Words and Things: Museum’s Educational Heritage

by Ms. Micaela Mikhy Neveu

HeritageForAll Heritage Intern (Call 2018) from Paris, France

Fig. 1. The School of Athens, Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino

The visit to the museum is symbolic, social, normative and cognitive. The museum is no longer conceived as a demonstrative container that of exhibits, ideas and narrations, but as a mirror reflecting the changes coming from peers with the evolution of society with its advancements and its values. Since the 1990s, the theme of museum and education has shown a great diversity in points of view and schools integrating the social innovations offered by the digital world in terms of international openness. The world of the current museum shows, moreover, a great heterogeneity of the professions in the field of the museum education going beyond the university framework or that of the institutional researchers. Its educational role would be to make people feel, through living an experience, rather than to learn in the traditional way. According to the most recent studies, the targeted audience show great variety; children, young people, families, visually impaired etc. and the aim is to reach an even wider audience in order to understand the greater public[1].

In addition, other studies are carried out on the educational workshops, the classes in the museum and the business committees in the museum as well as on the educational system used in the visit. We also note that the policy of enrichment, the management and the valorization of the educational collection interests the researchers in matters of educational heritage. The transmission of knowledge within the museum is no longer related to scientific discourse; the museum uses processes from theater, such as the use of scenography applied to the expography, whose objective is, as on the scene, to awaken emotions in the visitor.

Current studies show the importance of emotion in learning, particularly when exchanging information from one person to another during a visit, and how it even plays a bigger role than the content itself, if the content was to be displayed neutrally. There are educational courses offered by the museums, intended for both teachers and school children that concern the discovery of museum professions, the functioning of the institution such as the management of collections, the setup of an exhibition and the conception of a museum project. For researchers within information and communication sciences in France, the museum is envisaged as an educational media; for other researchers, for example those who study museology, the exhibition is conceived as a media that can focus on very specific themes and meet the needs of visitors in order to learn and to grow.

It is also a question of studying the production methods of this type of exposure, ranging from the communication device, texts, images, digital tools, to the reception by the public. Museum education also concerns the fields of pedagogy, psychology, sociology and communication, all of which, together with museology, helps create a semantic repertoire for the museum. Long before the modern museum, education at the museum went through an evolution of the presentation of its collections, from the cabinet of curiosities to the princely gallery, to arrive at the contemporary museum where the collections were the primary source of learning. Learning through looking; a look that has been led by the scenographic modifications over time, by a new order and Universalist ideology. How is education organized and initiated at the museum? What are the sources? What legacy do we keep from the learning methods of the past?

The Theatrical Collection: Source of Knowledge

The Louvre, the first museum in France, known as the “Central Museum of the Arts”, was inaugurated in 1793. It represents, from its creation, the quintessence of the encyclopedic spirit of its time and it is a true symbol of the Universalist institution, now open for all. The collections seized during the French Revolution will therefore be used for the manufacture of the “new man”, from a concept by the Republic of Enlightenment.

Fig. 2. Hubert Robert, Vue imaginaire de la grande galerie du Louvre, 1789.

The universal educational project, however, did not arouse the admiration of all. In a book entitled Letters to Miranda, published three years after the opening of the museum, the art historian and archaeologist A. C. Quatremère de Quincy violently rejected the revolutionary ideology as unworthy of the spirit of the “Republic of the Arts”. The author – who already posed the problem of the decontextualization and the restitution of the works in their country of origin – immediately rebelled against the spoliation of the monuments seized in Italy by the Directory and Napoleon Bonaparte in favor of France. For Quatremère, seizing is the product of savagery, “to divide is to destroy,” he says as he advocates the return of monuments to its places of production and the promotion of local heritage.

Thus, to say that the museum appears with the revolution is not completely accurate since there were others well before the creation of the Louvre, such as the Museum of Luxembourg, opened to the public in 1750, and the Museum of Fine Arts and Archaeology of Besançon that opened in 1694. So, the oldest French public collection of art precedes the revolution by almost a century. It was bequeathed by Jean-Baptiste Boisot, abbot of Saint-Vincent, to the Benedictines provided they presented regularly it to the public. Having belonged to Nicolas Perrenot de Granvelle, Prime Minister of Charles V, and his son, the private collection remained open for all in the abbey of Saint Vincent, and so it remained throughout the 18th century.

