We all seem to know what a museum is or should be. As this painting by the French Painter Hubert Robert shows, it is a room, a space, an architecture, where people come together to see artworks. What we see is a crowd of men, women and children, so to say a public, consisting of very different people.
What the painting shows us, seems to be exactly what we expect of a museum: to be a sphere of unlimited access to a public, which also seems to be unlimited in a social sense. Everybody is allowed to come to the museum and everybody can make use of art or culture in that house and space named ‘Museum’. Everybody seems to be welcome to see things, to enjoy or to learn from them.
But the painting by Hubert Robert is rather a political manifesto or social utopia because the Grande Galerie of the Louvre, as shown here, first became a museum in 1793, and in reality the Gallery was at that time in rather poor condition.
Robert’s painting promises the realisation of something, which had been claimed for decades, but even under the French kings was never realized: a public museum with cultural artifacts owned by the public – this means, by the state, by the nation -, and created for the benefit, education and entertainment of the public.
Till 1793 France had in difference to some European capitals no royal Gallery open to the public, as Vienna or Florence had, and had no collection owned by the state as the British Museum had had since 1753.
What the painting shows is not an illustration of reality, but an idea, a promise, being realised just at the time of the French Revolution. It is often said that the founding of museums during the French Revolution is only a consequence of the elder royal politics –about 110 paintings were shown during some years from 1750 on in the Palais du Luxembourg. This means to see Revolutionary Museum as nothing other than the fulfilling of a political and museological tradition of the 18th century and of the French Kingdom.
And this is just the way the story is told for instance by the Louvre in it’s present historical department. But what differentiates it from the few public European Collections that existed at the time is the enormous and important political and social role not only of the Louvre-Museum but of all museums founded during the French Revolution, for instance the Musée des Monuments Français, the Musée d’ Histoire Naturelle or the Musée d’ Art et des Metiers.
These museums are not based on continuity, but on the contrary on discontinuity. To make use of parts of the kings palace, the Louvre as a public museum was at that time not the realisation of the idea of a royal gallery but an act of violent occupation with great symbolical power. And the creation of the museums was based on the confiscation of the property of the king, of the aristocracy, on the secularisation of the property of the church and on the iconoclasm during the first months of the Revolution.
It is the first time in history, that the idea of the museum is based both on the common ownership of cultural property and on common enjoyment of this property.
The opening of the Louvre – I am citing Andrew McClellan, one of the historians of the history of the Louvre during the revolution -, “was tied to the birth of a new nation. The investiture of the Louvre with the power of a revolutionary sign radically transformed the ideal museum public. To the extent that the Louvre embodied the Republican principles of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, all citizens were encouraged to participate in the experience of communal ownership, and clearly many did.”
The time of the Revolution is one of deep social and political crisis. 1793, the year of the opening of the Louvre, is the year in which the king is executed. It is not only the end of the French Monarchy and Kingdom, but it is also the dawn of Modernity and Democracy.
The contemporaneity of political crisis and the founding of museums is surprising and demands an explication. There can be no doubt of this contemporaneity: The Museum in the Louvre opened on 10th of August 1793, the same day as the Fête de la Régénération, a mass procession performed the rebirth of the French Nation, a sort of birthday-ritual with the participation of thousands of inhabitants throughout the City of Paris with all deputies of the revolutionary parliament.
This day was also the day of the anniversary of the escalade of the Castle of the Tuileries, the occasion of the fall of the monarchy and accusation of the king and the beginning of the climax of the Revolution, the Grande Terreur.
It is surprising that the Museum as an institution steps into the centre of cultural and social identification exactly at this time. The museum seems to be able to offer a new representation of commonness and identity by its narration and collections. And the museum seems to be able to tell unifying stories and to offer common objects.
There is another surprising contemporaneity we should pay attention to:
At nearly the same time, the body of the king was put to death on the Guillotine, and thus a new body was invented. It was invented in the discussions of the Assemblée national and in her committees on the dialectic and contradiction of Iconoclasm and the wish to protect historical and artistic goods from being demolished. What was discovered in these debates is a – so to say - holy good, possessed and protected by the nation, the patrimoine (heritage), a new word, invented in the debates.
The body of the king was not only the body of a certain private man, it was the symbol of the French Monarchy and Kingdom, a representation of the power that held society together. At that historical moment, this principle of power is abolished and a new representation has to be created. And one of this new principles and symbols is cultural heritage: the patrimoine. (In Italy I beni culturali, in Great Britain heritage, in Austria or German Erbe and so on…).
