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The Emotional Museum. Thoughts on the “Secular Relics” of Nineteenth-Century History Museums in Paris and their Posterity

Felicity Bodenstein

Résumés

Cet article examine le discours élaboré dans les musées d’histoire à Paris au cours du XIXe siècle à travers la présentation d’effets personnels et privés « ayant appartenu à » des personnages historiques célèbres, des artistes ou écrivains. Comment et pourquoi a-t-on choisi de présenter des objets en soi aussi banals et profanes que le mouchoir de Napoléon ou une boucle des cheveux de Marie-Antoinette ? Dans le cadre rationnel du musée public, quel sens peut-on encore donner à ces objets qui ne fournissent pas d’information documentaire et qui n’ont pour ainsi dire pas de valeur esthétique ?

De fait, cette tradition muséographique a encore toute sa place dans les musées d’aujourd’hui, surtout dans les musées maisons et les musées biographiques. Nous allons considérer son apparition depuis la Révolution comme la transposition de pratiques commémoratives chrétiennes dans le monde laïc de l’État républicain, mais aussi comme le transfert d’un culte privé dans le domaine public. Cela nous permet d’examiner le caractère affectif des rapports que ces objets établissent avec l’histoire.

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  • 1  It is in fact the former Palais des Colonies built for the Colonial Fair of 1935, Malraux transfor (...)
  • 2  Dossier de presse ouverture de la Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration, p. 10: “Le parcou (...)
  • 3  Communiqué de Presse : “C’est notre histoire : une expo touchante sur l’Europe, Nous voulons éveil (...)

1Inspired by the possibilities of new interactive media, the twenty-first century museum often maintains its visitor’s attention by stimulating his senses: sound, smell and touch, as a response to our yearning for affect. In some cases this has lead curators to consciously develop an emotional dimension that the rational museum for a long time had officially sought to banish. Our particular concern here will be to examine how history museums offer their visitors the experience of an emotionally colored past, rather than a purely intellectual reconstruction that can remain fragmentary without the binding power of sentiment. Though our demonstration will mainly rely on examples of Parisian museums in the Nineteenth-century, we would like to state that the museological strategies that they will serve to illustrate have been recently adopted by the organizers of the Cité de l’immigration in Paris and by the Musée de l’Europe in Brussels, museums which both opened their doors in October of 2007. In the press release which accompanied the opening of the Cité de l’immigration, in the Palais de la Porte Dorée,1 the visitors’ circuit is described as “open, interactive, based on a series of immersive, emotional and pedagogical experiences; trajectories, movements, biographical fragments are brought to life thanks to individual tales and testimonies, visual installations and projections, games and objects.”2 The Musée de l’Europe, which has not yet found a definite home, inaugurated its existence with an exhibition entitled: “This is our History: a moving expo on Europe”. Here again scenographical intentions are unambiguously expressed: “We want to awaken public interest in Europe’s History, especially in young people, by appealing to their emotions, by making them feel that this history concerns them too as their past and their future.”3 In a bid to contribute to the construction of European identity, or to change our attitudes towards immigration these exhibitions rely on some of today’s latest media technology. Museum discourses generally refer to their implementation as a means to make the visitor feel like an actor rather than a passive spectator of his “own” history. Both of these exhibits have however also chosen to integrate classical object-orientated approaches which have been totally abandoned in other new history museums, such as the Historial Charles de Gaulle, monument audiovisuel, inaugurated in February 2008 in the Invalides in Paris and which as the title suggests is based exclusively on audio-visual footage. So our previous examples may be seen as an attempt to overcome “a gulf that has opened between those museums which value these new approaches interactive, dramatic and those that want to maintain the primacy of their collections” (Spalding, 2002: 51).

  • 4  The psychological relationship between objects, memories and emotions is perhaps even more directl (...)

2Yet what do these displays stand to gain from the presence of what are sometimes rather banal everyday objects? It would appear that in the examples cited above, objects have been used for their capacity to materialize an otherwise abstract past, as the means to overcome absence through the intriguing power of presence (Maniura, Shepard, 2007). In the Musée de l’Europe’s first exhibit, the artist Dominique Blain provided a highly aesthetic vision of Europe born out of the Second World War, embodied through posters, chewing gum wrappers and nylon stockings that are supposed to incarnate a common experience of hope. The Cité de l’immigration has included a Galerie des dons in its circuit, inviting visitors to deposit objects for display that were meaningful to their personal experience of immigration with an explicative text that according to the press release will allow singular traces, everyday objects to become souvenirs, or rather more, symbols. Like Proust lending us his madeleine, the memories of history’s actors are lent to the spectator and the private experience of recollection through a personal object is made public and collective.4

3Let us now reconsider this general trend to capture public imagination through memorial and emotional strategies related to objects, by looking at the origins of this kind of display in the modern museum from the French Revolution onwards. Our analysis will essentially be based on one particular category of display in museums related to French national history: objects labelled as “having belonged to” either famous historical, artistic or literary personalities, or, as we have called them, secular relics. Our aim is to show how such objects contributed to the specificity of historical narrative in the museum, a question that has been addressed in recent years by such authors as Laurent Gervereau in France or Jörn Rüsen in Germany. In attempting to define the nature of this specificity, Jörn Rüsen underlined the importance of taking into account often overlooked or underestimated aesthetic factors that contribute to giving historical documents meaning and to establishing narratives in the museum. He argues that they characterize one of three forces at work in the construction of historical discourse: the political, scientific and artistic (Rüsen, 1988: 11). As we recognize these forces, we may yet ask how historical museums deal with the evocation of man’s personal experience of the past, where can it find a place in this trilogy and how should museum curators deal with emotional factors? We will try and show that the emotional museum can provoke, promote or accompany any or all three of these forces. By examining how the memorial value of personal objects was used and sanctified in the museum our objective is to provide an historical basis for a better understanding of how museums use objects to bear witness to history. For by adopting displays like the ones described above – by placing nylon stockings in a glass case related to the after-war years – the museum uses an apparently direct means of visualizing historical narrative. Yet, such items are more than just simple illustrations of an event or an epoch. As distinct from texts or two-dimensional images which represent the past in an already abstracted form, objects that were once used, held, caressed, contemplated, smelt or even eaten are immediate, concrete and moreover of a fundamentally sensual nature. They are not only synecdochical figures of an historical event; they are synecdochical figures of the human experience of history. It is the direct and vivid experience of history in the museum which will interest us here as a ritual form of dealing with memory (Duncan, 1995). After a brief presentation of the museums that we have chosen to look at, we will use them to consider the reliquary-type display and what forms it took in history museums from the French Revolution onwards. We will then try and examine how and why such objects were acquired by museums by considering the attitudes expressed by donors and curators, which will lead us to discuss their agency and the visiting public.

