For more than eight centuries, the “Palais du Louvre” has overlooked the Right Bank of the River Seine, silently narrating France’s political and cultural development. The building epitomizes the adaptation of monumental structures necessary for their material permanence. Recognizing the Louvre’s transition from fortress to palace to museum, from private to public, not only illuminates shifts in French political attitudes – but also speaks to the enduring historical and cultural significance of the building and its contents.
In the 21st century, the purpose of the Louvre has not changed, but its messaging has shifted considerably. Public and academic interest moved, in the wake of the Second World War, from the museums themselves to the objects they contained. This change in interest coincided with the velocity of interactions between tourists and museums.
The messaging of the Louvre has included increasing levels of nuance, as the French experience entered into a stage of self-deconstruction. Treating the Louvre as a subject has given curators the ability to frame pieces in the context of their acquisition – illuminating the connection between an object’s origin, its acquisition history, and subsequent interpretations of its significance. Shifting the Louvre’s narrative flow in this manner allowed for an open dialogue with the past – a continual critique of older institutions and perspectives. For example, a critique of 19th-century French Orientalist paintings is now an integral part of the Islamic art gallery.
Museums are distinct among monuments, as they allow for continued reinterpretation of their contents. The Louvre has possessed the added advantage of a continued reinterpretation of its exterior – its place and purpose. The building is now a “locus for memory” of the evolution of French identity, serving as a tangible embodiment of societal change over time.
It is worthy of note that a shift in the Louvre’s contents has been accompanied by a shift in the museum’s scope. The deconstruction of barriers to entry – primarily the socioeconomic exclusivity of European travel – has ensured that more and more tourists visit the Louvre each year. More importantly, the building’s scope is no longer limited to its physical location.
This was increasingly the case throughout the 20th century. One could even look to Maria Hornor Lansdale’s book, published in 1899, as an early iteration of this “virtual Grand Tour.” The inclusion of photographs and its historically-driven descriptions could give one the illusion of having visited Paris.
One could also argue that Lansdale never had to visit the Louvre in order to write her book, a testament to the increasing ability to “visit” locations by alternative means. In her case, this clearly meant visiting a library. Since this time, the mediums of tourism have increased in number. One can observe the essences of Parisian life on a television or through the Internet. The global recognizability of the Louvre’s most prized object, the Mona Lisa, attests to this change.
Maria Hornor Lansdale and Hilaire Belloc. Paris : Its Sites, Monuments and History. Philadelphia: Henry T. Coates &, 1899.
- Jack McGrath BC 2016, Fall 2015 Making History Public Student
The images and content in this blog post are from the exhibit Historical Monuments, Monumental Histories, which is now on display in the History Department, Stokes 3rd Floor South. This exhibit was curated and organized by Professor Dana Sajdi’s Fall 2015 Making History Public class, in collaboration with the Boston College University Libraries.