PARIS COLLECTS – Musée du Quai Branly

Bathurst Island, Australia, Funerary Poles, 20th c. Musée du Quai Branly.
Melanesia,The preservation of enemies or ancestors skulls displayed as trophies used to be common, 19th c. Musée du Quai Branly.
New Ireland, Mask for Harvest Rituals, 19th c. Males in a secret society took part of the breadfruit harvest and performed rituals with it. Musée du Quai Branly.
Melanesia, Carved door finials, mid 19th c. Musée du Quai Branly.
Melanesia, Slit gongs, 19th c. Musée du Quai Branly.
Melanesia, Funerary relic, 19th c.Musée du Quai Branly
Ari Kalinowski, 21st c. Hairy male of the species Homo Sapiens. Musée du Quai Branly.

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How did such a big chunk of Melanesia’s cultural heritage end up in  Musée du Quai Branly in Paris?  At least part of this answer is hidden in the small print at the bottom of  a label: “from the collection of Phebe Parkinson”.  

Who was Phebe Parkinson?

A little detective work revealed an astonishing story ripe for a sweeping Hollywood epic starring Ewan Mcgregor and Q’orianka Kilcher (she was 14-year-old Pocahontas in “The New World”). Here’s the pitch:

Richard Parkinson (Ewan) is born in 1844 as the illegitimate son of the Duke of Augustenborg (played by Ralph Fiennes with a Danish accent).  His mother is Louise Brüing, a lady in waiting to the naughty Duke’s wife.  (Hayley Atwell played Ralph’s lover in “The Duchess” so I’m confident she can do it again here.) When the Duke finds out he’s gotten Louise pregnant, he insists that his British horse breeder, Richard Parkinson (any old Brit will do for this part) marry Louise, give the baby his name, then step out of the way. Under the Duke’s watchful guidance,  young Richard grows up well-educated, fluent in English, Danish and German. (Ewan can do this.)

Cut to, 1876: Richard is now a handsome, smart, adventurous young man who can’t inherit from the Duke since he’s only the bastard son. He hires himself out as a plantation manager and surveyor for a German firm in Samoa. There, in 1879, he falls madly in love with the exotic, Phebe Clotilda Coe (Q’orianka Kilcher) daughter of a Samoan Princess, and an American adventurer.  Phebe is only 16 and Richard is nearly 36! Yikes! Theirs is a steamy, south seas romance (that produces 10 children, but we’re leaving out that part as I really hate gory, noisy, childbirth scenes in movies).

Richard (keep thinking, Ewan) is a passionate soul who does not play well with others, so he and Phebe move out to the island of New Britain, Papua New Guinea where there are few Europeans. Richard and Phebe attempt to run a coconut and cotton plantation for Phebe’s older sister, “Queen Emma”  (a colorful supporting actress part for someone like a young Bette Midler in a sarong), who is notoriously aggressive in business, and voracious in love. 

 Richard discovers his true passion isn’t farming, it’s collecting artifacts from indigenous tribes of  Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. With Phebe’s skill in local dialects (you heard Q’orianka speak early Native American in “The New World”,  so you know she can do it) and her island connections, in short order, they buy, sell and ship off as many as 10,000 objects to museums in Dresden, Leipzig,  Chicago, and Berlin, among others. In 1898 Richard fills a very weird order for 52 real human skulls for the Field Columbian Museum in Chicago! Throughout it all, Richard furiously writes the book that will make him famous, “Thirty Years in the South Seas,” (Dreissig Jahre in der Südsee, pub., 1907). 

Time passes. Richard and Phebe are as much in love as ever (easy to do with Ewan), but tragically, Richard dies of a long, unidentified illness in 1909. His private collection is sold to Chicago (the same people who wanted all those skulls) to support the family, and Phebe is left heartbroken and alone (except for 10 children) in New Britain. (false ending number 1)

Cut to an amazing epilogue:  Phebe lives on to be interviewed by Margaret Mead in 1929 (cameo by Cate Blanchett). By 1944, Phebe is 80 years old (must ask Meryl if she’ll consider playing this Oscar-winning part) living on an isolated plantation in Komolu, New Ireland.  When an allied B-17 bomber nick-named “The Reckless Mountain Boys” is shot down by the Japanese and forced to make a crash landing on the shore of her village, Phoebe tends the wounded young airmen. Her efforts are punished when the Japanese invade,  capture the surviving soldiers and round up anyone who helped them. Phebe is marched off to a  prisoner of war camp where she soon dies of disease and is buried in an unmarked grave. (false ending number 2) 

Real ending:  we use the 2004 Australian TV footage of  a big, colorful, musical, native Papua New Guinea tribal funeral honoring Phebe.  Phebe’s elderly grandson recently found her body and fulfilled her last dying wish to be buried next to Richard on the old plantation they once shared together.


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Disturbing anthropological fallout: over the years, Richard complained about the shortage of ritual indigenous objects, a shortage his rapacious collecting helped to create. He also complained when natives began to make  poor quality items directly for sale, rather than for ritual use, another phenomenon that occurred because museum appetites grew insatiable.  Whether you approve or not of  Phebe and Richard, the legacy of  their collecting lives on  in museums around the world for us to enjoy as a guilty pleasure. Many of the communities represented by these objects have vanished with their exposure to western culture and the march of time. 

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Can’t resist leaving you with photos of these insane costumes from the Carnival celebrations in the Andes mining town of Oruro, Bolivia and now, somewhat incongruously, on display at Musée du Quai Branly. The curator’s notes say the Catholic concept of the devil has been melded into an Indian character who is a positive force, “the giver of gifts.” 

Bolivia, Ñaupa Diablo,20th c. Musèe du Quai Branly.
Bolivia, Bear Costume, “Le Jukumari”, from the Carnival Diablada dance, 20th c. Musèe du Quai Branly.

P.S. Remember to book your reservation for lunch or dinner at LES OMBRES, the wonderful restaurant with the spectacular view of the Eiffel Tower that shares the campus with Musée du Quai Branly. (See my previous blog for tempting dishes).

One thought on “PARIS COLLECTS – Musée du Quai Branly

  1. Hola! Paloma
    Hi, I love your movie idea, I am now ex (formerly married into) the clan descended from Phoebe. We all (40 or so family members) travelled to Papua New Guinea in 2004 to bury her remains discovered in New Ireland. Her grandson Alfred Uechtritz collected the remains and brought them to the family mat mat (cemetery) near Kokopo, so that she could be buried next to her husband Richard Parkinson.
    The story was filmed and shown on ABC TV on a show called “Australian Story”. You would probably be interested to see it. It may be available through their website

    I can’t wait to see Ewan in the role.
    Miriam Torzillo
    Cairns FNQ

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