From the Birth of the Museum

  • 5  Two definitions of the word relic need to be considered, as provided by the Oxford English Diction (...)

4The object “having belonged to” and what might be considered its most extreme form, bodily remains such as hair or even ashes, appears in Paris’ first public museums during the Revolution. A direct result of the eighteenth century culte des grands hommes (Glover, 2000: 476), the displayof personal effects or contact-relics, remained a recurrent representational strategy in historical museums, promoting an intimate, communal evocation of the past. We will consider this museographical tradition as the result of both material and semantic transfers that may be schematized as passages from religious to secular and from private to public realms. Predictably, in museums founded during the first half of the nineteenth century exceptionally unclear frontiers operate between these spaces. This is not to suggest that personal relics had not been cherished before or that saintly relics were to disappear, we simply intend to discuss their appearance in the new public, secular institution of the museum.5

  • 6  Musée des archives nationales, documents originaux de l’histoire de France, 1872, Paris, Plon, p.  (...)

5The transfer of practices between secular and religious spaces may of course be explained by the brutal rupture with traditional religious practice caused by the Revolution, which suddenly transplanted the near entire range of material culture related to the Church into the hands of a newly born republican state. As churches were transformed into museums, many true religious relics entered the newly created national museums, such as the Cabinet des médailles at the Bibliothèque nationale, which received parts of the treasure of Saint-Denis et the Sainte-Chapelle. As to transfers from private to public spaces, the creation of our new relics, most of which were former private possessions, was above all the work of individuals: curators and donors. Each of the museums that we will look at was born of one individual’s personal initiative meaning that private and public spheres were in constant interference: Alexandre Lenoir’s Musée des Monuments Français, first opened in 1795; Alexandre du Sommerard’s Musée de l’hôtel Cluny, became fully public in 1844 and Louis-Napoleon inaugurated his Musée des Souverains in 1853 (although in this last case of a sovereign ruler there can be no clear separation between the private individual and his national agenda). Our first two examples have been rigorously and eloquently described and analyzed by authors such as Stephen Bann, Francis Haskell, Andrew MacClellan, Dominique Poulot and as such are well know paradigms of early French history museums. The Musée des Souverains has received somewhat less attention; a recent publication analyzing Napoleon III’s liste civile does however provide some essential insights into its conception (Granger, 2005). Created in the galleries of the Louvre, it was a direct expression of the new leader’s desire to legitimate his reign by underlining his direct affiliation with Napoleon, and by presenting himself as a central figure in France’s genealogy of power. It was the first time that historical memorabilia became the principal concern of any museum’s official acquisition policy. Other museums, created in the second half of the century, will also be drawn upon for examples. The Musée des Archives de l’Empire opened in 1867. Its creators described it as a kind of public portal-like space to be placed before the closed corridors of the national archives, “the sanctuary of French History”, to use the very terms employed by its first curator.6 The Musée Carnavalet which was instigated by Haussmann in 1867 to preserve some of the rapidly disappearing traces of the vieuxParis, and finally Victor Hugo’s house museum, place des Vosges. Strictly speaking this last example falls into the category of personal museums, but the strong national impact of Hugo’s life and personality, his immediate inhumation in France’s “Pantheon of Great Men” in 1885 allows it to be considered amongst the capital’s nationally orientated history museums.

Reliquary forms in early manifestations of secular veneration

6Let us begin by first examining some presentations of personal objects or bodily remains that borrow the formal aspect of their display from the catholic tradition of the reliquary. The persistence of such a formal kinship may either be considered as exemplary of the desire to preserve the material remains of the past by giving them new meaning in post-revolutionary society or as the nostalgic desire to recall lost forms of veneration. In the complex typology of reliquaries, one of the most common forms is that of a sarcophagus or a miniature church, it is the one that we recognize most often in the nineteenth-century museum.

  • 7  Pierre Abélard (1070-1142) was one of the most famous theologians of his time but is better known (...)

7A famous and literal quotation of a catholic reliquary-type presentation can be attributed to Dominique-Vivant Denon, who directed the Louvre from 1802 to 1815, and in which he used an actual fifteenth-century reliquary to exhibit symbolic remains related to medieval history or to the Empire. It included such relics as a lock of Agnes Sorel’s hair, a bloody piece of the shirt that Napoleon had worn on his deathbed and a leaf from the tree that grew over his grave (Bresc-Bautier, 2001). However, it was not as director of the Louvre, but as a private collector that Denon indulged in such historical fetishism. This may not be said for Alexandre Lenoir, who probably provided Denon with some of the remains present in his reliquary and who established a collection of “corps historiques” that was clearly destined to be public (Poulot, 2007: 171). His first biographer, M. Allou, described Lenoir’s museographical talent as that of a “clever sorcerer” (Poulot, 1986: 499). His efforts to seduce the visitors of his Musée des monuments français were most obviously expressed in the Jardin Élysée, perhaps the most personal part of Lenoir’s famous undertaking. The former gardens of the convent des Petits-Augustins that he transformed in 1799 into a strange, Pantheon-like park, were the heart of Lenoir’s museum and as such had been specifically designed for the “sensitive soul” (Greene, 1981: 214). These gardens offer a very different context compared to the more rational attempts at a chronological presentation of French sculptural arts that were budding in the galleries of the convent. Lenoir decorated the lawns and groves of his park with a remarkable series of displaced tombs that he had rebuilt in what can be interpreted as a direct reaction to the destructions of the royal sepulchres in the Saint-Denis cathedral. Not content for them to remain simple cenotaphs, he began to actively seek out bodily remains of celebrated French men and women. His efforts proved fruitful and he soon had the bodily relics of Molière, Descartes, La Fontaine, Turenne and others transferred to his museum. A popular military hero of Louis XIII and Louis XIV’s reign, Turenne fulfilled the requirements of republican patriotism and so his body was spared destruction after being unearthed at Saint-Denis in 1793. Miraculously well preserved, it was kept for five years at the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle. In a plea for its transfer to the Musée des Monuments Français, Beaumarchais called for its display there in “a glass frame that [would allow] us to see the hero’s body, [whose display] would command our respect” (Glover-Lindsay, 2000: 485). However, Lenoir preferred a more discreet method of presentation. The relics he collected were not to be made directly visible to the public. This did not mean however that their presence was not considered to be an important element in heightening the emotional experience of his visitors. In some cases, such as for Héloïse and Abélard,7 the acquisition of bodily remains called for the creation of a new monument : in 1800 Lenoir went himself to the abbaye du Paraclet to recover Abelard’s bones. In order to unite the mythical couple, he constructed a monumental reliquary from an assortment of medieval monuments and tombs, still to be seen in the Père-Lachaise cemetery today. In his 1801 guide to the museum he writes : “Buried in the tomb, they live on, these inseparable friends, they call to each other forever, making the names of Héloïse and Abélard heard through the stone that covers them ; the air vibrates with their soft tones and the plaintive echo reverberates throughout : Héloïse !, Abélard !, Héloïse !, Abélard !” (quoted by Glover-Lindsay, 2000 : 486). If he made touch and sight impossible, the sensorial importance usually attached to relics, albeit invisible, remained all the stronger as the marble figures of the couple became references to the bodies buried beneath.

