From the Heart of National Politics to the Core of Culture: The Louvre

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.

McGrath

Paris : Its Sites, Monuments and History. Philadelphia by Maria Hornor Lansdale and Hilaire Belloc, DC707.L29 1899 British Catholic Authors, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

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.

McGrath 1

Paris : Its Sites, Monuments and History. Philadelphia by Maria Hornor Lansdale and Hilaire Belloc, DC707.L29 1899 British Catholic Authors, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

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.

Works Consulted:

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.

About John J. Burns Library of Rare Books and Special Collections at Boston College

The University’s special collections, including the University’s Archives, are housed in the Honorable John J. Burns Library, located in the Bapst Library Building, north entrance. Burns Library staff work with students and faculty to support learning and teaching at Boston College, offering access to unique primary sources through instruction sessions, exhibits, and programming. The Burns Library also serves the research needs of external scholars, hosting researchers from around the globe interested in using the collections. The Burns Library is home to more than 200,000 volumes and over 700 manuscript collections, including holdings of music, photographic materials, art and artifacts, and ephemera. Though its collections cover virtually the entire spectrum of human knowledge, the Burns Library has achieved international recognition in several specific areas of research, most notably: Irish studies; British Catholic authors; Jesuitica; Fine printing; Catholic liturgy and life in America, 1925-1975; Boston history; the Caribbean, especially Jamaica; Nursing; and Congressional archives.
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