Capitals and their museums

Speech of François Mairesse, CERLIS, ICCA, Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3, USPC
Translated by Madeleine Planeix-Crocker


This article focuses on studying the place of museums in the framework of national capitals, with a specific examination of France and Parisian institutions. Similarly to cathedrals, parliaments and stock exchanges, a museum’s presence in a city is a symbol of the power detained by the municipality, especially capitals. If today we retain the name of certain noteworthy museums – the Louvre, the British Museum, the Altes Museum – as undeniable references of urban heritage, constructed at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the following century, they are inscribed in an even more ancient history connected to erudition and education (places of memory, and places of knowledge). An initial list of cabinets appears at the beginning of the 16th century, yet their systematic identification and referencing in tour guides only occurs as of the 18th century. Well before the creation of the Louvre, there existed a ‘paysage muséal’ [museum landscape] (the term, in French, was not frequently used) composed of several cabinets that could be visited: the Guide des amateurs et des étrangers voyageurs à Paris of 1787 identifies a few dozen specialized in antiquities (6), etchings and geography (6), natural history (19), physics (5), paintings and sculptures (9). However, most of these cabinets are private and are dependent on one hand of abbeys or colleges, or on the other, of individuals or patrons (erudites and noblemen).


The creation of the British Museum in London (1753) occurs during the pivotal institutional shift at the end of the 18th century, allowing the State to acquire Hans Sloane’s private cabinet and turn it into a museum. During its inauguration, this establishment preserved the specific physiognomy of cabinets, which housed antique collections but also specimens of ethnography or natural history, as well as a library. The institution’s transformation is a progressive process: on one hand, the terms “museum” and “muséal” [pertaining to museums] gain in traction relative to “salon”, whose role appears more exclusive and private (the king’s or nobleman’s cabinet, or that of the abbey, etc.). The museum is associated with the State’s rise in power, in charge of the organization of its collections while ensuring their continuity. On the other hand, the museum becomes more modern, akin to the Louvre and its departments, installing a radical separation between books, natural history specimens and works of art. This separation occurs in France during the French Revolution, between 1793 and 1795, in five national institutions: the Louvre, the museum of natural history (which replaces the Cabinet du Roi, already open to the public), the Conservatoire national des arts et métiers, the museum of French monuments and the Musée d’artillerie. Whether in London or in Paris, most museums upon their creation are first housed in existing establishments: palaces, abbeys, etc. It is only after that specific sites dedicated to museums were constructed.

The first wave of construction, which progressively transformed the urban landscape, occurred during the first half of the 19th century. At this time, all major European capitals already had museums: permanent institutions, regularly open to the public – tourists, scientists and artists, in addition to a more general public. London and Paris principally had institutions built around gardens conceived centuries earlier and that were progressively modernized (construction of new galleries for the museum of natural history in Paris, as of 1833-41, a new building for the British Museum in 1852). On the contrary, Madrid and Berlin benefited immediately from a new architectural program. The Prado building, constructed as of 1785, opened as a museum of paintings in 1819, while the Altes Museum in Berlin was built between 1825 and 1830, to later become the Museumsinsel. This museum’s location particularly symbolized the place of a cultural institution within a city: placed facing the imperial palace, adjacent to the arsenal and a cathedral in Berlin, its location seems to illustrate the new role of culture, gaining independence from the power of the Prince, the Church and the military. The relationship between the museum and power emerges immediately from such architectural and urban choices, whether discussing existing buildings (the former royal palace of the Louvre, for instance) or the location of new institutions: the chosen locations are inscribed in the heart of the city or State’s power (Berlin or Madrid, but also Washington, which is the most striking example of this urban phenomenon).

As of this era appeared the first points of comparison between national museums. The size and quantity of the collection – and namely of its paintings – but also the importance of buildings housing them became subject of more or less serious analysis between countries, emphasizing the highly symbolic meaning of these spaces. The temporary character of the first National Gallery in London built as of 1824 and housed in a modest establishment, is also subject to stark comparisons with the Louvre. A kind of competition was installed between these two museums, as illustrated at times in popular magazines such as Les chefs-d’oeuvre du Musée du Louvre, published and store by the stores in the Louvre at the end of the 19th century: based on comparative statistics, the Parisian museum is presented as the largest, most diverse and most beautiful museum in the world, relative to British, German and Italian institutions.

