A foundation against oblivion

Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller. Photo Luis Lourenço.

« In Africa, when an old man dies, it’s a library burning… »
Amadou Hampaté Bâ

This verity should haunt us all. How can we as men and women with a tradition of written literature, equipped to preserve the heritage of humanity, how can we look on impassively as myths as rich as those of Ancient Greece die out and vanish?

We have to admit that the vast wave of ethnological research that swept through the twentieth century focused mainly on the most ‘visible’ peoples, those overflowing with cultural wealth: masks, sculptures, initiatory societies, myths of various origins, etc. And yet, tiny groups with strong individual identity have been discovered sometimes living very close to the towns so frequently visited by anthropologists but unbeknown to them.

In the course of its thirty-three years of existence, the Barbier-Mueller Museum has found the time and qualified scientists to carry out research among some of these forgotten peoples. However, we soon realized that this subsidiary activity could not, and should not be carried out on a larger scale by an institution whose main aim is to highlight the plastic qualities of works created by ‘preliterate’ societies in their magic-religious context. In fact, many of these small, isolated groups produce no cult objects, masks or ‘fetishes’. All they have is a surprising socio-political structure, complex forms of worship staged around perishable, unfired clay statues, aniconic religious preoccupations – in short, nothing that can be displayed in a museum, or very little.

I hope that no human being, religion or culture, however small, will ever disappear without leaving a clear trace.

Geneva, April 10, 2010

Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller, passed away on December 22, 2016