Renu Chahil-Graf takes a Walk in the Park with Boris Wastiau, Director of the Musée d’ethnographie de Genève (MEG)
Only someone courageous and tough enough would agree to take a walk in a park in the coldest winter Geneva has had for years. Mid-January, minus 3 to minus 7 degrees celsius for most of the month, stubborn snow, showing no sign of melting. Boris Wastiau, Director of the Musée d’ethnographie de Genève, selected the Parc Bertrand for our walk. Off the beaten tourist track, it has historical spaces and a children’s playground, welcoming even in the dead of winter.
Boris started his global wanderings at an early age, exploring exotic locales in remote areas of Zambia, Brazil and Oceania and to his delight discovered that he could translate his passions into an academic degree. An Erasmus scholar, with a Master’s degree in Art History, Boris got a Ph.D. in anthropology focussing his field research on spirit possession. Initially living in a local village hut with the Luvale people, he soon realised he needed a proper house and a real bed and to learn to deal with all types of malaria – and to pursue his work. Initially frustrated in his search, with the help of aid workers, he finally found the diviners and traditional practitioners who would form the basis of his work – and who exist to this day.
The stylish and welcoming ethnographic museum in Geneva, simply called Le MEG, is a hidden gem in the city with a permanent collection of over 70,000 objects from 5 continents. Over 1,000 items are currently displayed in “The Archives of Human Diversity”, reflecting cultures from around the world. Being adequately funded, admission to the MEG is always free for its permanent collection. Boris considers it fortunate that continuing support from governmental and private donors takes the pressure off fund-raising so they can focus on programme development and team work with its diverse staff.
The MEG was renovated about 3 years ago following a referendum in which over 67% of Genevois voted in favour of the project – the votes covering a broad political spectrum, from far right to far left – thus assuring the success of a museum “which speaks to every person”. In Boris’ words, “All people in Geneva can recognise themselves in it – it is inclusive of all cultures, non-European and European”. The number of annual visitors increases exponentially every year. A range of partners, including non-governmental bodies, film festival partners, photographers, musicians, social service organisations, high schools and more are encouraged to participate and help co-organise a range of events and out reach programmes. “We have made it their museum”, says Boris proudly.
With a goal to attract those who rarely enter a museum, MEG brings in migrants, people of all ages and of all learning capacities and physical ability – also integrated together in group visits. They can experience the “beauty of cultural diversity”, shared values and ecosystem conservation, explains Boris. It is these values, philosophy and programmes which have undoubtedly led to the MEG being nominated for the prestigious European Museum of the Year award, the final selection of which will take place in May 2017 in Zagreb.
Walking through a tropical forest, meandering along a river, listening to bird song, entering a communal house were the experiences at “Amazonia: The Shaman and the Mind of the Forest”. The reality of the displays makes you forget you are in downtown Geneva, transported to another culture, another environment… Boris explains, “The Shaman live in an enchanted world, where there is no difference between human beings and nature.” The people strive to keep this balance to this day, struggling against all odds. For those who missed this stirring exhibition, which ended in January 2017, it has been invited to tour starting in Canada in the spring. Next in Geneva, look out for “The Boomerang Effect. The Aboriginal Arts of Australia”, which opens on May 19 2017.
To match the challenges and difficulties of his past travels and experiences, one can well understand Boris’ desire to pursue extracurricular activities that are off the beaten track. Sailing, mountaineering and climbing, standard Swiss stuff. But check the snowy slopes for someone striding up (not skiing down!) and check out the various definitions of “sculling”… Quite a role model for his three sons, which include teenage twins.
Renu Chahil-Graf, email@example.com
By Renu Chahil-Graf
Renu is a Geneva-based writer and former international United Nations civil servant.