John Howard didn’t make it to Paris for the official opening of the MusÃ©e de Quai Branly (MQB), nor for the following morning’s traditional Aboriginal ceremony that symbolically handed over eight specially commissioned Indigenous Australian artworks to France. And this despite the federal government matching the generous financial contribution of the Harold Mitchell Foundation “ half-a-million bucks “ for the costs involved in producing the pieces. There were rumours at the Australian embassy in Paris that Howard might drop by a few days later, on his way to a ceremony to mark the ninetieth anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, but apparently events in East Timor kept him at home. So we can only guess how the prime minister might have responded to French president Jacques Chirac’s monument to civilisations too long ignored or misunderstood, to his apology for a long history of disregard, to this official attempt at returning dignity to peoples too often dismissed, looked down upon, sometimes even annihilated by arrogance, ignorance, stupidity and blindness.
Chirac, like Howard, is at least consistent. He set plans in motion for the 232-million-Euro museum almost immediately following his election as president in 1995, just after creating the arts premiers (first arts) department in the Louvre. A passionate undertaking for Chirac, it is his only grand projet: he does not share FranÃ§ois Mitterand’s architectural mania. And the philosophy of the MQB is entirely consistent with the concern for non-Western civilisations that Chirac has demonstrated throughout his political career. Whether refusing, in 1992, as mayor of Paris, to join in anniversary celebrations of the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus “ he compared the discovery to genocide “ or recently creating an unpopular tax on aeroplane tickets to assist Third World development, he has continually rejected an ethnocentric response to political events. He’s known for detesting Christian arrogance.