At the beginning of the 19th century, the museum landscape remained relatively underdeveloped; it is only during a second wave of urban planning that capitals developed their museum networks, first composed of art, science and technology establishments. A certain number of institutions progressively emerged. The first museum of “contemporary art” in Paris was created in 1818, with the opening of the Musée des artistes vivants (located in the Luxembourg gardens). However, it was mainly during the second half of the 19th century that several particular establishments were constructed, namely the Musée des Thermes and the Cluny private residence (1843), the Museum of Celtic and Gallo-roman antiquities in Saint-Germain-en-Laye (1862) or the Museum of Paris (1880, managed by the city). Two elements played an essential role in the development of these infrastructures: on one hand, the presence of important leaders connected with the museum movement, and on the other, the phenomenon of universal exhibitions.

Two important influences: universal exhibitions and personal ambitions

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, universal exhibitions transformed the physiognomy of cities in which they are organized. The first Great exhibition of the works of all Nations, held at the Crystal Palace in 1851, lead directly, along with the benefits gained, to the creation of several institutions around South Kensington (the future Victoria & Albert Museum) conceived to improve the quality of British industries. It was in the same context that five universal exhibitions (1855, 1867, 1878, 1889 and 1900) and two international exhibitions (1925, 1937) which took place in Paris significantly informed the city’s museum landscape. If the first exhibitions, similarly to that of the Crystal Palace, privileged demountable structures, a certain number of edifices were quickly constructed for later use, namely to become museums. Such was the case of the monumental pavilion built on the Trocadéro hill in Paris for the 1878 exhibition, which later housed the ethnographic museum (as of 1879) and the museum of comparative sculpture, with the support of Viollet-le-Duc (1882). The Grand Palais and the Petit Palais, built for the 1900 exhibition, were also converted: the former welcomed temporary exhibits and the latter housed the city of Paris’ art collections (it was also during this exhibition that the Gare d’Orsay was built, transformed 86 years later into the eponymous museum). The international exhibition of art and technology of 1937, the last one exhibition to date, prompted the renovation of the buildings constructed in 1878, which continued to house the same collections, yet under slightly different names (musée des Monuments français et musée de l’Homme, the building later included the Musée de la Marine). The Palais de la Découverte was constructed within the Grand Palais, as the first museum dedicated to the sciences; the Palais des musées d’art moderne, also called the Palais de Tokyo, was built to welcome national modern art collections, as was as the museum of modern art of the city of Paris.

These architectural and urban planning changes, connected with the city’s large-scale projects, were spearheaded by several leaders (often museum professionals) whose contributions were considerable. In the United-Kingdom, Henry Cole (1808-1882) was particularly noteworthy, as the linchpin of the first universal exhibition as well as the conception of the South Kensington museums. In Germany, Wilhelm Bode (1845-1929), director of the Prussian museums and founder of the Bode museum, conceived the Museuminsel. In France, Georges Henri Rivière (1897 – 1985), along with Paul Rivert, was at the head of the renovation of the Musée de l’Homme, and then of the creation of the Musée national des Arts et Traditions populaires, inaugurated in 1972 and located in the Bois de Boulogne (first museum built after World War II). There are as many leaders connecting innovative thought processes regarding museums to art and public, political or social relations, as there are projects in need of professional achievement. Political involvement allows us to understand the reasons for the development (or stasis) of museums. Noteworthy leaders include the emperor supporting Bode in Berlin, as well as Vivant Denon, the first director of the Louvre several decades earlier, as well as the husband of Queen Victoria who played a considerable role in the success of the universal exhibition and then in the creation of the South Kensington museums. On this point, the French case remains important, especially with regard to the continuity of political intervention, from Napoleon’s era to today, passing through Louis-Philippe (Versailles) and Napoleon III’s reign (museum of national antiquities). The importance granted these past thirty years to the development and preservation of heritage would not be the same without the personal implication of the presidents of the French République, granted the power by the fifth constitution (1958) to intervene in cultural matters. This political role will be rapidly put into effect, by Georges Pompidou who, as of 1968, had the idea of constructing a large cultural center at the heart of Paris. The Centre national d’art et de culture Georges Pompidou, inaugurated in 1977, had a radical impact on Paris’ landscape, illustrating and inducing the transformations put into effect during the 1980s with regard to museums: a remarkable architecture (to the point that theoreticians at times speak of a ‘Post-Pompidou age’), temporary exhibitions, the development of museum techniques, but also of marketing, leading to a spectacular gain in popularity by museums as well as the transformation of their economic model. Pompidou initiated a trend later adopted by his successors (until Nicolas Sarkozy’s aborted attempt to create a Maison d’histoire de France): the Institut du monde arabe, Cité des sciences et de l’industrie and the Musée d’Orsay (initiated by Valery Giscard d’Estaing), the Grand Louvre project which doubled the museum’s exhibitions space (led by François Mitterrand), the Musée des arts premiers du Quai Branly (spearheaded by Jacques Chirac), without forgetting the Cité de l’immigration (prompted by Lionel Jospin and supported by Jacques Chirac). There are thus numerous large institutions whose construction was directly connected with presidential will and whose transformations place them amongst some of the most visited institutions in the capital (and even in the world).

