, coinciding with the rise of photojournalism, and gave then an unprecedented space for pictures in public rooms and exhibitions. The article aims to demonstrate this trend in the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro and illustrate how it was reconfigured during the 1930s and the 1940s in the Musée de l’Homme. Images of aesthetic quality taken by photographers and travellers were first exhibited in several small ‘photographic exhibitions’ during the 1930s. Each event was dedicated to the work of one author, whose name was often mentioned in the title, which conveyed the value attributed to photographs at the museum. Then, some years after, through collaboration with an important French photographic agency – Alliance Photo – some images taken by professional photographers were directly displayed in the museum’s permanent spaces (1938). This very attention drawn to photographs led several ethnographers close to the museum, as Jean-Paul Lebeuf, Thérèse Rivière and Jacques Faublée, to show their own photographs, in large format, in exhibitions dedicated to their fieldwork research (1943-1946). This first appearance of large format photographs in the museum continued years later. At the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro and then the Musée de l’Homme, exhibited photographs had clearly the role to extend the public of anthropology, as together scientific, media and aesthetic tools.
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