National Museums in France

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Publicerad: 2011-09-30


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


Since the opening of the Museum du Louvre in 1793; France has developed an important network of state funded national museums; the majority of which are dedicated to art historical displays. This is especially the case for the majority of museums run by the Réunion des musées nationaux; a network that manages the largest group of national museums in France. It is striking that; at any given time throughout the country’s history; some of the most important creations of national museums came about as a direct result of the personal initiative and implication of the country’s leaders; whether they were kings; emperors or presidents. This proves the extent to which the museum was; and is; in France; an explicitly national enterprise of great political prestige and symbolic value. National museums have; since the Revolution; been a strong factor in the French nation building process and a clear definition of their administration; in terms of central state ownership; provides the best frame for their identification.

The Louvre; which obviously stands out as France’s most important national museum; may best be defined as a ’Universal Museum’ and thus as a reflection of the Enlightenment philosophy that greatly influenced the French Revolution; and the political agenda behind the establishment of the museum itself. However the breath of its scope; which has always strived for universality; is also the result of France’s status as a former Empire. Its collections were very much formed and defined during the era of Napoleonic expansion and; although it cannot be considered to be a colonial museum; it has throughout history benefitted from France’s relationships with colonies or areas of great political influence. The museum has contributed to founding France’s identity on values and ideas that places it beyond its national and political borders.

The clearest tendency that may be observed in the evolution of France’s national museums over time is geographic and related to the country’s extremely centralised form of government. This means that the great majority of national museums are indeed concentrated in and around the area of Paris (approx. 70%) with a remarkable number of major institutions situated along the banks of the Seine river: the Louvre; Trocadéro (musée de l’homme); Quai Branly; Orsay etc. They are also; by far and away; the most visited (DEP; 2010: 34).

The second very clear tendency is the definite hegemony of the art museum that has received its own administrative structure with the RMN; a phenomena which should be considered as significant when observed in relation to the; relatively speaking; small contingent of history museums. Scientific; historical and technological museums tend to be directly related to one of the other government ministries and form less well-coordinated networks.

These facts indicate that a choice of France’s five most important national museums (out of the eighty museums given in the annex) may neither be representative from a geographical point of view nor from a disciplinary one. It can only consider those institutions whose prestige has made them France’s most famous ambassadors of culture – both for the French themselves and internationally (France is the country with the greatest number of tourists visiting every year). The central hegemony of the Louvre over the world of French museums has already been stated. In choosing five major national museums; an attempt was made to encompass a variety of disciplines and territories; however categories related to France’s ideology of culture guided the selection that mainly seeks to give an idea of the significance of these institutions in terms of the national paradigm. It tries to illustrate the main ideologies that appear to be at work in the policies and programs responsible for the development of France’s national museums: the promotion of universal values (mainly of art); the illustration of national origins; culture and history and the representation of national grandeur and commemoration. One might add a more contemporary ideological tendency that has been put forward in policies behind the most recent national museum creations: the desire to represent diversity and to establish places of cultural dialogue (Cité de l’immigration; Musée du quai Branly). The following table provides basic information on five of the most well known and visited of France’s national museums. Each museum will be considered as a case study at the end of this report; and taken as the most representative example in a specific genealogy of museums read as the expression of the ideologies outlined above.


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Direction des musées de France: http://www.culture.gouv.fr/documentation/museo/Musees.htm Réunion des musées nationaux: http://www.rmn.fr/

Institut de France: http://www.actualites.institut-defrance. fr/actualites_l_actualite_des_musees_et_des_monuments.html?1&arbo=30&

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