Heritage, the State and the Hexagon

Will Clement is a doctoral researchers at the University of Oxford interested in philanthropy, industry and urban history in nineteenth-century France. A speaker at this year’s PG Study Day on the topic of ‘Patrimoine’, he was able to hear Dr Tom Stammers keynote address. In a clear and thoughtful post, Clement (Oxford) has summarised Stammers’ paper entitled ‘Heritage, the State and the Hexagon: Royalist Exceptions and Republican Rules’. Rather than looking at static sites as Pierre Nora has done, why not examine objects in motion?

ASMCF-SSFH Postgraduate Study Day


QMUL, Saturday 5 March 2016

Summary of the Keynote Address by Dr Tom Stammers (Durham)

‘Heritage, the State and the Hexagon: Royalist Exceptions and Republican Rules’

by Will Clement

When the organisers of this year’s postgraduate study day sought to invite a keynote speaker, it was no coincidence that all three suggested Dr Stammers as a logical frontrunner. As an early career researcher, his work on collecting, material culture, and heritage in post-revolutionary Paris has led him to interact both with the invention and repurposing of national heritage in the nineteenth century as well as with historiographical, political, and cultural developments in the use of the term ‘patrimoine’. As such, his keynote acted as both an overview of the changing status of patrimoine as well as an introduction to his own research onto the precarious nature of French heritage from its post-revolutionary origins.

After acknowledging the broad range of research interests present at the study day, Dr Stammers dedicated the first part of his keynote to sketching over the origin, development, and problems associated with the term ‘patrimoine’. Dr Stammers began in the 1960s, highlighting the active promotion of the centrality of national heritage to state dialogues of a rejuvenated post-war national identity. ‘Patrimoine’ came to replace the older term of ‘monuments historiques’, and as such covered a far less concrete set of ideas. The term surged in popularity in bureaucratic vocabulary in the 1970s, before spreading to a wider range of subjects in the popular lexicon from the 1980s. As a result, the term was applied to much more than just objects of exceptional historic or aesthetic importance, and as of 2007 there were no less than 43,000 historic monuments officially recognised.

This spread of ‘patrimoine’ led to concerns from intellectuals from the 1990s that this ‘vogue for memory’, far from embodying a clear national identity, stood to risk the splintering of a unified idea of ‘France’. Dr Stammers went on to examine the emergence of studies which praised the French exceptionalism of the phenomenon of ‘patrimoine’. These studies served to portray a history of progressive legislative milestones from the Revolution to the present, through which successive generations better preserved and appreciated the nation’s treasures. This was not an unchallenged view however, with other scholars seeking to move beyond a bureaucratic monopolisation of heritage to studying rural, popular heritage.

Dr Stammers moved on to examine contemporary issues which add further problematic elements to the modern study of ‘patrimoine’– a transnational critique, a colonial critique, and a commercial critique – three issues which have dented the prestige once attached to the word ‘patrimoine’ As a result of these critiques, the term ‘patrimoine’ has been de-territorialised, due to the power of ‘petro-dollar’ museums such as the sister branches of the Sorbonne and Louvre in the Middle East beyond the limits of France; it has been de-aestheticized, due to kitsch ‘Disneylandification’ whereby objects of little of no beauty are being claimed for ‘patrimoine’; and it has been de-materialized, due to challenges to the very idea of what it is to be a monument, following UNESCO’s new rulings on ‘intangible’ cultural heritage. Furthermore, the term has been de-mystified, as it is ‘no longer understood as a defensive response to change, but as a handmaiden to nationalism, imperialism, and cultural aggression’.

Having set up the complications with the use of the word ‘patrimoine’ today, Dr Stammers turned to his own research to help suggest new ways in which we can consider using the evidently problematic term of ‘patrimoine’. In the long nineteenth century, there were historic materials which the state had ‘neither the inclination nor the funds to protect’, from both the twin poles of Revolution and Restoration. As there was no institutional home for these objects, they were circulated instead on the market by private enthusiasts. The second half of Dr Stammers’s keynote drew upon his research in order to illustrate how French heritage ‘was precarious right from the beginning [1789]… because it was built on an unstable alliance between the state, private individuals, and the market’.

Inspired by his current work on the diaspora of French royal collections across the nineteenth century, Dr Stammers dealt first with the monarchist cause. Leaders of the royal or imperial dynasties of the nineteenth century all died abroad, and as such these ‘dethroned sovereigns threw themselves into collecting’ in order to affirm their national credentials despite exile. Even when these collections returned to France, they tended to remain in private, rather than state, hands. Standing apart from the Republican state, these collections serve as ‘islands of monarchical values that are set in a Republican sea’. Indeed, many of these relics ended up in homes, with domestic shrines giving the items a piety that was at odds with the technical presentation displays of state museums.

After looking at this ‘homeless’ legacy of monarchical possessions with regards to the lack of integration into the current French state, Dr Stammers moved to the other pole and explained the ‘uncertain’ material traces of the French Revolution. Much of the material cultural of the Revolution was ‘ephemeral, eccentric, and perishable’. As those involved with the Restoration state wanted little to do with preserving the Revolutionary heritage, it fell to amateurs to do the job of preservation. Dr Stammers introduced us to a selection of these amateur ‘oddballs’, and their varying approaches to the safeguarding of Revolutionary heritage.

Together, these pioneering groups of collectors illustrate an important moment in historic consciousness when contemporary ephemera ‘was already being collected because of its importance for posterity’. While the members of state commissions des monuments historiques were setting their attention on repairing large architectural structures, these independent collectors ‘gathered up the heritage of social history and everyday life’. Indeed, museums that were limited by state policies of conservation became disproportionately dependent on these private collectors. The collector Charles Sauvageot, for example, was rewarded with Chevalier de legion d’honneur, a chance to have a state funeral, and a job as honorary curator at the Louvre when, in 1856, he decided to donate his entire collection to the museum.

Finishing his keynote in the early years of the Third Republic, Dr Stammers noted how the financially impotent government ‘franchised out’ the building up of the nation’s heritage to wealthy collectors. Later, in the 1880s, there were protracted clashes between the more radical Republican government and monarchists. The latter accusing the government of vandalising and selling-off objects associating with the past, while the government agents argued that the best use that these objects could, and should, be put to would be the financing of the nation’s future. There were cries of ‘le patrimoine en danger’ throughout the Belle Époque years as the ability, and authority, of a Republican government to preserve a royal heritage came under question from monarchists. In conclusion, Dr Stammers stressed how we must move beyond Pierre Nora’s static ‘lieux de mémoire’ and to focus instead on objects in motion, ‘portable property’, that carried symbolic significance precisely because of their mobility. As the example of these clashes in the Third Republic show, the possibility of the sale or forfeiture of items of powerful heritage value in turn strengthens the power of heritage to those who fear this loss.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The Society for the Study of French History logo