The market, the State and foundations

Until the 1970s, the museum was essentially perceived as an institution for research and the transmission of knowledge. Indeed, there existed a certain number of institutions connected by more practical questions, namely of an economic or commercial nature, such as the Conservatoire national des Arts et Métiers or the Victoria & Albert Museum, doted since their creation with a mission linked to the development of national industries. However, most art museums created in the 19th century were meant to allow painters to train like the grand masters. Nonetheless, such questions of a commercial nature remained relatively minor in light of the research possibilities granted by museums, which embodied the high stakes of education and prestige. These challenges shifted in the 1980s, yet it remains important to highlight them now.

It is in such a context of radical economic transformations that museums’ metamorphosis occurred. The Keynesian model, privileged by political economy during the Trente Glorieuses [The Glorious Thirty], is severely criticized in the 1970s, in favor of a restricted financial model, and more generally, of neoliberal decisions. Such changes were installed at the beginning of the 1980s, from a political standpoint in the United Kingdom (Margaret Thatcher) as well as in the United States (Ronald Reagan). If museums witnessed a new wave of popularity at this time, such a phenomenon took place during a very particular era (development of popular exhibits, commercial surfaces, transformation of pricing, staff recruitment of marketing, fundraising and sponsorship specialists) accompanied by a quest for public funding, and more global investments, for the creation and/or renovation of museum infrastructures.

This moment of transformation occurred as of the 1980s, prompting museums to adapt to the rhythm of new marketing and communication campaigns. First of all, museums were required to communicate more directly to the market and seek to develop their income, so as to depend less on public funding. Most institutions who continued to benefit from the boon of public funding, now needed to prove their autonomous management (it is as of this time that evaluation methods based on performance factors emerged, initiating changes in matters of governance and management), but also their direct or indirect contribution to the city. Indeed, museums were considered places for education or research, but a new question was asked: how much do they “actually” make? It is in this perspective that questions of the evaluation of economic impact (financial returns, namely with regard to tourism, of an institution in its respective region) must be understood. This phenomenon also explains how the Bilbao museum’s success appears as an ideal financial solution for local growth in the eyes of an international community as well as a more exclusive circle of economists. Indeed, the opening of the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao in 1997 marked the pinnacle of the notion of museums as catalyzers for the economic development of a city. The popular success of the Basque museum, and more specifically the economic success ensured by financial returns brought on by foreign tourists visiting Bilbao, fascinated a certain number of political leaders who increasingly realized the factor of development and territorial attraction carried by museums, no longer simply acting as a place of conservation or education.

This urban-economic vision developed at the end of the 1990s, stemmed from a larger context: that of a creative economy and creative cities, dear to Richard Florida. This involved not only attracting tourists, but also creators of a future economy; the development of cities, in which cultural infrastructures play a major role, is conceived to present the optimal conditions for their fruition. This inspired numerous regional, departmental and municipal leaders, who dreamt of a new “Bilbao effect” at the heart of their respective territory. It is in this context that several local projects emerged – namely in France – with the construction of the Centre Pompidou in Metz and the Louvre in Lens, but also with the construction of the MuCem in Marseille or the musée des Confluences in Lyon. These territorial initiatives, seeking to attract more tourists, detained much influence on national capitals: museums, but also all other cultural infrastructures, appeared as a potential factor for attractiveness in the eyes of political leaders. It is in this perspective that the Mayor of London wrote a report in 2012 (year of the Olympics) that compared cultural or leisure infrastructures in major capitals, seeking to evaluate the advantages of major cities on a global scale. Paris placed well with regard to heritage monuments (yet its bars or night clubs don’t place the city amongst the most festive of environments).

