Jennifer Donnelly, MA Candidate, History of Art and Architecture, University of Pittsburgh
The Musée des Monuments français: Mirror of the Revolution
Reframing Knowledge, Constructing History, and Revolutionary Regeneration in the Museological Vision of Alexandre Lenoir
During the French Revolution, all possessions of the church and former monarchy were declared to be the national property of the new French Republic. In order to deal with the influx of material, the government established storage dépôts in former monasteries and convents where the “objects of art and science” could be collected, sorted, and disseminated for public education. Under the direction of Alexandre Lenoir, the funerary monuments, sculpture, and architectural decoration stored at the Petits-Augustins dépôt evolved into the Musée des Monuments français. The artifacts were organized into a chronological sequence of “century rooms” representing the rise and fall of French arts and civilization. The symbolic memory of the monarchial and ecclesiastical past was embedded in the artifacts, and this material legacy needed to be reframed for the Revolutionary present. By prioritizing historical and temporal specificity rather than former purposes and contexts, Lenoir transformed the artifacts into “historic monuments” and organized them into a new symbolic history of France. For Lenoir, the chronological sequence was a layered political tool about the educational enlightenment of the individual, which he described as the “regeneration” of man. According to Lenoir, the overall “physiognomy” of each historical period was dominated by the ruling monarch, while the rise and decline of artistic development was indicated by the prevalence or lack of individual artistic achievements. The century room sequence was followed by the Élysée, a picturesque garden filled with tombs and monuments dedicated to great figures from French history. Within the chronological sequence of the century rooms, Lenoir created a container for the politically charged educational dissemination of the monarchial history of France. Enlightened by the rise and fall of individual accomplishment through the century rooms, the visitor left the monarchial past in the last century room and entered the atemporal Élysée, which represented the eternal Revolutionary present and which was dedicated to the timeless heroic deeds and intellectual accomplishments of exceptional historical figures. The Musée des Monuments français was an evocation of the progress of human agency.