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Making Things Precious across the Atlantic: Negotiating Values, Possession, and Knowledge in the Early Development of National Museums in France and America, 1780 – 1840

Dominique Poulot
, Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne
Ailsa Mellon Bruce Visiting Senior Fellow, fall 2013

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Rembrandt Peale, Rubens Peale with a Geranium, 1801. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Patrons’ Permanent Fund

My project concerns the transatlantic culture of museums during the French and American enlightenments, when these institutions exhibited precious objects of exotic and primitive provenance, their power multiplied by their display in numbers. The Indian Hall at Monticello, containing Thomas Jefferson’s collection of Native American and European art and objects, is a fascinating example of Norbert Elias’ concept of professional public life in a private setting. So it is interesting to compare Monticello with Malmaison — which represented the work of numerous curators, critics, art historians, and garden theorists, including Jean-Marie Morel (1728 – 1810), Alexandre Lenoir (1761 – 1839), and Antoine-Chrysostome Quatremère de Quincy (1755 – 1849) — as well as with the Louvre or with the Musée des monuments français. Conceived as an American cabinet of curiosities, Jefferson’s collection was intended to prove the “indigenous puissance and incipient potential of the New World” (in the words of Joyce Henri Robinson), a focus of debate between Jefferson and the French naturalist George-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon.

Another intermediary between the two worlds, of much more modest reputation than Jefferson, was Pierre Eugène Du Simitière (1737 – 1784), a Swiss miniature painter, who settled in Philadelphia in 1774 and in 1782 opened his cabinet to the public, calling it the American Museum and displaying, as he described it, “items collected from most parts of America, the West Indies, Africa, East Indies and Europe.” His hope was to build the first American national collection: to invent what Joel Orosz has called a “cultural nationalism.” Later the French curator Alexandre Lenoir used American objects and Mexican archaeology to provide a general explanation of humanity and of its images in his Parallèle des anciens monuments mexicains avec ceux de l’Égypte, de l’Inde et du reste de l’ancien monde (1834).

The museum that Charles Willson Peale (1741 – 1827) opened in Philadelphia in 1786, after the death of Du Simitière and with some pieces from his collection, was the result of extraction, appropriation, and commercial exchange, as well as of organized violence (the Sullivan Expedition of 1779). In French museums of the revolution the new relics — bones, pieces of hair and skin — of the kings exhumed at Saint-Denis were avidly collected and displayed. In both these cases, a new nation was built on bodies designated as those of “others” (the kings supposedly belonging to the race of the Gauls). All the museum objects crystallized work and energy, but above all the goal was to multiply knowledge of nature and history through the information they represented (as Lorraine Daston has written of scientific objects). The American museums, like the French revolutionary ones, formed part of the visual representation of the state, in the same way as the new flags, emblems, monuments, banknotes, and stamps. (Du Simitière also worked on the design of the Great Seal of the United States.)

David Brigham, writing in 1995, demonstrated that Peale’s museum was socially constituted by the diverse interests and investments of its public, which not only used it but helped to create its meaning. Lenoir’s museum was also an example of a successful projection of meanings and feelings. We now have excellent studies of the ideas and resources behind certain curators’ creations of paintings or prints of objects and rooms, as well as the museums that they invented and represented. Laura Rigal, for instance, interprets Peale’s The Exhumation of the Mastodon (1804) as a combination of genres — allegory, biblical references, history painting, and portraiture — to recast the event according to the interpretation of a Jeffersonian republican culture. The mammoth, she wrote, “brings into focus a national interior, in both the geographic sense of a continental interior and in the disciplinary sense of a subjective interiority which is inseparable from the production and display of objects.” It is a good example of the Foucauldian “exhibitionary complex” described by Tony Bennett. The successor to Charles Willson Peale’s museum established by Rembrandt Peale (1778 – 1860) was not successful, but Rembrandt’s botanical still life Rubens Peale with a Geranium (1801), with what is perhaps its pendant — a portrait of a young man wearing a Hawaiian feathered cloak and helmet, analyzed by Adrienne L. Kaeppler as an ethnographic still life that may also be a portrait of the African American silhouette maker Moses Williams — are fascinating testimonies to the dynamics of museums at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Performing racial alterity and advertising their purposes of natural science, entertaining education, and nation building, these early museums exemplified what Ellen Fernandez Sacco calls “a practice of visual order.”

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