8It is characteristic of the revolutionary period, during which the heritage of the Ancien Régime was regenerated through strategies of réemploi, that the transfers from Christian tradition here described should be so literal in form. After the Restoration in 1816 and despite Lenoir’s offer to build a chapel and have daily mass read to make up for the initial sacrilege, his relics were restored to hallowed ground (Greene, 1981 : 217). Fifty years later in the Musée des Archives de l’Empire the testament of Louis XVI and the last letter written by Marie-Antoinette were shown to the public enshrined in a black, Boulle style display cabinet decorated with “reliquary-like pediments” (James-Sarazin, 2004 : 227) ; unfortunately we have no visual documentation of this display. Most often the reliquary form of display remained related to a very personal choice. This meant that generally the object found its way into the museum already enshrined, as is the case of the famous Reliquary of Royal Mementoes created for the duchesse de Tourzel (Wrigley, 2002 : 25) an exceptional piece that was given to the Carnavalet in 1994.

Photo 1: Mme de Tourzel’s Reliquary of Royal Mementoes, at the Musée Carnavalet.

F. Bodenstein 2007.

  • 8  “Le pavillon du milieu, qui correspond au fameux pavillon de l’Horloge, est occupé dans toute sa h (...)
  • 9  Philippe Busoni, 1853 L’Illustration, 5 mars, p. 147: “Le pèlerinage à la salle de l’Empire comme (...)
  • 10 Alexandre, 1903: 12 : “Puis vient, reconstituée avec un soin pieux autant que scrupuleusement exact (...)
  • 11 “À ce même étage, à l’emplacement du cabinet de travail, a été reconstituée fidèlement la chambre m (...)

9However we must add that in some cases the museum as a whole was designed and interpreted as a reliquary-type space, the Musée des Souverains provides us with an excellent example. In 1853, Horace de Viel-Castel, the museum’s first director, praised the striking overall effect that the room dedicated to the souvenirs of Napoleon would have on its visitors. He described how its lighting and decoration had been designed to produce a contemplative atmosphere that called for religious silence in this funerary monument dedicated to the memory of Napoleon as the spiritual counterpart to his earthly body’s resting place at the Invalides8(Viel-Castel, 1853 : 189-190). A contemporary journalist clearly described his visit to the museum using a series of metaphors related to the idea of pilgrimage.9 A less official, less political and more intimate example of a memorial cult on an important spatial scale is the faithful reconstitution in Victor Hugo’s house museum, place des Vosges, of the bedroom in which the famous poet drew his last breath. Donated to the city by Paul Meurice, the museum opened in 1903 in the house that the author had inhabited from 1832 to 1848. Its visitors’ circuit ends with the bedroom including all of the furniture and decorative items that were found in his room in the apartment avenue d’Eylau when he died, creating what Arsène Alexandre qualified in his terms as a “true sanctuary”.10 Interestingly, if we compare the description of the room given in a 1912 guidebook we can appreciate how little this installation has changed over time and in a sense the funerary atmosphere has even been reinforced thanks to the dim lighting provided by electric candles.11(Quentin-Bauchart, 1912 : 132 ).

Photo 2: Victor Hugo’s bedroom, Musée Victor Hugo, place des Vosges.

F. Bodenstein 2007.

10Although such examples appear particularly striking, there were, relatively speaking, few formal citations of the catholic reliquary or tomb principle in the display of public collections. Such an explicit reference, directly connotating conservative, royalist values, had to be considered out of place in the republican museum. As was to be expected any such reference gave way to a set of formal codes specific to secular museum culture.

Objects of private devotion in public spaces

11Throughout the second half of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century private collectors and indeed family members chose public collections, that guaranteed the inalienability of their holdings, as the most suitable “last resting place” for personal treasures either related to the lives of some celebrated figure or linked to some important historical event. An examination of the catalogues of the Musée Carnavalet show a sharp decline in this type of donation from the 1930’s onwards. Taken as an historical phenomenon, the number of donations concerning such items follows the same evolution as that of other collectables like national antiquities particularly in vogue in the nineteenth century. However, it would appear that more so than other museums, the Musée des Souverain and later the Musée Carnavalet both relied heavily on the generosity of private donators for the expansion of their collections. In the case of Carnavalet it may be said that the museum made little or no paid acquisitions of personal objects, although Parisian sale catalogues show that there was a very developed market. Richard Wrigley, who has studied the “Revolutionary relic”, quite rightly remarked on the relevance of the assumption made by the organizers of the Musée des Souverains that sufficient quantities of new material would certainly come into the museum through private sources, indicating that “there was a reservoir of personal souvenirs, which could be drawn upon” (Wrigley, 2002 : 35).

