The Royal North American Collections of the musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac comprise more than 230 objects from today's Canada and the United States, collected between 1650 and 1850, and incorporated into royal, and later national, French collections.
This priceless source of knowledge of the indigenous peoples of the Great Plains, the Great Lakes, and the East constitutes the very earliest material testimony to Native North American production, which underwent immense changes in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, due to Western colonization. Certain objects (painted hides, headdresses, moccasins, tobacco pouches) are the only known examples of Native American art from these ancient periods.
There is little documentation on the material culture of North American indigenous peoples prior to 1850. Although collectors sometimes mentioned the geographical origin of items, other information such as the tribe, or the item's mode of production and use are rarely indicated.
Nevertheless, when in-depth knowledge of the historical context of the region from which an object comes is combined with analysis and cross-checking of the primary sources (written, visual and material), it is sometimes possible to determine the object's cultural origins, as well as its use and function at the time when it changed hands. Analysis of the materials and techniques used in production adds precision to the research carried out in disciplines as varied as history, art history, ethnology and anthropology. It provides information about material and technical innovations, contacts between Native Americans and Europeans, local stylistic preferences, and more.
So far, however, such comprehensive studies, in which exhaustive contextual information is combined with systematic material analyses, remain rare, because the collections and archives concerned are geographically dispersed, and research tends to be mono-disciplinary, using smaller corpora.
The CRoyAN (Royal North American Collections) research project builds on previous initiatives, and like these, it adopts the most comprehensive approach possible, and is interdisciplinary, in order to do justice to the corpus immense historical, cultural and heritage value. Additionally, the research focuses not solely on the object, but also on the collection taken as a whole, insofar as it is the historical product of specific political and social contexts linked to New France. The CRoyAN project is also involved in dialogue with contemporary Native American communities, whose oral history and knowledge can help elucidate object attribution and use, and whose contemporary cultural values and practices may resonate with the objects in the collection. This participation aims to enable issues around the role of collections and their future development to be aired both within and outside the museum.