Museums, Archives & Heritage

Archives Against the Museum

Could it happen anywhere other than France? Two weeks ago, the staff of the National Archives staged a two-day strike to protest the announced construction of a “Maison de l’Histoire”–in effect, a national history museum–on the site currently(and historically) occupied by the Archives. While the AN reading rooms are now open again, various series have been “exceptionally closed” due to personnel shortages and it seems likely this may go on for some months, if not years, to come.

At stake here are questions about government management attitudes and, perhaps more interesting for readers of this blog, about the various audiences for history. At a speech given at the Lascaux Caves–more or less, at France’s National Museum of Pre-history–the French President, Nicholas Sarkozy, abruptly announced that the Maison de l’Histoire would be based in the Hotel de Soubise. On one level, that would seem to make sense: the building does now house the so-called Museum of French History–a small exhibit space run by the archives–and it occupies prime real estate in the center of the Marais. On the other hand, Sarkozy did not previously consult with archives administrators and this plan, if executed, throws current schemes for the Archives into considerable doubt.

A bit of background is necessary here: along with I.M. Pei’s Pyramid at the Louvre and the highly controversial new National Library, a swanky new National Archives reading room (the CARAN) figured among Francois Mitterand’s “great works” for the 1989 bicentennial of the French Revolution. Always a poor cousin to those other projects, the CARAN suffered a number of delays and hiccups along the way: the largely glass reading room for several years had no air conditioning (!) and the whole facility had to be closed for several years (2004-2005, if memory serves) for asbestos removal. Even though the post-1945 archives are mainly located in another facility at Fontainebleau (and most of the colonial archives are located a half-day’s TGV trip away, in Aix), the Paris facility is now said to be bursting at the seams. Since 2004, then, another new building has been in the works, this one in the outlying northern Paris suburn of Pierrefitte-sur-Seine. When completed, it is supposed to house all the post-1800 materials, while the older collections would remain in the central Paris cite.

Sarkozy’s announced Museum obviously creates havoc with the idea–admittedly, not a popular one–of dividing the National Archives’ collections between the two sites. But it also–and, in many ways, this is the more significant issue–privileges the presentation of history as a finished object over the researching, writing, and questioning of history. The Maison de l’Histoire might well draw a larger audience than the National Archives ever will, but unless the exhibitions are very carefully executed–along the lines, perhaps, of the World War One “Historial” at Peronne–the audience is going to receive history in a largely passive fashion.

Much more could be said: for instance, about the planned Maison as a response to the rift, diagnosed by Pierre Nora in the introductory essay to his 9-volume Sites of Memory anthology, between memory-nation-history. In terms that make little sense to many historians, Nora there argued that history as we know it today is the enemy, indeed, the assassin of memory. (“Memory” here understood as something like “unquestioned national mythology,” though Nora never calls it that.) But we might also wonder about just how uniquely French this phenomenon really is?  Consider, for instance, the state of the British Library, since its reading rooms were opened to all residents of London. There are unquestionably more bums on seats. Whether this helps history to be read and written is another question.

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