What I would like to suggest is, to understand the museum less as an architecture or room where people could view cultural goods. For me a museum is instead a social space, in which are circulating phantasms, ideas, wishes are circulating – for instance of identity and origin, citizenship or unity, but also class, race and gender differences circulate.
The way in which we are thinking and speaking of museums is still based on the ideas of the Age of Enlightenment and the French Revolution. Since that time the museum has become a sphere of public discourses based on a common good, on a sort of holy treasure owned by the public. The Museum takes care of protecting cultural heritage and handing it down. The Museum reflects the need and desire for national identity and it builds up a canon of cultural goods, which seem to be eternal and indestructible and insofar also untouchable.
As such an idea sprung up around 1800 in France and in central Europe, one that was and still is an absolutely rare and unique practice, unknown in every other culture in the past and present.
Isn’t it a rare and strange ritual, to store things for an indefinite duration only for the purpose to come together from time to time to view them ?
The place of power changes continuously and nobody (‘no body’, even no longer the body of the king, as it happened in France) is able to represent power. From this time on new ways of representing of national identity, power and collective cultural values were needed.
The museum is from this time on not only a showcase or collection but it is also a social space, where people collect themselves and represent themselves as a nation. The Nation is defined - among other things -, by the possession of a untouchable and eternal “holy treasure”, as the French museologist Bernard de Loche said.
One of the answers to the new and peremptory question of identification in modernity was and still is the museum -: a place for collecting things, but also for people to collect themselves aroundround goods.
What we can observe during the French Revolution is an enormous accumulation. Huge depots, archives and collections were compiled from the annexation of the possessions of the king, of the nobility and of the church, later on as an effect of the vandalism and the art loot in Europe during the Napoleonic time. But what we also can observe, is the creation of a public discourse on heritage (patrimoine) and identity.
Thing, as a word, not only means object but also assembly. This assembling at museums expresses the desire to have a thing, an object, able to represent collective identity, a thing, which ‘makes us ourselves’. But such a ‘thing’ can hardly be found, and normally its an ‘image’, an ‘imagination’.
A society’s identity and memory could hardly be possessed like a ‘thing’, but, as an assembly the museum is, or could be a space for permanent discourses on what “we” are, about who “we” are and who the “others” are.
For instance, in that intelligent and witty way in which the National Museum of Australia raises its central question in its mission statement: What does it mean to be an Australian ? The answer to what collective identity is, what this public good, represented by museums, is, can’t be given, it is a question that has to be raised constantly. This never-ending discourse is the task of a museums within a democratic society, this is the civilising role of museums.
Recently a US-American action film out of Hollywood by the Disney Company, a film for young boys and, by the way not a very interesting adventure story, raised some of the questions, I am considering here in its subtext.
Made in 2004, the film begins telling the fictional story of an immense treasure up to the first days of the American Revolution. This coincidence makes of the treasure a – so the title of the film - National Treasure (in Italy the film had the title Il mistero dei templari), a treasure once protected and hidden by the Founding Fathers of the United States. To make it possible to discover the treasure later, they left behind a sort of invisible map on the backside of the American Declaration of Independence.
The script of the film is based on two storylines: the story of a fictional treasure, told at the beginning of the film, and the hunt for it and the narrative of the foundation of the United States of America and of the key document of this foundation, the Declaration of Independence.
The hunt follows therefore two treasures: one is the fabulous treasure, protected and hidden by the founding fathers and the other treasure is an idea: the idea of Democracy, laid down in a document, the certificate of the birth of a nation from 1776.
One of the crucial scenes of the film shows us the two heroes visiting the original document in its showcase in the National Archives. The historian reads to his friend a certain passage. This passage speaks of the case of loss or even abuse of democracy and of the threat of despotism. In this case, says the document, everybody doesn’t even have the right, but the duty to abolish the government. “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right (this means: the people’s right, the right of everyone. GF), it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”
That means, that in democracy, no one has power permanently, no certain person, no group, no institution. This also means that in a certain sense there is always a crisis in democracy. In western democracy, the power shifts constantly, at least at periodical elections. And therefore democracy has a problem representing itself, embodying or symbolising it’s own political and social identity.