12Archives concerning donations, such as testaments, show the high esteem in which their owners held such objects. Many of them had been kept in families for generations. Such was the case of a slipper donated to the Musée des Souverains in 1853 supposedly having belonged to Marie-Antoinette. To the owner’s mind, its story was well documented, and its authenticity unquestionable : shortly after the queen’s execution it had been taken from her chambers by a certain captain Dorville, who immediately gave it to the donor’s mother. In his own words it had been “religiously conserved” in the family ever since (Barbet de Jouy, 1868 : 186). Later, towards the end of the nineteenth century, donations came directly from the family members of famous artists or writers, like a collection of items which had belonged to Jules Michelet and given to the Musée Carnavalet by his wife in 1893 (Dubois, 1947 : 446) orthe 170 personal belongings donated in 1923 by Georges Sand’s granddaughter. However, not all offerings were eagerly accepted, and as might be expected, their authenticity became a question of ever-greater importance. The increasingly severe conditions applied in the process of admission, illustrated the curators’ desire to justify and to rationalize the presence of these objects.

  • 12 “Cluny”, Le Grand Larousse du XIXe siècle, quoted by Anne-Doris Meyer, 2000: 230 (translated by the (...)
  • 13 Sommerard, Alexandre du, 1834: 59: “Elle céda souvent à l’impulsion de Henri II, venant oublier prè (...)

13In regard to personal objects, questions of authenticity were not really raised before the middle of the nineteenth century. When the famous collection of the former Alexandre de Sommerard’s Musée de Cluny opened to the public in 1844, no one expected any explications concerning the provenance of Saint Louis’ chess set, François I’s bed or the knife that had been used to cut the stag at the gala banquet celebrating Charles VI’s coronation. Moreover, the descriptions of objects on display show no understanding of frontiers between history and myth ; the chalice that was used at the dinners of Charles V was quite naturally described as being able to quench the thirst of thirty men.12 The objects in his collection, although chosen for their artistic qualities were not so much described in aesthetic terms but rather as silent witnesses to important historical events and sometimes to very intimate scenes. The door to the room named after François I came from the chateau d’Anet ; in Sommerard’s words it had “often given way to Henri II’s impulses, as he came to forget his troubles beside Diane”,13 his famous mistress. As to the authenticity of the claimed provenances and despite their sometimes outrageous improbability, the venerable nature of the Musée de Cluny and the reputation of its founder seem to have been proof enough (Marot, 1969 : 291).

  • 14 Decree quoted by Catherine Granger, 2005: 307. “Considérant qu’il est d’un grand intérêt pour l’art (...)
  • 15 Georges Montorgueil, Le Temps, 1925, quoted by Dubois, 1947: 434: “un charmant corsage, en étoffe b (...)

14Under the reign of Napoléon III, the museum was asked to satisfy more rigorous criteria concerning the authenticity of the artifacts it displayed. In the field of historical research, emphasis was being put more and more on the essential importance of primary sources (Poulot, 2004 : 199) ; in this changing disciplinary context there could be no idea of creating a new history museum following the artistic principle which had been adopted in Louis Philippe’s museum dedicated to “All the glories of France” at Versailles. In these galleries, French history, battles and coronations were mainly illustrated through a selection of artworks, a huge state commission had ordered a vast series of paintings by contemporary artistes such as Vernet or Delacroix to complete the museum’s program. What was required now was proof ; a prerequisite that fuelled the creation of the Musée des Archives de l’Empire, entirely based on the principle of displaying authentic documents, for the most part dated and manuscript. This change in attitude concerning authenticity is also illustrated by the efforts of the curators of the Musée des Souverains, a museum entirely conceived around the principle of objects “having belonged to”. In the decree announcing the creation of the museum, published and signed by Louis-Napoléon in 1852, authenticity was declared the essential condition and principle of its collections.14 Émilien de Nieuwerkerke, Directeur général des Musées nationaux, was very active in the creation of the museum and with his colleagues in the Louvre, did not hesitate to refuse large quantities of objects. The museum’s archives show that a good deal of the propositions submitted for consideration by the museum’s curators corresponded to a very loose conception of authenticity, especially in the case of the impressive series of objects pertaining to Napoleon I, in most cases common bibelots simply marked with his name. Nieuwerkerke knew that if he wanted to be taken seriously he had to have the means of convincing visitors of the authenticity of the relics on display. As Catherine Granger has remarked, the museum’s catalogue included extracts of archives to support claims of authenticity, sometimes printing letters received by donors relating how they came into possession of the objects. One such letter is from an Austrian officer, Rudolf Fuchs, who explained that his father had been doctor to the Austrian royal family and had thus come into contact with the roi de Rome, giving him the opportunity to cut a lock of his hair after his death. He could thus guarantee the authenticity of the relic in question(Granger, 2005 : 324). It would appear that curators in general became increasingly wary. Jules Cousin, the director of the Carnavalet Library and Museum from 1870 to 1898, seems to have had little time to spare for what a colleague of his called la défroque. In spite of the presence at Carnavalet of a great deal of such personal possessions, and the importance of certain donations, he showed his lack of enthusiasm on more than one occasion. When a member of the Duplessis family offered the relics of Lucile Desmoulins, wife of the revolutionary hero Camille Desmoulins, including “an embroidered corsage, that had been worn over the beating heart of the faithful lover”, he distrustfully demanded, “who can prove it, her breast is no longer”.15 Of course doubt was difficult to admit in a space that increasingly defined and legitimized its existence with positivist concepts of progress and knowledge. Moreover authenticity was a value that allowed curators to outweigh the importance, at least in appearance, of the essentially animist ideas and fetishist reactions that such objects provoke.

