French support cultural diversity with $3 million going to new Hanoi museum

President of France inaugurates huge new ethnological museum

A new Museum of Ethnology was opened in Hanoi on 12 November. Timed to coincide with the Seventh Francophone Summit, held 14-16 November, the opening ceremony was conducted by French President Jacques Chirac.

The museum, a bold, modern, circular white building, reminiscent of New York’s Guggenheim Museum, was designed by Vietnamese architect Ha Duc Linh, and cost around $3 million. Occupying three hectares of land in Hanoi’s rapidly developing Ba Dinh district, west of the city centre, it houses 25,000 ancient and contemporary artefacts relating to the fifty-four ethnic minority groups living in Vietnam. Exhibits range from animistic wooden sculptures for funeral ceremonies to musical instruments, marionettes and, finest of all, hand-woven costumes and headdresses embellished with embroidered silk patterns in vibrant colours which vary from village to village. With photographs, music and written explanations in French, English and Vietnamese, they illustrate the history, religion and customs of the minorities.

Museum director Professor Nguyen Van Huy said that about a third of the funding for the museum had come from France, from the Agence de la Francophonie, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of National Education, Région Ile de France, Fondation de France and AXA-UAP. The contribution illustrates the French government’s intention, expressed at the summit—the first held in Southeast Asia since meetings began in 1986—of strengthening solidarity and co-operation with forty-nine French-speaking countries of the world, especially at a cultural level. French partnership with Vietnam will open the door to the rest of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Wars notwithstanding, Vietnam was profoundly influenced by French civilisation during the French protectorate (1885-1954). For example, Hanoi’s French architectural heritage is the richest in the region. A long thin country stretching 2000 miles, Vietnam was originally three distinct regions, Tonkin, Annam and Cochin-China, which were incorporated into French Indochina, with Laos and Cambodia, in 1893. During this period the Ecole Française d’Extrème Orient was formed to work in the field of Asian studies, introducing academic disciplines such as ethnology, archaeology, and the study of ancient texts. However, only around 70,000 of Vietnam’s seventy-six million population speak French, as English is the official language of ASEAN.

Philippe Delalonde, head of Hanoi’s Agence de la Francophonie, declared that the organisation’s basic political principles were “to defend the cultural and linguistic individuality of each country of the world.” The museum was an ideal starting point, an “excellent window on Franco-Vietnamese cultural co-operation”, which would promote the rich diversity of Vietnam’s multicultural society and play an educational role, training Vietnamese conservationists and researchers in ethnography, ethnomusicology and restoration, and help visitors, national and foreign, to understand the country.

Professor Van Huy said that the original concept for the museum was proposed in 1971 by a French professor, Georges Condominas, in conjunction with the Musée de l’Homme. They approached the Vietnamese National Centre for Social Sciences and in 1992 a joint venture was created with France’s Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique, aided by Christine Hemmet, from the Musée de l’Homme’s Asia Department, and museum architect Veronique Dollfus.

The light-filled, spacious interior is divided into ten exhibition halls, for permanent and temporary exhibitions, with a lecture theatre and conference centre, equipped with video and sound systems. It is a contrast to the former home of the exhibitions. The Museum of Fine Arts, an elegant French colonial building, where they were crowded into the upper floor. The displays are divided ethnolinguistically into Hmong, Yao, Viet, Mon-Khmer, Cham, Thai-Kadai and Sino-Tibetan. Artefacts from neighbouring Cambodia, Laos and southern China are included.

Professor Van Huy, who is also General Secretary of the Vietnamese Association for Ethnology, said he has been collecting artefacts since 1983. “I and other fellow ethnologists involved in field work travelled into remote areas, studying the way of life of the ethnic minorities, talking to the people, and buying objects which are displayed here.”

There is a shop run by a non-government organisation, Craftlink, selling ethnic crafts. French-speaking students act as guides, and the entrance fee is a modest 2000 dong (ten cents), making it accessible to all—especially schoolchildren—in a country which, although still poor, has reversed it fortunes since the war. “This museum is for everybody”, concluded Professor Van Huy, “so that everyone will be aware of the different ethnic groups in our country.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'French support cultural diversity with $3 million'