THE FIRST PUBLIC MUSEUM: THE LOUVRE
“the Louvre is the prototype of a contemporary national museum”
Date: Oct 28, 2021
Listening to: Jazz on the Autobahn by the Felice Brothers
Date: Oct 28, 2021
Listening to: Jazz on the Autobahn by the Felice Brothers
“The Louvre: How the Museum of the People was Born from Revolution”
Four years into the French Revolution, as the revolutionary government deposed the king, chased out the elites, and declared the “natural, imprescriptible, and unalienable rights” of the people, all heads turned towards the Louvre. Once a military garrison, for the last two hundred years the Louvre was the official residence of the king. From the Renaissance onwards, the monarchy had collected masterpieces from around the world to fill the enormous galleries. Now the common French person couldn’t even fill their stomachs, leading to a complete overthrow of the monarchy and church power. When the National Assembly reopened the Louvre in 1793, it declared that the galleries and everything in them were being returned to their rightful owners: the people.
Today, the museum space continues to be a battleground for conversations about identity, ownership, and classism. The contemporary art museum promises a nearly utopian vision of a white-walled neutral space where all are equal and welcome to learn. In some institutional mission statements, the ambiguous wording of the phrase “the public” or “the community” seems interchangeable with the French Revolution’s continual invocation of “the people”. It represents the aspirational relationship between museum and visitor where the two groups work together towards common goals. In this essay, we will take a closer look at how a museum for “the people” was founded and then grew into the symbol of national pride and virtue.
There were other museums open to the public before 1793, but the Louvre is the prototype of a contemporary national museum. The previous essay in this series investigated the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, the first museum to offer collection tours to the general public. The Ashmolean was eventually overwhelmed by financial difficulties and the rapidly changing standards of museum curatorial practices. All around Europe, an incremental widening of public access to museum collections (British Museum, Museum Fridericianum, Italian princely collections) was allowed by the expansion of social ideals. Kofi Carter points out that the “realization of the museum as a more wholly public institution, whether defined by accessibility or ownership, was born of the “crisis of authority” and efflorescence of social idealism that began in the mid seventeenth-century England.”
Beyond the erosion of borders between elite and public spheres, Enlightenment ideals of cosmopolitanism encouraged citizens to experience art and culture as an important part of building a more moral society. Cosmopolitanism “reflected Enlightenment thinkers’ view of themselves as actively engaged citizens of the world as opposed to provincial and close-minded individuals.” (Khan) The inherent worth of museums as tools for spiritual wealth grew in popular opinion. However, the idea of the “public” at this time still catered to the elite or artists. It’s debatable how “open” the Ashmolean and other museums of this time really were, since it’s unclear how many common people could afford both the ticket price and the free time. (Note: these are still criticisms of museum accessibility to this day.) It wasn’t until the revolutions in North America, France, and Haiti did the conception of who “the people” were changed forever.
In Pre-Revolution France, the monarchy was under pressure to allow more public access to their galleries of artwork. Denis Diderot, the French philosopher, petitioned for a national museum which was held up by the continual dithering of the royal government. After King Louis XIV was pressed to allow artists more access to study the Louvre’s collection, the Luxemborg Gallery opened for 2 days a week in 1750 for art students or elite patrons. While access to art and cultural spaces was by no means a main goal of the French Revolution, the history of the Louvre can be read as a microcosm of the consequences the French monarchy suffered by ignoring the demands of French society to make reasonable changes to the social order. In 1972 King Louis XVI was taken prisoner and narrowly voted worthy of the penalty of death. Then the National Assembly seized church property and royal collections as the true property of “the people.” This included the building and collections of the Louvre, or as it was named at the time, Musée Central des Arts.
The Louvre officially opened as a public museum on August 10, 1793 on the “anniversary of the fall of tyranny.” The first thing people saw as they walked inside was a display of 3 crowns of the past monarchs, now symbolically the property of the visitors themselves. Admission to the museum was free, and both state money and private donations contributed to building up the collections. While all this seems radical, “in practice, it was not always easy for newly empowered citizens to view their artistic heritage: at the beginning of its life the museum was only open on weekends and artists were always given priority over ordinary visitors.” (Yallop) Still, the museum became great symbol of the success of the Revolution and it was a source of revolutionary national pride to be seen at the Louvre rubbing elbows with both wealthy and poor citizens.
As well as assigning patriotic virtue to the museum space, Carol Duncan argues that the Louvre set the course of art history by organizing its collection into national schools. Since the French Revolution was founded on principles of freedom of religion and many of the leaders in the National Assembly embraced secularism, the religious contents of the Louvre’s collection caused a controversy between the organizers of the original exhibits. To avoid overt religious themes, curators divided by national schools and especially highlighted French artistry. This led to a tour route that presented works from Egypt, Greece, Italy, and France, along with stops at revered artistic “genius” from all over Europe. These categories laid the foundation for an art history curriculum that historians still find themselves battling against today in order to demand more representation of art from other civilizations.
Just as the French Revolution was followed closely by the rest of the world, the tides of art and culture were forever changed by the Louvre opening to the public. In tune with the progressive thought at the time, public art museums were seen as “evidence of political virtue” (Duncan). Over time, kings realized that opening the doors of their royal galleries and declaring the treasures inside to be the property of the public would give the impression of patrimonial benevolence - without actually having to redistribute any wealth. Carol Duncan lists the many positives that the ruling class (then and now) receive from propping up public museums, including: it makes government look progressive, shows a concern for the spiritual life of the citizen, creates a place to preserve past achievements and national pride, and its another box checked for the “common good.” Furthermore, it takes the physical wealth of the ruling class and transforms it into spiritual wealth for the citizens, again without any work dedicated to solving the wealth inequality within its communities.
It is a basic right of the people to speak openly about our public museums because they are “powerful identity-defining machines” that can have outsize impact on how entire cultures and communities are perceived. To take a final page out of the Enlightenment, we must make sure that our representatives in our museums and cultural institutions are truly engaged with the community. The Rights of Man and Citizen declared that countries are composed of citizens who are the source of power that is then given to the government to rule fairly over the country. In the same way, audiences are composed of individuals that give museums authority to educate the community. These mandates can be taken away at any time by the people who are the original source of this collective power.
Abt, Jeffrey. “The Origins of the Public Museum.” A Companion to Museum Studies, vol. 115, 1 Jan. 2006, pp. 115–134., https://doi.org/10.1002/9780470996836.ch8.
Duncan, Carol. “Art Museums and the Ritual of Citizenship.” Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, edited by Ivan Karp and Steven Lavine, Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, 1991, pp. 88–103.
Eschner, Kat. “Three Things to Know About the Louvre’s History.” Smithsonian Magazine, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/three-things-know-about-louvres-history-180964326/. Accessed 28 Oct. 2021.
Yallop, Jacqueline. Magpies, Squirrels and Thieves: How the Victorians Collected the World. Atlantic Books Ltd, 2011.
“The History of the Louvre on Display.” Le Louvre, https://www.louvre.fr/en/explore/the-palace/the-history-of-the-louvre-on-display. Accessed 28 Oct. 2021.
“The Enlightenment Period (Article).” Khan Academy, https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/us-history/colonial-america/colonial-north-america/a/the-enlightenment. Accessed 28 Oct. 2021.