Carole is an art-history student at the Sorbonne, Marie, a translator, Ariane, a doctoral student in archaeology. Meanwhile, Guillaume Kientz, is a curator in the painting department of the Musée du Louvre… They talk to us about this collective – this “pool of free electrons” baptised Musées Debout *, born in April 2016, and its strong belief in the museum’s federating power within society. The museum is seen not just as a player in cultural democratisation, but also as an object of personal appropriation. This participatory initiative also takes the form of a forum for discussion, where all are free to raise their wishes or regrets in relation to the institution. We take to the streets to investigate.
What was the starting point of the Musées Debout?
Guillaume Kientz: It was a Sunday, 10 April. I was on the Place de la République (editorial note: gathering site of the Nuit Debout); a lot of people were gathered and talking about all sorts of topics, without ever raising the world of museums and heritage. I thought that this was a shame. Once again, people were trying to reconstruct the world without raising the issue of museums. I sent out a Tweet: let’s launch Musées Debout. On Monday, we met under the Arche du Carrousel. There were five of us. On Tuesday, between ten to fifteen of us, and on Wednesday we headed to the Place de la République. Ever since, we’ve continued to grow and even spread to other French cities: Caen, Montpellier, Lille, Toulouse, Troyes, Limoges… all Musées Debout collectives born out of this initiative.
In what form has this movement taken place?
G.K.: The agora is the Place de la République, where we can talk freely about art and museums. We have two types of activities. During the week, we tackle a specific theme. At the weekend, often on Sundays, we invade the space more visually, using plastic frames with mock gilding to show works that we bring along, or photographs of works selected for mediation purposes. We invite people to contribute their own works, to discuss, exchange, inscribe art into the everyday and the city.
Ariane: Freedom characterises our operation. Our construction is entirely horizontal. People can join the movement on an irregular basis or otherwise, they can bring material. The dynamic takes a complete distance from an institutional approach; it’s a form of emulation.
G.K.: Some people just come to listen; others pitch in with organisation; others still prepare discussions. The roles are interchangeable.
Have you ever come across controversies?
G.K.: Yes, directly on the Place de la République. This was also the interesting thing about coming across people who weren’t necessarily there for this purpose.
Carole: During the week, we covered more technical matters as professionals tended to intervene, but outside contributors ultimately took part in astonishing ways. With these gilded frames, we caught attention on all sides.
What major difficulties did you come across?
Carole: Unpredictable weather!
Ariane: Coming from the cultural and museum backgrounds, we had to adapt to the Nuit Debout crowd as the movement evolved in a horizontal and participatory manner. I find that our milieu – mediation – reflects an attitude that says: “I have knowledge and I transmit it”. The main challenge was to find ways to exchange with people. This has been difficult and instructive as we operate in fields that the greater public is not necessarily familiar with. They would come along with their preconceptions, sometimes mistakes, and these we had to rectify – even if the word “rectify” itself is problematic – by discussion and debate.
G.K.: Outside of the content itself, this aspect – pedagogy – was the most interesting. We also went along with our own prejudices. For certain topics, some people were able to find correlating views while starting off from totally different stances, by taking different paths: paths taken by others, of which we’re unaware. I personally came to hear people talking about museums, but not to talk about them myself. I came to hear how others spoke about them. Bringing insight, yes, but breaking down preconceptions rather than delivering messages. For example: “Museum reserves are full!” Which I refuted, fuelling debate. I think that those working in the museum domain contributed by shedding light, not by steering discussion, opening up debate. What’s important is to empower people – those who don’t go to museums and who don’t dare to make critical judgments – to express themselves on these issues. To push debate further, it’s necessary to lay this out on the table, otherwise everyone stays locked in their positions.
Are we approaching a dematerialisation of the museum?
Marie: I think so. By placing works of more or less good quality on the street, using the means available to us, people who don’t usually go to museums would stop – like those four teenagers who were struck by a Holbein portrait and started asking questions. In some way, the museum saw itself transported towards people, to better attract them to it.