Fig. 3. Musée des beaux-arts et d’archéologie de Besançon. http://www.mdt.besancon.fr/page-1-en-francais/

However, the consensus only directs its eyes towards this period to include the birth of the modern museum based on rationalism and whose pioneers were Britain, Germany and finally France. The impulse given by the Enlightenment extends the museum to new practices from a pedagogical and patrimonial perspective in a collective way[1]. It is at odds with royal collectionism and the great courts of Europe to become the Enlightenment humanist project: an ideal museum for the education of the citizen.

Fig.4. Auguste Jean Simon Roux, Louis-Philippe et Marie-Amélie visitant le musée du Luxembourg en 1838.

The question of knowledge remains in relation to the ancient ideal, according to Strabo’s testimony of a Mouseion consisting of porticos, a conference room and a vast cenacle bringing the sages of the museum together. There was also the myth of the library of Alexandria and the education from the Platonic Academy and the search for the truth: the source of the cult of the Muses. From then on, the museum is linked to the arts, to science and to knowledge and it is conceived as the space of knowledge and transmission. For researchers such as Germain Bazin, the history of the museum, from the Hellenistic period to the modern museum 2000 years later, materializes the passage from the collection to the museum. But the practice of the collection, specifies Roland Schaer, does not appear in the Renaissance with the cabinet of curiosities. It is actually much earlier, in the temples and the churches that the collections started, as the treasures gathered by the royals, prefiguring modern collectionism. For Edmond Couchot, the aesthetic feeling begins well before, with the collection of artifacts related to the sacred, found in the Neanderthal habitats of Europe and Northern Africa. The quest for curiosities, as the collection in essence is, was already 50 000 years ago, according to Couchot, a main source of learning.

Fig. 5. Châtelperronian Neanderthal body ornaments from the Grotte du Renne (Arcy-sur-Cure, France). Credit: Marian Vanhaeren und Michèle Julien

Popes, cardinals, high prelates, kings, aristocrats and rich bourgeois all collected books, objects made of gold, ivory, other strange objects, ancient curiosities and works of art, for pleasure as demonstrations of power. Cabinet of curiosities, studiolos and private galleries gather all kinds of objects whose scenography is based on a principle of similarities and symbolic links staged by the collector himself. The cabinet represents the universal microcosm; World Theater and the theater of memory. The scenography of the collections is a philosophical representation of the universe of which Giulo Camillo drew the plans. Images projected, steadied, organized in sequence and scenographed as in a theater, provides the setting for the creation. The idea of ​​knowledge is manifested in Camillo’s visual project, in the form of the show, to offer knowledge through images. It is a physical vision materialized from the imaginary world, ideas to matter. It is about building a “spectacular knowledge”, setting up a network of references via a precise scenography and an orchestrated staging of knowledge. The method of education is a museum-theater for transmission into memory.

Fig.6. Le théâtre de la mémoire de Giulio Camillo

The cabinets of curiosities disappear at the end of the 18th century although they have strongly inspired contemporary scenography including the taste of wonder-specific collectionism caused by the juxtaposition of strange objects, exotic or heterogeneous.

Fig.7. Gravure représentant un cabinet de curiosité de la Renaissance crédit : Fabrice Florin

However, the collectionism does not guarantee the patrimonialization of the collected objects. This is how the cabinet will give way to a new, more pedagogical model, originating in Oxford at the end of the 17th century with the creation of the Ashmolean Museum around the collections of Lord Tradescant and then Elias Ashmole, bequeathed to the University of the City in 1677. The museum is immediately associated with the sciences and the creation of a course in natural history as a continuity of the thoughts on nature, by Francis Bacon. The course was then entrusted to Dr. Robert Plot, the first “guard” of the museum and member of the Royal Society, founded in the 17th century. The institution favors experience as a source of knowledge, structured by the museum. The ordinance constitutes the core of the museum with a school and a laboratory. In this perspective, the museum will be constructed as an educational model and will turn to rationalized and regulated scenographic presentations: detailed instructions, description and size of the paintings and signs that appear on the walls next to the objects, all of which educate in different forms.

“For the People to See and Learn”: Creating Rationalism for Education

In France, the museum open to the public, as we pointed out above, is not an invention of the French Revolution. The Museum of Fine Arts and Archaeology in Besançon opened its collection and library to the public in 1694 and visits were organized twice a week on a regular basis. The princely galleries in Europe, from the 17th century, turned to the progressive presentation, as was the case in Verona concerning the scenography of an epigraphic museum, initiated by the Marquis Scipione Maffei, which went from proto-history to the Middle Ages, passing through the languages ​​of the Mediterranean basin. The Franciscan Carlo Lodoli was the first to use this method, around 1730-1750, with the help of a collection he had gathered, for the purpose of teaching the art of drawing by stage. The model will inspire many specialists across Europe. Then, the concern for conservation of objects will go hand in hand with that of the diffusion of knowledge as a matter of public responsibility. Earlier, in Bologna, the Clementina Academy, founded in 1709, brought the Academy of Sciences and the Academy of Fine Arts together at the Poggi Palace for “the public use of the whole earth”. Thus, the meeting of the “library” and the “museum” marks the history of education forever, through the fusion of two sources of knowledge: the words and the things.