Experiencing the object, the emotion of history

15In 1989, an exhibition was dedicated to a “Soulier de Marie-Antoinette” in Caen’s municipal museum.16 The catalogue included a remarkable analysis of the role of museography in conditioning how we behold such personal objects. The introductory essay voluntarily opens with a painstaking effort to establish the authenticity of the slipper, only to conclude that proof is perhaps not so very important but that it is rather the state of uncertainty that most excites our imagination and our curiosity, allowing us to invent from what we see (Tapié, 1989). The object, in this case a slipper, is presented with a label stuck to the inner sole indicating the extreme importance of identification by means of a written seal. It was most probably affixed when the object was first exhibited in Caen in 1883. By examining the question of authenticity we can see that the representational value of these souvenirs rarely resides in the physical aspect of the object itself ; its value is invisible, only the supplementary information provided – in the most simple case, the mention of its provenance on a label – can bestow any real meaning. This strange situation was most clearly described by a journalist of the Magasin pittoresque in 1869 : “Take away the certificate of provenance from the handkerchief that Napoleon touched before dying, or from Marie-Antoinette’s slipper and we cannot say how much they would be worth, nor if one would still find a soul who would bend down to pick them up off the ground”.17 This implies that museographical strategies play an essential role in fabricating the meaning of such objects. The Caen exhibition is an intriguing reflection on how these objects and their display provoke a sense of intellectual discomfort. The most obvious explanation for this is that they are quite often devoid or weak in the visual, aesthetic, demonstrative or narrative qualities that generally justify the presence of an artifact in a museum. The observational paradigm which is still status quo in most museums considers that the object contains a sum of clearly definable knowledge that can be directly transferred to the spectator or observer, without there being any interpretative interaction between them (Taborsky, 1990 : 60). It most obviously flounders in the face of such objects, for what are we supposed to learn, understand or appreciate when we gaze upon Napoleon’s handkerchief or a slipper once worn by Marie-Antoinette ?

Photo 3: Napoleon’s handkerchief and hat. Detail from an engraving representing objects in the Musée des Souverains. Wood graving by J. Choquet, published in the Musée des familles, August 1854: 345.

F. Bodenstein 2007.

16How can we define the quality that justifies their presentation to the public, and how can we define their presence without simply resorting to admitting to our own fetishist tendencies, for we feel their attraction without fully understanding or accepting it ? The solution may be found in recent social theories that place objects or globally material culture at the heart of social relationships and try to describe the structures that they help to define, allowing us to consider such objects not just as idiosyncratic exceptions in a largely rational and reasonable universe but as extensions of our social selves (Debary, Turgeon, 2007 : 2).

  • 18 Gervereau, 1996: 22:“En règle générale, malgré leur nom, les musées d’histoire témoignent d’une rel (...)
  • 19 Bonnet, 1998: 53: “L’orateur laïc, qui adopte le point de vue de la postérité, s’avance dès lors de (...)
  • 20 Thomas, 1899: 216: “Notre religion est d’aimer et chérir ces patrons.”; 213: “de là une nouvelle fo (...)
  • 21 Horace de Viel-Castel, Le Moniteur universel, 1853, 16 février: 189-190, quoted by Granger, 2005: 1 (...)
  • 22 L’illustration, 21 mai 1898, “Le nouveau Carnavalet”: 371:“Plus loin, c’est une salle empire rempli (...)
  • 23 Horace de Viel-Castel, Le Moniteur universel, 1853, 16 février: 189-190: “Aucun cicerone n’avait be (...)
  • 24 C. de Chatouville, “Chronique du mois, Le musée des Souverains”, Musée des familles, octobre 1853, (...)

17The object-souvenir is in fact the clearest expression of how the museum preserves and fabricates memories through experience(s) of history as opposed to the construction of historical knowledge. In a sense it is exemplary of a paradox that lies at the heart of the history museum. Critically-minded curators such as Laurent Gervereau and specialists of nineteenth-century museums like Dominique Poulot agree that they often evolve far from the considerations of the historiography of their time, siding with simple concepts of compilation and conservation and indeed serving as “witnesses of a relationship with the past, with memory, with identity rather than as the expression of a relationship to History as a scientific discipline” (Gervereau, 1996 : 22, translated by the author).18 The objects that we have questioned here are not historical documents in a strict sense, as they provide little information in themselves. They have value because of their past, their provenance, the hands that touched them, the events that they “witnessed” ; things that they do not necessarily translate directly are remembered or imagined individually by those that contemplate them. The emotional potential of these objects is heightened by the fact that they provide little or no other information that might distract the visitor from a sentimental experience. They may even be defined by this discursive void, particularly open to interpretation. The power of personal objects was recognized by nineteenth-century curators and seems to have served the secular cult “des Grands Hommes”, described by Louis Réau as a “replacement religion” (Réau, 1959 : 372) vowing its cult not to a higher god but to humanity itself as a transcendent value. The garden created by Lenoir can thus be interpreted as the material expression of the secularisation of memory provoked by the changing attitude to death, as analyzed by Jean-Claude Bonnet in his study of eulogies in the eighteenth century. He puts forward the idea that “the secular orator (we might here use the word curator) adopts the point of view of posterity. […] The former eschatological perspective gives way to an exclusively commemorative vision” (Bonnet, 1998 : 53, translated by the author).19 The cult of Great Men was also considered as an integral part of civic and moral education. At the end of the nineteenth century, in a chapter of his Éducation des sentiments, entitled “Du culte des grands hommes”, the philosopher Félix Thomas wrote “our religion is to love and cherish our patrons”, provoking “a new form of emulation, whose educational role is destined to become more and more important[…] because humanity progresses in reality only thanks to men of genius” (Thomas, 1899 : 216, 213, translated by the author).20 Aside from obvious political intentions,21 the fundamental aim of the Musée des Souverains was to provide moral examples and lessons. The emotion produced at the sight of the objects displayed was a means to this end. Viel-Castel declared that nothing written could compare to the quiet eloquence of the relics there assembled, commenting on the strong emotional reaction shown by visitors of all generations ; in his account even the youngest and most frivolous spirits were touched and women and veterans were often moved to tears. Towards the end of the century the Musée Carnavalet would also display the Emperor’s possessions, promoting historical pathos by presenting Napoleons nécessaire de campagne, as objects of “grave curiosity”.22 According to Viel-Castel, the napoleonic souvenirs needed no introduction ; the history of this héros populaire was in everyone’s minds and hearts. Not only did he claim that they had the power to recall a whole period, he described how the presence of the Emperor’s personal objects had incited visitors to recall their own forgotten family stories.23 Interestingly one journalist was shocked by the presence of the handkerchief that had been used to wipe Napoleons brow on his deathbed considering it to be an object too intimate and moving for display in a public museum.24 In his inaugural speech of the Musée des Archives de l’Empire, Léon Gautierannounced that one of the aims of the new museum would be to help visitors conceive a higher idea of the French nation, whilst underlining the importance of the emotional effect produced by the objects on display. He recalled the strong impact that the souvenirs from Sainte-Hélène had had on the visitors of the Musée des Souverains, which had opened fourteen years earlier and imagined the impression that Louis XVI’s tearstained testament would make on the public of his museum.

