National history as biography: Alexandre Lenoir's Museum of French Monuments

Stara, Alexandra (2012) National history as biography: Alexandre Lenoir's Museum of French Monuments. In: Hill, Kate, (ed.) Museums and biographies: stories, objects, identities. Woodbridge, U.K. : Boydell & Brewer. pp. 265-276. (Heritage Matters) ISBN 9781843837275


Alexandre Lenoir, painter, playwright and dilettante at large, is best known as the creator of the Museum of French Monuments, the ‘other’ museum project of the French Revolution. Less famous than the Louvre but no less significant in the trajectory of the modern museum, this fascinating project is long overdue a revisit. This chapter proposes to do so, in order to analyse and interpret the fusion of art history, national history and heroic personal histories to be found at this museum, enhanced with the flair and idiosyncrasy of Lenoir’s own personality and his highly creative curation. The Museum of French Monuments begun life as a temporary depot of the French Revolution, but under Lenoir’s guardianship, it acquired permission to open to the public as a permanent exhibition in 1795. The collection consisted mostly of religious and otherwise commemorative sculptures from France. These pieces were not considered 'high art' of the kind that was consistently claimed by the Louvre. They were, rather, legitimised as public exhibits through their historical relevance and their role as the new category of ‘national patrimony’ – this being a place and time where the great inventive project of history was beginning its modern acceleration. Lenoir arranged the collection as a chronological panorama of the development of French art and the garden was also transformed for exhibition with funerary pieces composing a picturesque landscape. In order to 'stage' his museum according to his vision, Lenoir invested as much in further acquisitions of original pieces as he did in the construction of new ‘monuments’, most of which were collages of fragments from various other pieces. He radicalised the fusion between exhibits and exhibition, in an attempt to convey 'character' rather than archaeological accuracy, appealing equally to reason and imagination, spirit and sentiment. Central to the narrative of the exhibition and its emotional impact was the role of historical personalities commemorated in the exhibits, the biographical details of which, infused with much anecdote and creative writing, Lenoir communicated to the visitors in the museum’s catalogue – a document of enormous importance to the whole project. This chapter argues that it is the unique combination of narrative strands and attitudes towards history, biography and art, centred on Lenoir’s own personality, that render this early museum project seminal to the history of the institution as a whole. The era of the Great Museums, which follows soon after the enforced closure of Lenoir’s project in 1815, presents another kind of museum model to the world, where order and ‘scientific’ principles prevail over imaginative interpretation. However, the Museum of Monuments may have a lot to offer yet as part of that history of ‘alternative’ collections by charismatic individuals, which seems to propose a different reading of the role of the museum in the context of modernity.

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