In Germany, a memorandum written by W. G. Leibniz was sent to the Tsar in 1708 with the aim of transforming the cabinets of curiosities, so as to help the art and the sciences evolve, into educational places open to the public. In 1769, the Uffizi Gallery was transferred to the Tuscan public administration; completely reorganized, it was opened to the public a few years later. In 1753, the British parliament bought the collection and library of Dr. Hans Sloane, giving birth to the future British Museum, defined as “general deposit” for public use to come. We are witnessing a gradual transformation of the order of the collections, breaking away completely from the style of cabinets of curiosities. Studying nature will now be done by comparison, the classification of species, and for works of art, by school and by chronology.

The Baroque aesthetic, whose scenography uses sets and staged compositions that arouse emotion and surprise, leaves room for rationality, specialization and history. According to the principles of Winckelmann, written in his work in 1764, The History of the Art of Antiquity, the reasoned history of art must be made by its origin, its progression and its evolution, ending with its decadence, its fall and extinction. The collections of paintings are organized by school, and within each school, by chronology. The museum thus forms a “depository of the visible history of art”. Collections are also used for demonstration, as a source of study and dissemination. The aristocrats and the bourgeois form the public in Paris who comes to attend the public courses which take place in cabinets of sciences or natural history. Classes are offered in Valmont de Bomare from December to April, on Thursday- and Saturday mornings.

In Rouen, the first public school of drawing opens in 1741. Later, artists claim access to the royal collections of the Louvre in order to perfect the art. Font de Saint-Yenne proposes to clear a space in the Palais du Louvre to present the works of the greatest masters of Europe, works that are part of the King’s collection, works unknown to most. The proposal will be implemented 20 years later by the Encyclopedia of Diderot and D’Alembert. At the Luxembourg Palace, a gallery is opened to the public on Wednesdays and Saturdays, where many paintings from the royal collection are on display.

The experiment was stopped by the closing of the museum in 1779 following the attribution of the Palace to the Count of Provence, brother of Louis 16th. Under Louis 16th, the Count d’Angiviller will lead the development of the Louvre to meet the demand of artists, but also in order to realize the future temple of the great men of the nation as well as the monarchy. He enriched the royal collection and had the models of the fortified cities of the Great Gallery of the Louvre transferred to the Invalids to clear the space.

The rise of museums formed from the royal collections took place throughout Europe with openings organized for the public with access to the library: Cassel, Munich, Düsseldorf, Florence and Vienna all opened the doors of their buildings to any visitor “having clean shoes”.

Finally, the educational museum is characterized by informative cartels illustrated by a representative object; it is not a question of presenting at random but with a specific order, selected by experts, by their value for the purpose of exposing them to the public in order to educate the people.

The revolutionary museum laid the foundations of modern museology: collective responsibility for heritage, the importance of the role of public authorities, conservation and its educational role. Unlike the museums that preceded the revolutionary museum context, the republican state now appropriates the property of the royal family, the aristocracy and the Church, to give it to the nation in a Universalist design. Mirabeau poses the problem of the status of ecclesiastical goods, objects of worship; decontextualized of their religious framework and their symbolic power.

Would they thus become works of art?

The Museum of French Monuments founded by Alexandre Lenoir in 1791 is an asylum for monuments saved from vandalism. He uses the staging for each room he decides to dedicate to a particular century in the history of France; each with a scenography corresponding to its time, playing with the progression of the light, from the darkest to the most luminous, thus, the chronological progression, room by room; he presents the artistic style of the period. The teaching goes through the lesson of art and history at the same time, as in the gallery of the illustrious of the Revolution, but also by a didactic organization divided into four major areas: art, history, natural sciences and techniques.

It was at this time that Quatremère de Quincy rebelled against the plundering of the arts of Rome, in the Letters to Miranda published in 1796, judging it incompatible with the ideals of the “Republic of arts” and freedom. The Enlightenment Museum becomes an accomplice of the larger projects built on domination and blood. But, it is the Louvre that will serve as a model for many museums in European cities during the 19th century for the museums of art, natural sciences and history, only to end at the turn of the century, giving in to a transformation under the influence of romanticism and nationalism with a return to eclecticism and the taste of decorations in museum presentations.