This lack of visibility or representativity seems to tempt one to find a compensation, a certain thing, which is able to represent commonness. What seems to be desired is therefore a common object, which is able to guarantee collective identity.
Let me offer an example. As a result of the restitution politics of the Austrian Government a group of paintings of the famous painter Gustav Klimt, which were in the Austrian Gallery, an National Museum, have been given back to a descendant of the family, which owned the paintings and was a victim of Aryanisation.
This restitution provoked a public debate that lasted for months. It was considered for instance, to raise public and private money to keep the paintings ore some of them in Austria. It was interesting to see, that these paintings acquired a status they had never before, the status of a national treasure. And their loss, was thought of as severe and incurable damage for the Austrian Self.
Both objects of the film National Treasure, the declaration, the text and the hidden treasure, the collection of goods and values can be understood as common objects. Both represent the genealogy and identity of the nation, and both have the same status: In the same way, the hidden treasure must be found, discovered, to fulfil the common mission of the nation and the declaration must be discovered, in a never ending re-reading of the text, of its meaning, a remembering of its mission.
The hidden map on the back of the declaration, the central plot of the storyboard of the film, connects the two stories and the two objects. Reading the text again and again means finding the treasure.
There is a common object, but to only possess such an object is of less importance. What is of importance is to reread the text of the object, which is to say: to reread the object itself.
This is my central consideration on the function of museums, the question first raised during the French Revolution and also raised in the Hollywood-movie: what is able to symbolise, express or objectify the common sense ?
The answer given by the movie is full of irony and surprise. After the treasure is really found, in a cave deep in the earth under an old cemetery connected with the earliest history of the USA, this means under the graves of the ancestors, what do we as visitors expect now ?
What will happen with the treasure ?
None of the heroes raise their right to possess the treasure privately. One of the young heroes, a witty historian, able to follow all the traces of American History along its lieux de memoire, gets as a young, pretty and blonde girl in return; and the prize for the second hero, the typical American computer-freak, able to solve all the technical problems of treasure hunting, is a red Ferrari cabriole.
And the treasure ? It is handed over to museums. But not only to American Museums, but to Museums all over the world.
Nevertheless there is a discourse in the film on common objects of a certain nation, of the USA, it speaks of an ambiguity, which was also at the centre of the museums discourse of the French Revolution. It is the ambiguity of National and Global museum, of possessing a collection as national treasure or as world heritage.
The Louvre was a national Museum, its first name was Museum Français, but the paintings and the sculptures collected and shown in this museum didn’t really represent the French Art History. The Louvre was from beginning on a museum of all the classical periods of history of art.
The contradiction between the idea of a universal museum representing the fruits of global human skills and ideas on the one hand and the possessiveness in a juridical sense of all these goods by only one nation, was solved by the proud and glorious idea of France as the first state and society bee freed by Revolution. This ideology – criticised already during the Revolution itself – legitimated a systematic art loot by Napoleonic troops in occupied states and cities. This art loot made the Louvre definitively the leading museum of the world.
In the end, when the treasure is discovered and rescued, the treasure-hunters decide to hand all the wealth of heritage over to a dozen of important museums all over the world. This ‘democratization’ of culture means that this heritage is not and should not be able to represent a certain nation, and that the ‘treasure of civilisation’ doesn’t belong to anyone but should be enjoyed by everyone.
The Film National Treasure not only has two narratives, it also has two messages: democracy seems to need a material representation of commonness and togetherness. One way of representing this is a museums collection understood as a common object. And the other way of representing this is a common text, permanently reread by the community.
In my understanding of museums both ways of representation correspond to each other. A collection as a mere accumulation of things is of no importance if this object is not reread permanently by a community.
The museum is not, as normally thought, only a place of heritage, of things, of collections and exhibitions. The museum is a social space for raising never ending questions on identity and power, difference and togetherness, memory and future.
The museum at which I am working now, the Joanneum, was in the years of its foundation, from 1811 on, a vivid public place. A place where people not only were allowed to come together and to see cultural goods. The museum was created as a public sphere in its own right. The museum offered not only space for the public, but it actively encouraged and performed the public sphere. The museum was – till the Revolution of 1848 – a sphere of constant discourse and economic and cultural development and experience for the whole country of Styria.
Nevertheless I don’t plead for the reiteration of an old model, this Museum Joanneum is one of the historical examples that encourages us to get a modern perspective on an old institution.