  • 25 Pety, 2007: 59 in reference to Victor Hugo’s La Légende des siècles: “En dépit du titre qui fait ré (...)

18We can observe how the display of personal objects became less political and gave rise to more intimate visions in other museums, especially those established from the end of the century onwards in the homes of famous men, writers and artists such as Victor Hugo and Gustave Moreau – although it is a question of perspective as our more recent examples show that this tendency seems to have been inversed. In such personal contexts they became objects of devotion or veneration in a cult which was not so much focused on man as an historical actor, or a personification of national glory but was in a sense intensely concerned with Man himself ; great men, generally artists who came to represent the divine element in all men or a new conception of genius, which Hugo himself contributed to developing in his writings (Pety, 2007 : 59).25 We might conclude that the range of emotional possibilities provided by such objects was and is still particularly large.

Towards a Cultural History of Relic Objects and the Post-Modern Museum

19Today, artifacts “having belonged to” still abound in the personal museums of artistes, writers and famous historical figures, places “whose idiosyncratic rejection of public museum conventions at once recalls earlier curiosity cabinets and anticipates post-modern display strategies” (MacClellan, 2006 : xvi). Let us first consider two twentieth-century Parisian examples that immediately come to mind as efforts to recapture a nineteenth-century sentiment of objects : the Maison de Balzac and the Musée de la Vie Romantique respectively opened to the public in 1960 and 1984. They both seek to convey a sense of the “souvenir” specific to the romantic era – yet they do not simply provide a lesson in cultural history. A display of objects related to Balzac’s passion for Mme Hanska in the house in which Balzac spent the last years of his life and which was donated to the town in 1949, invites us to relive Balzac’s emotion for his lover, letting us contemplate the same keepsakes that he had himself lovingly handled. We can discover the so called “canne à ébullition” made from the turquoises of a necklace of Mme Hanska, a watch and a writing set that he gave her. We can also see Balzac’s hand moulded in bronze and the medallion of Balzac by David d’Angers.

Photo 4: Display of Balzac souvenirs of Mme Hanska at the Musée Balzac in Paris.

F. Bodenstein 2007.

  • 26  Delpierre, 1954: 30: “De ce déplorable ménage qui troubla douloureusement la vie de Nohant, errent (...)

20The fetishist, emotional element that is necessarily attached to these objects is one of the most efficient strategies that such museums rely on. At the Musée de la Vie Romantique, a similar display of objects, formerly to be seen in the Musée Carnavalet, is dedicated to Georges Sand who with Ary Scheffer has become a resident âme du lieu. Museum catalogues, articles and descriptions of such objects reveal how the museum consistently uses them to evoke the inner, sentimental life of historical figures.26

Photo 5: A display dedicated to objects that once belonged to Georges Sand, they were offered to the Musée Carnavalet in 1923 by her granddaughter, today in the Musée de la Vie Romantique, Paris.

F. Bodenstein 2007.

21Little remains of the history museums considered in this article – Lenoir’s gardens have of course disappeared, Sommerard’s Cluny is unrecognizable and the Musée des Souverains was shut in 1871 after the fall of the Second Empire. Carnavalet has thrived however and continues to display objects that once belonged to historical figures, from Robespierre to Marie-Antoinette, taking care however to establish a critical distance by using them to illustrate the cult phenomenon that once surrounded these personalities rather than actually perpetuating one, and thus avoiding hagiographic discourses. No physical traces of the Musée des Archives de l’Empire that became the Musée d’histoire de France are visible to today’s public, however during a recent tour, I was lucky enough to discover the reserves, usually inaccessible to the passer-by, and the armoire de fer centrally situated in a room called the Trésor des Chartes.27 There one of the museum’s curator solemnly opened the spectacular onion-peel series of iron doors that protect what is in fact the physical and symbolical heart of the original museum, carefully extracting the most important elements of an astonishing collection of historical artifacts and documents. When the museum first opened in 1867, they represented something like the founding stones of France’s history and identity. Out of this veritable tabernacle emerged a pack of playing cards owned by Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette’s Gazette des Atours and a set of rusty keys from the Bastille, but also France’s first Constitution of 1791, and Napoleon’s testament. Bemused by our awed reaction, the curator immediately and somewhat disdainfully evacuated, what she herself designated as the fetishist value of certain of these objects, by explaining to us the exact historic circumstances surrounding each of them. Of course, this flow of precise, historical information immediately took the mythical edge off our first impressions, reminding us at the same time that this collection was in itself an historical object and that today one would certainly select a very different group of documents as representative of the nation’s past. The future however is problematic for the Musée d’histoire de France as today it can hardly afford to maintain a permanent exhibit and questions its role in relation to recent projects proposed by the present government for the formation of a totally new Musée national d’histoire de France. Although the program of this new museum remains totally undefined – rather unclear discussions have called for it to be situated in the Invalides – its aim is in a sense already quite intensely ideological as the current president, Nicolas Sarkozy has expressed the idea that France’s History requires stronger representation as it forms a “coherent whole” which needs to be narrated as such in order to reinforce national identity.28

22In looking at these nineteenth-century history museums, we have not so much analyzed national discourse, as tried to delimit the particular agency and use of the relic-type objects under discussion. These considerations should help in giving such collections as that of the Musée d’histoire de France the chance to lead a second life : the greatest challenge is finding a strategy that lets such objects retain their historical charm, or one may even say aura, whilst developing the full complexity of their meaning, past and present. An effort which would indeed contradict any attempt or principal of coherence that one may be tempted to attain in a history museum.

23The curator and controversial critique of contemporary museum culture, Julian Spalding has called for a recognition of the museum’s “poetic”power, which could become a new element to be considered with Rüsen’s aforementioned trilogy (and which we qualified as the “emotional” dimension). For Spalding :

There can be no substitute for the experience of seeing with your own eyes the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci, the beaks of the finches that gave Darwin his first inkling of the theory of evolution, or the shoes that victims of the Holocaust took off before they entered the gas chamber. Once seen and felt and, as far as one is able, comprehended, such sights can be unforgettable. Creating such flowers of feeling and understanding in the minds of each visitor is the challenge facing museums in the 21st century (Spalding, 2002 : 9).

24We have tried to show however that such an understanding of the museum’s mission is not inherently new, and that if we intend to promote the emotional powers of display, we need to understand the history of such strategies.