Charm by the Arts and Sciences

Learning therefore involves the presentation, the order, the staging of the objects as well as the courses and the access to the collections, to study and apprehend them. But education is also a matter of architecture. The 19th century, the museum’s booming age, is also that of “temple”-museums highlighting the treasures of archaeology but remaining faithful to the encyclopedic project. The Greek temple, the dome of the Roman Pantheon and Palladio’s villas are models of museum architecture, particularly popular in England, Germany and the USA. This type of architecture energizes the presentations by highlighting the antiques and the sculptures to promote the spiritual formation of the nation through the contemplation of beauty.

From the second half of the 21st century, the Universal Exhibitions participated in the education of the people and revealed the social utility of the museum by uniting art and industry. Thus, the learning process of applied art museums and drawing schools, helped to perfect industrial productions. Then, the museum puts itself at the service of the popularization, especially in the last quarter of the century in France, by adopting the policy of education of the Republic. The ministerial document of 1881 concerning the reorganization of the museum was the same as for the school. It aimed to “moralize by the education, charm by the arts, enrich by the sciences”.

Fig. 8. Exposition Universelle de 1855, Vue de la grande nef du Palais de l’Industrie, 1855, Lithographie en couleurs, musée d’Orsay.

Education goes hand in hand with the museum; although initiated from the collectionism, it quickly opened to the world, unveiling its treasures. Initially reserved for the privileged to later open up to the great numbers, the collection’s objective was to understand the universe and the nature which surrounded it. The collections were the source of curiosity and knowledge that spread throughout Europe in an order built in the 17th century to culminate in the “encyclopedic museum of Enlightenment” where didacticism and rationalism prevailed. The scenography of knowledge by objects is not new, it is the consequence of the gaze of the philosopher, the kings and sages in tune with the facts of society and history. The evolution of the profession in museums, the birth of museology, and the use of museography for ideological purposes and the construction of the real, have all participated in building museum education.

UNESCO, ICOM and ICOFOM have helped to redefine the role of the museum and expand it to meet the changes of the 20th and 21st centuries. Great museographers like Gorges Henri Rivière made the museum a center of scientific research. Museums have transformed into centers of culture, where rethinking the learning processes in terms of mediation, space organizations and multidisciplinarities, and entering the digital age where new technologies opens the way to augmented reality and artificial intelligence, has become an important part of its function. It is today through the staging that the learning passes; the collection is no longer at the center of museum concerns as it promotes a playful and transformative experience through narratives and the senses. The museum presentations involve a metalanguage; mixing communication and information sciences, semiotics and marketing applied to the exhibition, in order to produce narratives that are attractive to an ever-wider audience.

Fig.9. Musée du Quai Branly J. Chirac, Paris, France

Standardized in gallery-type spaces, the works of art are relegated to mere consumer objects that does not say anything; decontextualized, they have lost their meaning. The loss of value for the educational role of the museum must is a result of the Post-modern era, that is to say, in tune with a globalization obeying the markets, and that has pushed science out the doors of the museum in favor of materialistic and financial profit. The universalism of the museum has been transformed into a modern globalism in which education seems relegated to the level of the subjective and the fictional.

[1] POLI Marie-Sylvie, « Éducation et musée », Culture & Musées [En ligne], Hors-série | 2013, mis en ligne le 19 juin 2018, consulté le 25 octobre 2018. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/culturemusees/757

[2] GOB André, DROUGUET Noémie, La muséologie : Histoire, développements, enjeux actuels, Paris, Armand Colin, 2014.


  • COUCHOT Edmond (2012), La nature de l’art. Ce que les sciences cognitives nous révèlent sur le plaisir esthétique, Paris : Hermann, pp. 51-55.
  • GOB André, DROUGUET Noémie (2014), La muséologie : Histoire, développements, enjeux actuels, Paris : Armand Colin.
  • QUATREMÈRE DE QUINCY A. C. (1796) ; (2017), Les Lettres à Miranda sur le déplacement des monuments de l’art de l’Italie, Paris : Edition Macula [1989] 2017.
  • SCHAER Roland, (2011 [1993]), L’invention des musées, Paris : Découverte Gallimard, pp. 11-14.
  • SHEFER Bertrand (2007), « Les lieux de l’image », CAMILLO Giulo, Le théâtre de la mémoire, Paris, Editions Allia, pp. 7-31.


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