Conference article

Alternative Paradigms for the Historical Museum: Lenoir’s Monuments Français and Du Sommerard’s Cluny

Stephen Bann
University of Bristol, UK

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Published in: Great Narratives of the Past Traditions and Revisions in National Museums

Linköping Electronic Conference Proceedings 78:3, p. 21-31

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Published: 2012-10-30


ISSN: 1650-3686 (print), 1650-3740 (online)


This paper considers two French museums that can lay claim to being the first historical museums; and; in a special sense; the first national museums to be created in Europe. The first was set up in the 1790s; during the French Revolution; by Alexandre Lenoir; who was memorably pictured at the time defending the tombs of the French monarchy at the Abbey of St Denis from the assault of iconoclasts. Installed in the former monastery of the Petits-Augustins on the left bank of the Seine in Paris; this remarkable institution survived throughout the Empire; and was only closed after the return of the Bourbon dynasty to France in 1815/16; when many of the monuments that he saved from vandalism returned to their former locations. The second had a very different origin. Alexandre du Sommerard; a wealthy magistrate; began in the 1820s to collect a wide variety of objects of medieval and Renaissance origin; and was pictured as ‘L’Antiquaire’ by the artist Charles Renoux in 1825. Having rented the entire first floor of the medieval Hôtel de Cluny in the Latin quarter of Paris in the early 1830s; he installed his collection and welcomed visitors there from around 1834. After his death; in 1843; the French state officially purchased the collection and the building for the nation; and inaugurated the Musée de Cluny; now known as the Musée National du Moyen Âge.


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1 See Stephen Bann; ‘Historical Text and Historical Object: The Poetics of the Musée de Cluny’; History and Theory; XVII; 3 (1978); pp. 251-66; Dominique Poulot; ‘Modelli d’architecttura in Francia all’epoca della Rivoluzione; Lotus 35 (1982); pp. 32-35; Stephen Bann; The Clothing of Clio: A study of the representation of history in nineteenth-century Britain and France (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 1984); pp. 77-92; Dominique Poulot; ‘Alexandre Lenoir ...’; in Pierre Nora (ed); Les Lieux de mémoire (Paris; 1986); Vol.2; pp.497–531.

2 See Bann; Clothing of Clio; pp.8–31.

3 See ibid.; p.87.

4 The 13th century room as represented by Vauzelle is reproduced in the end-papers of Francis Haskell; History and its images (New Haven and London: Yale University Press: 1993).

5 See ibid.; pp.241–46.

6 Prosper de Barante; Etudes littéraires et historiques (Paris; 1858); Vol.2; p.421. All translations from the French are my own unless stated otherwise.

7 Bann; Clothing of Clio; p.83.

8 Jules Michelet; Le Peuple (Paris; Hachette : 1846); p.xxvi. Translation by John P. McKay; in Jules Michelet; The People (Urbana : University of Illinois Press; 1973); p. 14.

9 J ules Michelet; Histoire de la Révolution française (Paris : Gallimard; Pléiade; 1952); Vol. 2; p. 538.

10 Ibid.

11 Francis Salet and Geneviève Souchal; Le Musée de Cluny (Paris : Editions des Musées nationaux; 1972); p.18.

12 Quoted in Stephen Bann; Romanticism and the Rise of History (New York: Twayne; 1995); p.146.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.; p.147.

15 Honoré de Balzac; La Comédie humaine (Paris: Gallimard; Pléiade: 1952); Vol.4; p.64.

16 Ibid.

17 The comtesse d’Osmond was the sole heiress of a fabulously wealthy entrepreneur who had died in 1812. With the duchesse de Berry; wife of the Bourbon heir to the throne; she contributed to the fashion for the neogothic; especially in the redecoration of her Parisian hôtel; situated at 8 Rue Basse du Rempart.

18 Barante; Etudes; p.420.

19 Ibid.; p.425.

20 See Stephen Bann; ‘Two kinds of Historicism: Resurrection and Restoration in French Historical Painting’; Journal of the Philosophy of History; Vol.4; No.2 (2010); pp.154-71.

21 See Stephen Bann and Linda Whiteley; Painting History: Delaroche and Lady Jane Grey (London: National Gallery Company; 2010).; pp.56-7.

22 Ernest Breton; ‘France: Tombeaux de Saint-Denis’; Magasin universel; Vol. 4 (March 1837); pp.169-71.

23 Michelet; Le Peuple; p.xxxvii.

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