25Personal and indeed national relics need to be understood and felt as such, but at the same time the visitor needs to be given new critical tools. If the aim of the post-modern museum is to privilege a new plurality of meanings providing the visitor with more space as an actor, rather than a passive spectator, then one of its aims should be to allow the visitor to better appreciate the relationship between the history(ies) and the memories that displays of relic type objects recreate and to reflect upon his own emotional reactions thanks to an intellectual frame of discourse. “Museums in the future will need to promote doubt with delight. There are good scientific reasons why they should do so, because there is still a surprising amount that we do not know about the past” (Spalding 2002 : 20).In order for this to take place however the nature of our relationship with the documents that museums use to construct historical narrative needs to be more clearly established. This means reconsidering the power of such objects as the “secular relics” that we have tried to understand here. Indeed throughout this article any opposition between “religious” and “profane” has been deliberately avoided, and by using the term “relic” we have also implied that the transfer from religious to secular did not necessarily mean a loss of the sacred. If we consider the quality of the sacred to be that which transcends daily life and fabricates a sense of social coherence (Tessier, 1994) than of course the museum very much serves to sanctify the values of secular society. It becomes clear that secular relics provide a material support for this transcendental process, although it goes without saying that they represent very different values to those related to Christian relics. We need to recognize that they do not provide objective, fixed points of reference but that they are powerful emotional triggers that make the spectator more responsive to the story being told. It follows that they need to be presented with this in mind as they serve to construct new lieux de mémoires where the past reintegrates the present to define such essential ideas as national or European identity.

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Bibliographie

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Notes

1  It is in fact the former Palais des Colonies built for the Colonial Fair of 1935, Malraux transformed it into the Musée des Arts africains et océaniens in 1960. Its collections were transferred to the Musée Quai Branly in 2003.

2  Dossier de presse ouverture de la Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration, p. 10: “Le parcours scénographique se présente comme un dispositif ouvert, interactif, construit sur des successions d’expériences immersives, émotionnelles et pédagogiques ; fragments de vie, de trajectoires, de circulations revivent à travers des récits et témoignages d’individus, des installations d’images, de projections, de jeux et d’objets.” (translated by the author).

3  Communiqué de Presse : “C’est notre histoire : une expo touchante sur l’Europe, Nous voulons éveiller à l’histoire de l’Europe un public, souvent jeune, qui, en général, ne s’y intéresse guère, ou très peu, et chez lequel il faut en appeler plus aux émotions, en lui faisant sentir que cette histoire le concerne, qu’il s’agit de lui: de son passé et de son avenir.” (translated by the author).

4  The psychological relationship between objects, memories and emotions is perhaps even more directly and consistently explored in Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence. The novel is entirely structured around the metaphor of display: throughout the narration, the main protagonist meticulously describes a series of specific objects to represent each important stage or event of his own story and to restore some sense of the past.

5  Two definitions of the word relic need to be considered, as provided by the Oxford English Dictionary, 2009: 1. “In the Christian Church, esp. the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches: the physical remains (as the body or a part of it) of a saint, martyr, or other deceased holy person, or a thing believed to be sanctified by contact with him or her (such as a personal possession or piece of clothing), preserved as an object of veneration and often enshrined in some ornate receptacle.”; 2. “Something kept as a remembrance, souvenir, or memorial; a historical object relating to a particular person, place, or thing; a memento.”

6  Musée des archives nationales, documents originaux de l’histoire de France, 1872, Paris, Plon, p. I:“On en doit la création à M. le marquis de Laborde. (…) Ce musée met sous les yeux de tous un précieux spécimen des richesses conservées dans le sanctuaire auquel il sert en quelque sorte de portique”.

7  Pierre Abélard (1070-1142) was one of the most famous theologians of his time but is better known for his love affair with his beautiful pupil Héloïse (1101-1162). Their passion was of short duration and ended tragically as Abelard was castrated by his lover’s uncle. After this both Abélard and Héloise joined holy orders. They spent the rest of their lives apart, but their story became famous through the correspondence that they kept with each other.

8  “Le pavillon du milieu, qui correspond au fameux pavillon de l’Horloge, est occupé dans toute sa hauteur par la décoration de la salle Impériale. Ici, sur un fond pourpre rouge, ressortent des abeilles sans nombre, et, dans les voussures du plafond, les aigles accompagnent les insignes impériaux et les figures allégoriques qu’on y remarque. L’effet de cette salle est saisissant, comme celui produit par la vue d’un tombeau contenant la dépouille d’un héros consacré par l’histoire. Le jour, voilé et mystérieux, qui l’éclaire, et les reliques du grand Empereur, qui y sont déposées, forcent à un religieux silence et à de profondes méditations. On peut dire maintenant que l’Empereur a deux grands monuments funéraires sur les bords de la Seine: l’un aux Invalides, où repose son corps; l’autre au Louvre, où plane son esprit.”

9  Philippe Busoni, 1853 L’Illustration, 5 mars, p. 147: “Le pèlerinage à la salle de l’Empire comme à un de ces reliquaires de la gloire humaine dont les enseignements ne sauraient être trop médités” (quoted by Granger, 2005: 334).

10 Alexandre, 1903: 12 : “Puis vient, reconstituée avec un soin pieux autant que scrupuleusement exact, la chambre où il s’éteignit, véritable sanctuaire, où il est impossible de ne pas ressentir une vive et profonde émotion.”

11 “À ce même étage, à l’emplacement du cabinet de travail, a été reconstituée fidèlement la chambre mortuaire de l’avenue d’Eylau, avec le lit à colonnes de style Renaissance dans lequel mourut le poète, la haute table, également en chêne sculpté, sur laquelle il écrivait debout, enfin tout ce qui ornait la pièce et qui avait été religieusement conservé.”

12 “Cluny”, Le Grand Larousse du XIXe siècle, quoted by Anne-Doris Meyer, 2000: 230 (translated by the author).

13 Sommerard, Alexandre du, 1834: 59: “Elle céda souvent à l’impulsion de Henri II, venant oublier près de Diane les soins de son empire ou plutôt lui remettre les rênes.”(translated by the author).

