President Jacques Chirac and collector Jacques Kerchache, both of whom love ancient art, are the key figures behind the decision to build a space specifically dedicated to art of this kind.
The museum's collection includes works from four different geographic areas (the Americas, Africa, Oceania and Asia), 300 thousand items in all, 3,500 of which will be permanently on display.
The artworks are displayed in a highly evocative setting which Nouvel has described as "disturbing" because of the poetic atmosphere and the symbols of the forest and of oblivion. The complex, built on the banks of the Seine near the Louvre and Museé d'Orsay, only a few minutes' walk from the Tour Eiffel, is divided into four volumes totalling 39 thousand square metres.
Visitors walk through the garden to the main museum building, a long walkway supported by columns of different diameters in an asymmetrical arrangement. Alongside the exhibition spaces, the museum complex includes a mediatheque, a reading room, research laboratories, an open-air theatre and a panoramic restaurant on the patio. The exhibition route inside the museum is made particular evocative by the visitor's progress from semi-darkness to the main axis, called the "river"; the exhibition areas branch off from this. An unusual solution is used in some of the exhibition halls, which branch off from the northern wall and have been built to avoid adding weight to the main structure.