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Mise à jour: 27.08.2018
 

The MEG’s Marie-Madeleine Lancoux library: all the world in an attic

Under the Museum of Ethnography’s roof, a collection of books, periodicals, audio and video documents reflects the diversity of world cultures. Travellers (armchair or real-life), amateur anthropologists, lovers of folklore, ethnic and tribal arts geeks, the Marie-Madeleine Lancoux library is the place for you!
Bibliothèque Marie Madeleine Lancoux
© MEG / B. Glauser

A "hive of activity… or is it a pagoda?"

It’s been four years since the MEG (Musée d’ethnographie de Genève) moved its world-class collection of ethnic and aboriginal arts and artefacts into its striking new building, designed by Zurich architects Graber & Pulver. In that short lapse of time, the new, expanded MEG  has proven itself to be an elegant, exciting, inventive and sometimes delightfully quirky hive of activities showcasing the richness and diversity of human cultures, which led the Genevan institution to be awarded the European Museum of the Year in 2017.

And it certainly looks like a beehive… Or does it? The architect’s project says Asian pagodas inspired the tent-like slopes of white metal punched through with diamond-shaped windows. Viewed from the side, it also recalls the simple A-frame structure of traditional houses from Sweden to the Solomon Islands and this feature is of particular interest to us, since it’s under the A-frame of the museum’s roof that MEG visitors find the Marie-Madeleine Lancoux Library.

Switzerland has its share of daredevil female explorers and travellers, like Geneva’s own Ella Maillart, but we might as well be honest, Mme Lancoux wasn’t one of them. She was a dedicated (if somewhat cantankerous) local maths teacher who willed a considerable amount of real estate to the City of Geneva at her death in 2000, just when the debate on a better venue for the old Museum of Ethnography’s collections was picking up steam. It is her generosity (and not her algebra and calculus lessons) that is honoured in the name of the new MEG library.

A library off the beaten path

The triangular vault of the building’s attic is truly imposing. It creates a church-like space, with two tribunes at either end, with natural light pouring in from the roof’s diamond-shaped apertures. But the church analogy stops here: this is not the kind of library where you will be loudly hushed if your noise levels aren’t reverential enough. In fact, the Lancoux Library welcomes visitors from age 7 (access to the MEG’s permanent exhibition and library is free of charge), and the librarians are very proud of having gotten rid of the children/grown-ups split that is usual in libraries. If you need perfect silence, the Bowl ("Le Bocal") under the North gallery, offers a sound-proof study space. The stacks fill the floor with almost 9’200 items freely accessible (out of a total collection of 60’000 documents).

Approximately half of the books and periodicals in the stacks are in English (sadly, the children’s books collection is only in French) and they share the shelves with CDs and DVDs, another of the very cool features of this library. So if you happen to browse upon that DVD of Tibetan devotional Buddhist tantric dances you’ve always wanted to watch but are afraid the cacophony of conch shells and trumpets might annoy your housemates, relax! Right beside the Bowl is another sound-proof space, the Pocket Cinema (“Ciné de poche”) with a classy home cinema set-up (seats a dozen people) to watch stuff you find in the library or bring along with you. 

16’000 hours of music… and a very comfortable sofa

Ethnomusicology, the study of folk music, is big in Geneva and the MEG’s conservation work reflects this. The Lancoux Library houses a collection of ethnic and traditional music audio files that comes to about 16’000 hours of recorded music. The South gallery is where the library’s Music Lounge is located: comfortable sofas, low bookshelves with reference books on the subject, and four movable listening stations, where you can browse everything from Australian didgeridoo duets to Zimbabwean "mbira" thumb piano melodies. And chill…

Like the new MEG itself, where most of the exhibition space is actually in a huge vaulted crypt, away from the damages of natural light, the greatest (and most thrilling) part of the Lancoux Library’s collection is underground, and not freely accessible. "The happiest books in Geneva", boasts the head librarian and they may well be, with a constant temperature of 19° and humidity levels set at 50%. From a 1594 account of France’s unsuccessful attempt to colonize Brazil to a magnificent 1937 art book of Navajo sand paintings (neither of which are on loan, as one can imagine) there are hundreds of weird, wonderful and sometimes well-dated travelogues, studies, chapbooks, hymnals, cloth pattern samplers (the list could go on…) that testify to what could very well be an unofficial motto for the Lancoux Library: "There’s nowt so queer as folk".

 

 

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