14 Decree quoted by Catherine Granger, 2005: 307. “Considérant qu’il est d’un grand intérêt pour l’art et pour l’histoire de réunir dans une seule et même collection tous les objets ayant appartenu, d’après constatation authentique, aux différents souverains qui ont régné sur la France; que ces objets, aujourd’hui disséminés dans un grand nombre d’établissement publics, y sont pour la plupart peu dignement placés; considérant, en outre, que le nouveau musée s’enrichira encore de dons particuliers que pourront lui faire les possesseurs de semblables objets”.

15 Georges Montorgueil, Le Temps, 1925, quoted by Dubois, 1947: 434: “un charmant corsage, en étoffe brodée, où le cœur de la tendre et fidèle amoureuse avait battu; Qui me l’assure, la gorge n’y est plus!” (translated by the author).

16 See online video : http://www.ina.fr/art-et-culture/musees-et-expositions/video/CAB89032288/caen-exposition-autour-du-soulier-de-marie-antoinette.fr.html

17 Quoted by Granger, 2005: 325 : “Ôtez le certificat de provenance au mouchoir que Napoléon Ier a touché au dernier moment de sa vie, ainsi qu’au soulier de la reine Marie-Antoinette, nous ne dirons pas qu’elle sera la valeur de chacun d’eux; mais se trouvera-t-il quelqu’un qui se baissera même pour les ramasser.”

18 Gervereau, 1996: 22:“En règle générale, malgré leur nom, les musées d’histoire témoignent d’une relation au passé, à la mémoire, à l’identité, mais pas d’une relation à l’Histoire.”

19 Bonnet, 1998: 53: “L’orateur laïc, qui adopte le point de vue de la postérité, s’avance dès lors devant les tombes comme un juge averti et scrupuleux de la renommée. L’ancienne perspective eschatologique cède alors devant une vision exclusivement commémorative.”

20 Thomas, 1899: 216: “Notre religion est d’aimer et chérir ces patrons.”; 213: “de là une nouvelle forme de l’émulation également féconde, et dont le rôle dans l’éducation doit devenir de plus en plus grand. […] c’est que l’humanité ne vit en réalité et ne progresse que par les hommes de génie.”

21 Horace de Viel-Castel, Le Moniteur universel, 1853, 16 février: 189-190, quoted by Granger, 2005: 190: “Il est bon de faire revivre, pour les hommes d’aujourd’hui, les noms de tous les chefs qui ont présidé aux destinées de leurs ancêtres, de les entourer du prestige éclatant des souvenirs, et, pour restaurer le pouvoir qu’il a été trop longtemps de mode de dénigrer, il faut le relever, non seulement dans le présent, mais aussi dans le passé”.

22 L’illustration, 21 mai 1898, “Le nouveau Carnavalet”: 371:“Plus loin, c’est une salle empire remplie de rares portraits de Napoléon Ier, remplie surtout par les somptueuses pièces de son nécessaire de campagne, légué jadis par le général Bertrand, et qu’on a eu pour la première fois l’idée de mettre sous les yeux du public. Quelle grave curiosité évoquent ces menus objets si intimes ! Cette brosse à dents à demi usée qui garde encore la teinte de la poudre; ce flacon avec l’étiquette manuscrite ‘eau de rose’, et cet autre rempli encore au quart d’eau de Cologne.”

23 Horace de Viel-Castel, Le Moniteur universel, 1853, 16 février: 189-190: “Aucun cicerone n’avait besoin de lui raconter l’histoire du héros populaire; elle sortait de toutes les bouches ; elle impressionnait tout ce peuple, dont les pères ont été les soldats du grand capitaine. En quelques heures et devant ces monuments contemporains de Napoléon on aurait pu recueillir des milliers d’anecdotes inédites, traditions héréditaires, que les compagnons du vainqueur d’Austerlitz ont léguées à leurs enfants, et qui, passant de générations en générations, prendront place un jour parmi les légendes merveilleuses.”

24 C. de Chatouville, “Chronique du mois, Le musée des Souverains”, Musée des familles, octobre 1853, quoted by Granger, 2005: 331.

25 Pety, 2007: 59 in reference to Victor Hugo’s La Légende des siècles: “En dépit du titre qui fait résonner la diversité des ‘siècles’ prise en charge par la parole poétique, le projet, dans la préface de 1859, semble moins centré sur l’histoire, principe d’évolution, que sur l’Homme, principe de permanence, ‘grande figure une et multiple, lugubre et rayonnante, fatale et sacrée’”.

26  Delpierre, 1954: 30: “De ce déplorable ménage qui troubla douloureusement la vie de Nohant, errent quelques souvenirs dans une vitrine de Carnavalet, comme pour remémorer les épreuves familiales de Sand et nous dire que le cœur de la terrible Solange avait aussi souffert.”

27  For photos see: http://www.culture.gouv.fr/mcc/Actualites/Actualite-en-images/Les-Archives-nationales/%28offset%29/0/%28selected_image%29/3#3

28  Sarkozy, 2009, “Discours de M. le Président de la République : Vœux aux acteurs de la Culture”, Nîmes – Mardi 13 janvier 2009.

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Felicity Bodenstein, « The Emotional Museum. Thoughts on the “Secular Relics” of Nineteenth-Century History Museums in Paris and their Posterity », Conserveries mémorielles [En ligne], #9 | 2011, mis en ligne le 15 avril 2011, consulté le 19 août 2017. URL : http://cm.revues.org/834

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Felicity Bodenstein

est doctorante en histoire de l’art à l’Université Paris IV-Sorbonne (France) et travaille sur le Cabinet des médailles de la Bibliothèque nationale de 1830 à 1930 sous direction du professeur Barthélémy Jobert. Elle a été chercheure associée à la Bibliothèque nationale de France de 2005 à 2008, puis fellow au Getty Research Institute à Los Angeles en 2009-2010 et est maintenant assistante de recherche sur le projet European National Museums : Identity Politics, the Uses of the Past  and the European Citizen à l’Université Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne.

Felicity Bodenstein
is a PhD candidate in Art History at the Université Paris IV-Sorbonne (France). She’s working on the Cabinet des médailles de la Bibliothèque nationale de 1830 à 1930 under the supervison of Professor Barthélémy Jobert. She was research associate at the Bibliothèque nationale de France between 2005 and 2008, fellow at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles in 2009-2010 and is now research assistant on the project European National Museums : Identity Politics, the Uses of the Past  and the European Citizen at the Université Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne.

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