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Histories of/in the museum: Museums are nothing without their histories

Histories of/in the museum: Museums are nothing without their histories

Exchanges between works and their histories represents a part of everyday life of the art world. According to the conception of Raymonde Moulin from his history of the Parisian art market from 1960, a trader could assure to “give a painting and sell history”. Likewise, museums are nothing without their histories. They justify openings of museums in the framework of some grand narrative: whether the question is about a “national novel”, the history of families, the golden legend of an artist or of a lieu de mémoire, the same stories legitimize the course of museums’ rooms, thus representing the return to roots, or the idea of progress. These histories guarantee as well, more prosaically, an authenticity of their collections, as sources or verifications of their expertise. Finally, histories feed the pleasure of visitors, between private emotions and common values, during shared conversations, other exchanges or readings, and they nourish memories that are eventually hidden in writing. These different stories tell about affections, convictions or scholar rationalization and political practices. It is in this context where qualities and principles should be identified, on which we will work through case studies and methodological perspectives.      


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Program

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 The following themes will be presented:

 A scholar’s curiosity

History of collections, particularly related to the provenance of reserves and their circulations, but to their treatments in different institutions as well, has been written for a generation in a new way, with a perspective that is often critical. Thus, these questions have become a part of museum studies, heritage literature and of more general approaches related to the cultural and social history of arts, or humanities. These histories are usually written outside of the museum, by independent researchers, or by personnel of museums, but at the border of their professional work, even if the museum is the direct sponsor of its historiography. Particularly since the museum cultivates henceforth, with pleasure, the memory related to its closed or lost exhibitions, with an aim of expertise and of memory. Finally, creation of research centers by museums, which are connected to their own history represents the proof of a new concern with their museographic heritage, as well as the mean of their control over scientific discourse about them. 

 An archeology of memorable

Today (more than yesterday?), museums develop or take a responsibility for histories in their temporary exhibitions or regarding their permanent collections, with an aim to fulfill different objectives. Sometimes, it is about providing histories as the guarantees of the institution’s mission, of its values, of its successes by glorifying particular moment, or a personality of the museum’s founder or patron. It is particularly the aim of the commemorative intentions. Moreover, reorganizations of museums that often lead to closing or moving, were behind the numerous documentary histories or the one related to inventory, throughout the world, histories that were nostalgic, monumental, regarding the museums that disappeared, or were closed or ruined. On the other hand, these reorganizations represented a pretext, that is still bracketed, for more or less inspiring archaeologies. In certain cases, history could directly be seen in the new phisiognomy of the museum, which becomes a palimpsest, as it is the case with the Museum Island in Berlin. 

An intrigue to display

The model of the artist’s life is particularly evident in the monographic museums dedicated to different artists, which regularly call on biographical materials. The museum of life stories is another category of institution, that is based directly on the exposition of autobiography, from the most tragic ones – of Anne Frank – to strictly nostalgic evocations, or the ones based on activities of celebrities, which is so striking in the biographic turning point of numerous recent exhibitions, and affects every type of museum, from fashion to archeology. Numerous museums related to ethnology, history, or to the arts, usually offer life histories of objects, of mechanisms, sometimes fictional, sometimes authentic, which function as an additional element of communication of these institutions, with a pragmatic aim. Presentation of representatives of different communities in the exhibition is a resource that became banal, and even the most conventional presentation, for example, the period-rooms, draw on the life stories. Thus, exhibitions that represented Fables of La Fontaine, or Dangerous Liaisons within period-rooms subverted by artists are their remarkable cases.    

 A communicational tool

Museums voluntary call on visitors and their own personal histories in front of presented objects. Convoking memories of visitors, family stories, memories from diasporas supplies discourses of many institutions. Social networks play for several years an increasing role, which seem to convoke sufficiently more or less spontaneous confessions, of the more or less known stories of utilizations. Individual preferences of celebrities for various museum object become a communicational tool of institutions while the advertising campaigns appear, which affirm that we are at home in the museum of our nation, as it is the case with museum of Ottawa. Museum seem like it is entering in the family novel. Storytelling of museums is created in that way.     

 Time of revelation of heritage

Museum’s world provoked quickly the debates and polemics all along from its origins. The symbolic burden of the institution, often considerable, calls for exchange and engagement in the critical space. Eminently political, the decisions to open or to reform an institution, represent big tensions, however, the choice of temporary exhibitions, adjustments or a call for public in relation to the collection, are as well the occasions to perceive the movements of a general emotion come to the surface. Finally, the case of questioning of property, of claims for restitutions accompanied the actuality of institution for several decades, thus leading to the emergence of life histories of owners, which are numerous, opposed, or mixed, convoked sufficient number of more or less decisive actors. History that is treated by the museum responds here to a logic related to the progress of consciousness for heritage, supposed to terminate slowly aberration of the crimes of the past and to fulfill a logic of emancipation and legitimate appropriation.

 A right to the history of visitor seems to be claimed by all of these aspects.

 Dominique Poulot, Chaire d'études de la France contemporaine, University of Montreal

Emplacement : Université de Montréal, Pavillon Lionel-Groulx salle C-2059