France’s historians ask whether we should still be building “National” History Museums

By Felicity Bodenstein, University of Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne

The third phase of Eunamus, entitled Uses of the Past: narrating the nation and negotiating conflict will consider representations of national history in museums across Europe. We need look no further than current debates in France to demonstrate the importance of understanding how national and European identities are represented in the museum for policy makers today. In a series of articles, published in most major French daily and weekly newspapers, an interesting, rapid-fire discussion is opposing the world of academia and the government over the establishment of a new museum of national history, to be called the Maison d’histoire de France.

Felicity Bodenstein

As is so often the case in France, the museum’s creation was directly called for by the head of state, the president Nicolas Sarkozy himself in January 2009. As a presidential project it is eminently national – and has been explicitly presented as a new frame for examining questions of national identity.

The debate is of course baited and drowned by layers of other political issues more or less pertinent for the consideration of the case in hand: concerning the location of the museum (currently to be situated in the Archives nationales), but also fuelled by the irritation of historians dealing with other education reforms and by reactions to on a series of unfortunate presidential attempts to deal with historical questions. However, one factor appears as fundamental in this debate, and may not be reduced to the noise of political skirmishes.

“National identity” is an expression that has resurfaced in a new way since Nicolas Sarkozy’s government created a ministry for Immigration, Integration, National Identity and Solidarity in 2007. The ministry was founded to centralise government efforts in terms of immigration control – a task somewhat unhappily regrouped with that of developing a policy on « memory and the promotion of citizenship through the principles and values of the Republic » (decree of the 31st of May, 2007). On the 31st of March 2009, the mission letter sent by Nicolas Sarkozy and François Fillon to the new minister, Eric Besson specified that he would be involved in considering questions of national identity in relation to the future museum.

National identity: what is it, do we need it, why are we talking about it? These were the questions that everyone was asking. Why underline the need to develop national identity in the context of a specific ministry, if not to imply a threat from foreigners in or entering the country? The very existence of such a ministry led many intellectuals to accuse the government of stigmatising France’s issues of « identity » by using social problems related to immigration.

This has meant that the reaction to the President’s declared intentions to create a new national history museum have been particularly strong and negative – given the (rather too) obviously ideological nature of the project. Indeed, the preliminary report, produced by Hervé Lemoine in 2008, based its opening argument on what he identifies as the illness of « Clio, the favorite muse of the French ; France’s history and identity are suffering ». By placing identity and history so clearly on the same level, the project immediately related what appeared as the ontological desire for a definition of French identity, to an historical explanation. It posited the existence of the identity of the nation-state as an historical product that might be clearly defined. By doing so, it has increasingly irritated many a critically minded historian, from Christophe Charle, Jacques le Goff to Pierre Nora, as expressed in the article cited above, published in Le Monde, « La Maison de l’histoire de France est un projet dangereux ».  

All of the debates concerning this « dangerous project » boil down to the same problem – the fact that an increasing number of highly renowned and recognized French historians believe that the museum will become a direct instrument for the expression of an « identity » related to current political orientations. According to their reading of the project, it narrowly, traditionally defines identity through an updated but nevertheless kind of official historiography. They doubt that it will be free to reflexively deal with the darker sides of French history – from Napoleon to Algeria – or that it will widen and profoundly question the notion of identity to include the history of all the nations related to France.

If and why should we be creating a museum of national history today? Are national borders the ones that we should be looking at? Does society still want and need to be defined uniquely inside of the frame of the nation-state? Do all histories presented from this ‘national’ perspective serve a political agenda? The authors of the October 2010 article point to the notion of Europe as the more pertinent, as the larger, more balanced frame in which to contemplate French history, asking why it is not the principal reference for the museum’s policy.

These arguments have of course been disclaimed by the minister of Culture, Frédéric Mitterand, yet it appears that a problem of discourse remains, as the minister points to the need for a new museum in the face of the “fragmented” history produced by the great variety of historical schools. This again recalls, Nicalas Sarkozy’s call for a history of France that could be told as a “coherent whole” France’s (Sarkozy, 2009). Yet, it is exactly the plurality of history that France’s historians have sought to defend by defending their role as experts.  

Those historians who have spoken out against the project, have done so to halt it, suspend it –however presidential projects have a tendency to go ahead, despite the polemics, as observed in the case of other recent museums, from the musée d’Orsay to the quai Branly. One might add that a similarly violent debate accompanied the opening of Berlin’s Deutsches historisches museum, where again many intellectuals (mainly left-wing) had expressed concerns that Helmut Kohl’s personal declarations concerning the museum would place it directly under the sign of a right-wing conservative view of history. If the museum is to exist – then it seems important for the most critical historians to be the ones involved so that the notion of “national identity” appears in a critically historicized perspective rather than as an essentialist quality.

One may observe that in France there is a certain mistrust of history in the museum; on reading these articles, one gets the distinct impression that for many historians, history does not have its place in the museum. To quote Michèle Riot-Sarcey, “What Republic should be displayed? The one that refused to give women the vote; the one that legitimized colonialisation; the one that produced the monumental crime of the Dreyfus Affair? It’s a plural, contradictory, conflicting history. A conflict can be reflected, it cannot be put into a museum” (Michèle Riot-Sarcey, 15 octobre 2010). A stark opinion that proves an absence of knowledge about recent museographical efforts and developments, to be explained by the fact that in France, the museum is first and foremost for art – the art museum is fundamental and traditionally central to the idea of the national museum in France. As Riot-Sarcey states in the same article, museums should display “how artistic creation transcends reality”. The reality of history, to say nothing of national history, is it to messy for the museum? Clearly there is something to be learned here from considering history museums and exhibition projects in countries where these have played a far greater role in the general public’s appreciation of national history, a role which is not necessarily purely ideologically, nor uncritical. The debate proves that such issues run deep: related to current political situations but also to complex historical traditions and to traditions related to the role of the museums – three worlds which do not always communicate with ease. 


Isabelle Backouche (EHESS), Christophe Charle (université de Paris-I), Roger Chartier (Collège deFrance), Arlette Farge (EHESS), Jacques Le Goff (EHESS), Gérard Noiriel(EHESS), Nicolas Offenstadt (université de Paris-I), Michèle Riot-Sarcey (université de Paris-VIII) and Daniel Roche (Collège de France), Le Monde, 22nd October, 2011, « La Maison de l’histoire de France est un projet dangereux » ; « The House of French history is a dangerous project » (transl. author).

Herné Lemoine, 2008, “La Maison de l’histoire de France”, available for download at

Frédéric Mitterrand, ministre de la culture et de la communication, Le Monde, 18th December, 2010, « Le fait est que ce pays perd la mémoire. Il faut remédier à cela » ; « The fact is that this country is losing its memory. This needs to be remedied. » (transl. author).

Michèle Riot-Sarcey (université de Paris-VIII) quoted by Antoine Perraud « Du rififi mémoriel aux Archives nationales contre le musée Sarkozy » – Mediapart, 15 octobre 2010: « Quelle République mettre en scène ?, interroge l’universitaire, celle qui a refusé le vote aux femmes, qui a légitimé la colonisation, qui a versé dans l’exaction monumentale de l’affaire Dreyfus ? Cette histoire est plurielle, contradictoire, conflictuelle. Un conflit se pense, un conflit ne se met pas au musée. », available online at

 Nicolas Sarkozy, 2009, « Discours de M. le Président de la République : Vœux aux acteurs de la Culture », Nîmes –  Mardi 13 janvier 2009, consulted on May 5th , 2009 at

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