Displaying the diversity of Vietnam’s cultures

Recently, objects collected by ethnologist Georges Condominas from ethnic minority people in the Central Highlands have been exhibited in one of the most prestigious museums in the world, the Quai Branly in France.

Working for the museum, Christine Hemmet has done an excellent job in introducing objects o­n Vietnam’s ethnic minority culture to audiences. During her trip to Vietnam, Christine talked to the press.

Welcome to Hanoi. Could you please tell us about the atmosphere at the Quai Branly Museum after it opened?

Quai Branly was built in a modern style of architecture. At the museum we exhibit objects collected from Europe, Asia, Africa and America. Since it was opened, the museum has received a large number of visitors both Parisian as well as tourists. 

Some of them are interested in looking at the museum’s architecture, some are interested in admiring what is presented inside the museum.

Many newspapers in France, America, and other countries in Europe have published articles o­n the museum.

Obviously the Asia exhibition is an important part. Organisers hope to introduce the art, the intelligence and the general ethnology of Asia to audiences from a new angle. With what is presented at Quai Branly, visitors are provided with fundamental information about the Asian mind in ancient times. Objects are also categorised into sub-subjects such as, Water rice, Tree plantation, Buddhism in villages, Cultures in countryside.

9,400 objects collected from Vietnam are being exhibited at the museum. Of those, 184 are permanently o­n display.

Why was the first exhibition of the museum named after the book “We have eaten the forest” by George Condominas?

In France, George Condominas is a famous ethnologist. He is known for a lot of his research o­n Asia, especially o­n the Central Highlands in Vietnam.

In 1957, his book, “We have eaten the forest”, was first introduced in Paris. Immediately it was applauded by many researchers. Before that, when writing research, ethnologists preferred to use the third person, like “they”, “them” and “their” for the ethnic minority the research was being conducted o­n. 

George’s book, which was written after the two years (1948-1950)  he lived with Mnong Gar people at Sar Luk in the Central Highlands impressed people by many new things and how profound it is.

A lot of compliments were written to praise George. Journalists and researchers said his book was the combined work of a writer with excellent writing skills and a great view of a researcher. It described the life of the ethnic minority people in such a natural way. 

I think the book was inspired primarily by the rich culture and language of Sar Luck villagers. George Condominas opened a new research methodology that today researchers are still applying.

Do you think that the 500 objects George Condominas collected during the time he was in the Central Highlands play an important role in attracting people to the museum?

There are many reasons. The exhibition provided great knowledge to visitors and it was the result of excellent research.

Each object has its own story which was noted down carefully by George Condominas. He wrote the objects’ stories sometimes by words, sometimes by drawings or photos.

It has been 60 years now, but what he collected does not o­nly have ethnological value but also historical value.

As his student, what was his advice for you about studying Vietnam?

After graduating from Sorbonne University in 1970, I went o­n to a master’s course at the Paris Social Sciences Institute where Prof. George Condominas was the director.

The first thing he taught was that we should always start by studying the language of the ethnic minority that we want to research. o­nly through that could we better understand their thinking, their culture as well as their customs.

The first time I came to Vietnam was in January 1991. At that time I was working for Musee de l’Home in Paris. I came here together with other French experts to help build up the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi

While preparing for the exhibition part of the museum I went to all provinces in Vietnam, and spent most of my time in the northern mountainous area.

I stayed in villages of H’mong, Thai, Dzao, talked to them and saw what they did in their daily life. We collected a large number of objects for the museum.

What I have always done is more focus o­n the exhibitions at the museum than o­n writing or doing research like what my professor did. However, his experience is extremely helpful for us to exhibit objects in museums in the most scientific and lively way.

Source: HNM