Ariane: At the same time, it’s interesting to see that people naturally adopt museum codes: they keep a respectful distance from the paintings. Whenever someone spoke, we’d witness the sort of crowd phenomenon seen in guided tours.
G.K.: This proves one thing: that the sacredness of the museum works, but that it isn’t necessarily intimidating. We ask ourselves a great deal about the necessity to desacralize the museum. But in the end, this would mean reducing its charm and attraction. The whole challenge lies in continuing to keep its magic without it being intimidating.
Carole: In this regard, we’ve left people to produce display plates themselves, using file cards and pens. Everyone was free to express how they felt with hash tags.
G.K.: The underlying question is the people’s appropriation of museums. One thing surprised me: the number of people who said that they never went to museums but who still said that they liked them. So this denotes a very favourable towards museums. With the mythology surrounding the Nuit Debout, I expected to meet people who were against institutions. Yet in this bourgeois backdrop par excellence, the Place de la République, we planted the word “museum” and our gilded frames, hanging up virgins with babies, a symbol of religion, without rousing negative reactions. This proves that the museum is a place for collective living.
You say that visitors “need keys to open the doors”, suggesting that pleasure comes with knowledge, which helps to foster discussion. What do you think about the recent exhibition, “Carambolages”, at the Grand Palais, which followed the opposite dynamic, starting off with sensation and pleasure and knocking down the primacy of intellect?
G.K.: It’s a global problem. For now, people come to museums to find knowledge, even more so when they go to exhibitions, expecting lessons to be presented to them. “Carambolages” allowed everyone to work out their own lessons, and I think that there was misunderstanding among the public. In the end, some people asked: “Isn’t this highly elitist?” When we think about an accumulation of objects, we tend to think of the interior Yves Saint Laurent’s apartment on Rue de Babylone, or the decoration of Marie-Laure de Noailles’ private mansion: people with high cultural potential capable of instilling dialogue between civilisations. This may be very difficult to understand for a public raised in the ideology of knowledge, in the cult of learning. I think that this exhibition is quite noteworthy. Was it necessary to hold it at the Grand Palais, to make it so long, or was it necessary to communicate on its experimental character? In any case, it had the merit of saying to the visitor: “You think that you don’t know anything, but trust yourself, look, and you’ll see that you know things.” This is a game that we’re not used to, and which goes in the opposite direction of current mediation, which floods people with information and pushes iconography and complex cultural systems further, but offers no focus on the immediacy of what lies before our eyes. We’ll see the importance of this exhibition in fifty years.
Marie: I got the feeling that this exhibition with an inversed didactic was successful amongst people who weren’t used to or who don’t like exhibitions…
Is Musée Debout part of a move for social equality, like temporary museums or nomad workshops that bring culture to disadvantaged publics?
G.K.: It’s true that museums already do this, and we’re not saying that museums aren’t doing anything. But that museums are a little disconnected with social issues… and vice versa.
Marie: The issue is to raise new debates because the museum remains rather consensual. It’s beautiful – and so what?
G.K.: It’s good to buy new works, but what’s the aim? It’s good to have free museums, but what’s the point? This question – what’s the point? – is one that isn’t asked.
What are your plans for the new autumn season?
Carole: We’ll be starting something which will take a bit of a distance from the Nuit Debout, with some independent events between the Musée Dehors and the weekly debates, in different Parisian arrondissements, the theme depending on the spot. The challenge is to find places that draw people who don’t go to museums.
Ariane: Whether we’re related to the Nuit Debout or not doesn’t change anything: we’ll continue to be the Musées Debout, as the initiatives in cities outside Paris are independent, free, untied to any overriding directive. Not all the Musées Debout necessarily share the same perspectives; some are run by artists rather than people from institutions.
Marie: The Musées Debout is what people want it to be. It’s a free entity, a pool of free electrons.
* Musées Debout refers to Nuit Debout, a pacifist citizen movement initiated on 31 March 2016 in Paris, following a demonstration against a reform to French labour legislation. The initial demands then widened to a questioning of political institutions and criticism of the economic system.