It becomes clear that with regard to the global competition to which nations, their major capitals, historically lent themselves – namely during universal exhibitions – museums appear as one instrument amongst others, bearing witness to the wealth of a city, its quality of life and the cultural dynamism of a region, but also to its ability to attract tourists or new inhabitants. If this system was developed in a context increasingly dominated by market laws – the management of the Guggenheim Museum and its brand politics in Bilbao illustrate this trend perfectly – the involvement of public leaders remains nonetheless important. For instance, upon Blair’s appointment as British Prime minister, his government tackled issues such as free entry to national museums and development of visitation in major capital institutions. The city of Paris’ agenda in such matters deserves to be mentioned here: Bertrand Delanoe’s arrival as mayor of Paris in 2001 entailed free entry to several city museums, and prompted a more festive cultural planning (Nuit blnche, Nuit des musées), extending event programs set up in the 1980s by Jack Lang, former Minister of Culture.

However, public leaders’ financial power during the first decade of 2000s appeared to be on the decline in France, relative to what it once was in previous decades. Private initiatives, on the other hand, developed with great vigor, as no large-scale public project was programmed in the years to come. While they remained rather retreated several decades earlier (for years, the Fondation Cartier was the only foundation to develop an authentic cultural policy), several foundations began carrying increasingly important roles, especially with regard to contemporary art. After François Pinault’s aborted project on the Ile Seguin, the collector departed for Venice to set up his contemporary art pieces (a new site should be installed in 2018 in the former Paris stock exchange). The Maison rouge – a foundation managed by Antoine de Galbert – created in 2004 carries an ambitious agenda for temporary exhibitions, while the Musée de la Chasse (opened in 1964 but dormant for several years) reopened in 2007; its museum display links cabinets of curiosities to contemporary art. However, it is undoubtedly the Fondation Louis Vuitton, whose building opened in 2014 in the Bois de Boulogne, which best demonstrates the international scope and ambitions of these new institutional players. Designed by Frank Gehry, the building houses a contemporary art collection with an international reputation, combined with an ambitious temporary exhibition program. This particular museum, built by the same architect as the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, and located just a few steps away from the Musée national des arts et traditions populaires which closed in 2005, synthesizes to a certain respect the transformations of the political and economic models throughout these past decades: public initiatives, for a long time embodied by Rivière and his musée des Arts et Traditions populaires, appear as an obsolete model in light of current trends.


Their continued place in tourist guides makes one thing clear: museums are part of the institutions – along with cathedrals, parliaments and palaces – that best symbolize Occidental cities and capitals’ power. As of the 19th century, a spirit of emulation and commercial competition took over nations, as translated namely through universal exhibitions, is now conveyed through the comparison of museums, their collections and visitation numbers – the Louvre emerging as the most visited museum in the world. The visitation numbers of the largest institutions, in correlation to the market logic to which they are increasingly bound, situate museums in a very different position than thirty years ago. The economic role of the largest museums, considered “superstars”, place these institutions on another level: they appear not only as an important factor for tourist development, but also for territorial growth, thus participating in attracting a “creative class” (in other words, the entrepreneurs of the future: creators, designers, specialists of the digital economy, etc.), supposed to produce the added value within the 21st century economy.

This trend does not appear to be coming to a close. Among the transformations deemed the most probable in a foreseeable future, emerge the development of international tourism (a reason for which, the Louvre is redesigning all information points under the pyramid) as well as a decrease in public funding. There will be more tourists and retired baby-boomers (privileged class which benefited from the Trente Glorieuses yet still demanding in its cultural choices), and less public involvement favoring support of these institutions, which are thus compelled to turn to market logic (reconsidering gratuity laws and commercial initiatives) and potential sponsors.

The economic role of museums is ancient: it was already in this perspective that an institution such as Victoria & Albert Museum was created, through the initiative of Henry Cole, so as to emphasize the quality products stemming from British industries. If museums were never very distant from the turpitudes of economic life, their operating model has never resembled so closely that of a lucrative business as it does today. What perspectives does this evolution grant for the future of capitals? Museums were progressively created, in the span of two centuries, as showcases to the spaces they represent (theme, region, city, capital). Does the art of commerce appear today as the most representative factor of the environments in which they find themselves?

[french version]

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Madeleine Planeix-Crocker (2016, 12 décembre). Capitals and their museums. Politiques de la culture. Consulté le 18 mai 2024, à l’adresse

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