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Museum Administration in Languedoc Roussillon

If you are trying to learn about medieval Occitania in Languedoc-Roussillon, a visitor will be drawn to the old castles, cultural institutions like Cirdoc or the various mediatheques, but also to the various regional museums. As an American with some experience in museum programs and management, a lot of the museums we visited struck me as very similar. For our purpose, I will focus on the Centre du Sculpture Romane in Cabestany, the Centre du Chateau des Lastours, and the Musee Archeologique du Narbonne.
All of these museums had commonalities in display and message which cannot be explained simply by proximity. They were all purpose built museum spaces, either constructed completely from scratch at Cabestany and Lastours, or built into the Palais des Archeveques but with complete remodeled interior decorating. They had strong natural colored wall schemes, either of blond or dark stained wood panels, or earth tones and glass walls at Lastours.
Architecture aside, they seemed to be organized along a similar pedagogical philosophy. There were grottoes or rooms which visitors could walk under or glance at, but never into, unlike at the municipal museum at Castello d’Empuries across the border in Catalonia, which made the physical space of the comital palace an integral part of the exhibition. Miniaturized models of landscapes and and building complexes featured heavily alongside identically designed frosted glass explanatory panels. In the gift shops, they sold the same children’s books about medieval Occitania, bilingual French and Catalan vocabularies, and cookbooks. The inventories could easily have been copied from one another.
What was the root of this similarity? From my experience in industry, such stylistic consistency is generally representative of a single designer, or multiple designers subscribing to similar philosophies or working with similar collections. The collections were not similar enough to explain this pattern, as they varied from sculptural reconstructions at Cabestany, to historical landscape and ecology at Lastours. The political-cultural explanation would be a common guiding ideology, while the standard free-market explanation would be a common customer base. My theory ended up somewhere in between.
I first examined the managerial structure of these museums and their institutional histories. They were all built from 2000-2009, more of less complete with their exhibitions, with little planning for temporary or exhibit changes. They were all owned by the municipality, and funded by a mixture of municipal and regional public sector funds. They did not own their collections outright, but were patched together from projects funded by local governments and the museums themselves.
As such, these museums did not have independent foundation boards. They had only a skeleton front desk staff and maybe two or three directors and volunteer coordinators in the back office. In a typical American museum of similar size, there would be at least thirty full time employees working in educational programs, maintenance of the collection, advertising, and debating internally how to arrange new exhibitions. In the United States, these are considered core museological functions, but in the museums visited, these functions were not undertaken by professional museum workers, but officials in the local government or regional tourism authority.
In the United States, this externalization of core museological functions would constitute the height of undue government interference. Even ostentatiously public museums like the Smithsonian Institution or the University of California museums have large staffs which take care of these function in-house, and trustees who, although appointed by public bodies, guarantee the independence of museum workers and own outright the entire collection.
In France however, this doesn’t appear to be the case. In interviews with museum workers and volunteers, the only major complaint that was consistent was the lack of funding for operations costs and the desire for more money from the national government. In regional tourism or municipal officials who made major exhibition decisions, there was no sense that they were they, as policy generalists, were making decisions that should be reserved to museum specialists.
This attitude, and the concept of a public museum, makes much more sense in the context of the French “Cultural State”. Historically, the French monarchy initially used museums, or public displays of the royal collections, as Renaissance princes would, to impress upon visitors their sophistication and power. After the Revolution, the new republican regime used the old royal collections like the Louvre or the diamond collection to create a national identity. High Parisian culture became French culture, and museums played a key part in a single culture which aimed to be prescriptive, and not descriptive, of France at the time.
The unusually large budget of the Ministry of Culture, in the hands of a politician, has naturally lent itself to ministers and Presidents of the Republic wanting to make a name for themselves with large projects in the vicinity of Paris. The Pompidou Center, the Louvre renovation, and the National Opera House are all affiliated with particular presidents of ministers of culture. Consistent with its centralizing origins, even today the ministry has little internal institutional checks on the minister. The minister receives as much or as little professional advice as they ask for.
After the War, a succession of socialist governments attempted to democratize and decentralize the primacy of Paris in France’s cultural agenda. Hence, for the first time, substantial amounts of funding from the Ministry of Culture went to regional tourism authorities, with the expectation that the money “be felt”. Hence, from 2000 to 2009, a succession of very modern museums, with great promises of cooperation with local school systems and extensive volunteer programs were built throughout Languedoc-Roussillon in conjunction with local villes and agglomerations. While Parisian money, coming through the Ministry of Culture and the Region of Languedoc-Roussillon, provided the initial capital investment for the museum, governance, improvements, and management was left in the hands of municipalities.
Hence, today there are a large number of local, public museums in Languedoc-Roussillon. Because they were all built around the same time, they have similar aesthetics and spatial arrangements. Because they were essentially conceived by the regional tourism authorities, they all use local improvisations on the regional brand Sud de France: notre marque. Consistent with the unity of French identity, they do not actively encourage an Occitan consciousness, but instead substitute bilingual French-Catalan childrens books for an air of distinctness. They create the idea of a southern French lifestyle, culture, but also history, which is unique; but in order to attract tourism to the small towns that are the bedrock of the tourism industry, they must also recognize the historical diversity internal to the Languedoc.
This diffuse brand, in its larger sense, enables Lastours, with its ecological and mining heritage, along with its Cathar and French history, to shine through. It allows the Master of Cabestany and Roman Narbonne’s stories to transcend modern nation-state boundaries, in a different way from the universalism of metropolitan French culture. This is a remarkable example, in the private sector, of an economically successful tourism branding which still allows for the complexities inherent in cultural heritage, or at least as much as the population is willing to support.
In the public museums studied here, however, they are still dependant on the public sector in a manner that would be considered completely unsustainable in the United States. In spite of their very vocal lack of national funding, regional museums are effectively fully subsidized, and therefore controlled, by the municipality. It allows for for little change in exhibitions, nonexistent museum independence, but also non existent responsibility. Revenue is negligible, as most museums are free, and only the gift shops and tours are charged. They have minimal fundraising efforts, and their greatest weakness is their dependence on the public purse.
The region built, municipality owned museum is a complete model. Within the context of the French cultural state, it explains a number of the similarities seen in the museums mentioned here, as well as others. It will be interesting to see how the reorganization of the French regional system will affect this system, and if these local museums prove useful or sustainable if further cuts to the non-personnel public expenditure prove necessary.
Works Consulted
Benhamou, François. “The Contradictions of Désétatisation” in Privatization and Culture: Experiences in the Arts, Heritage and Cultural Industries in Europe. Boorsma, Peter B. et al. eds.
Chatelin-Ponroy, Stéphanie. “Management Control and Museums” in International Journal of Arts Management (Fall 2001) 4(1): 38-47.
Durey, Phillipe. “The Réunion des Musées Nationaux: an Example of how museums can strike a balance between commercial development and cultural values by pooling their economic resources” in ICOM News (2001): 8-11. 
Europe, Council of. Cultural Policy in France Publishing and Documentation Service: Strasbourg, 1991.

The Other France: Troubadours and the Politics of Cultural Heritage
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