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Why can’t museums simply be museums ? A closer look at the contemporary exhibitions outbreak

Most of Paris’s major museums play a new game : they use their traditional museum space as a temporary exhibition hall. But is it really their job ?

Lately, most travellers going to Versailles are often shocked by what they find there. As they enter the glorious royal residence, looking for 17th century cutting-edge decors and 18th century art de vivre, expecting to bump into a Louis XIV in gold and ribbons or a frivolous Marie-Antoinette, they take their tickets to the Hall of Mirrors and… end up in a contemporary art center. A contemporary art center of a new kind : The shell is still the exquisite building of the French golden century, still classified as a UNESCO world heritage, but, under the 300 years old Baccarat lamps and the Le Brun ceilings, they have an unexpected rendez-vous with the newest contemorary artists. Murakami, Jeff Koons, all these big names of XXIst century art are invited in a gallery of new kind. And opinions are rather cut on this.

I have never met a tourist who enjoyed it. Most of them, if not all of them, came to Versailles to go back in time, to take a time journey to the 1700’s. Even when they have a taste for contemporary art (which, unfortunately, is far from being always the case), they feel disappointed, if not deceived, by the artistic clash forced upon them. It is, indeed, harder to picture all the courtiers in wigs and fans trying to sollicit the king for an audience in 1695 when you have in the middle of the room a huge resin dog balloon. It’s true, it’s baroque, it’s fun, it has some of the craziness of a king’s caprice. But, when you are aiming at History, it takes your pleasure away.

Versailles is not the only place where such an invasion regularly takes place. The Conciergerie, in the center of Paris, hosts Europe’s largest gothic room, from the 14th Century. Except that often, this unique room is cut by black curtains to present art installations. Usually beautiful and thought-provoking. But making it impossible to enjoy the rythm of Gothic ribbed arches, and cutting off all perspectives. When it doesn’t simply close the place down : these exhibitions usually take several weeks to set up, weeks during which it is no longer possible to visit the place. The Louvre itself has the disease : Big names like Jan Fabre or Wim Delvoye can legally squat the Dutch Masters department or the appartments of Napoleon III to show their work.

On the Parisian side, people love it. First because there is this belief that just being a museum is not enough, that a museum alone is dull and dead. A museum, by definition, is not supposed to change, it is only supposed to show the same things over again. It does not sound that exciting to locals, who already have seen -or pretend to- these things. Therefore, bringing temporary exhibitions is a way to boost interest and attract local visitors.

Second, it flatters the art scene, and allows frustrated curators to do what they like. Before being the curator of Versailles, Jean-Jacques Aillagon was in charge of the Pompidou Center. It makes no doubt that he does not have much interest for 17th century art, but remains one of the experts of contemporary art ; this has to be the reason why he invited all these world-famous artists to display their work in Versailles.

But is it right to do this ? Should the love of contemporary art prevail over the preservation of an ambiance or a style ? What should come first : a strategy to increase the number of tickets, the urge to be part of our era’s art scene, or the mere job of preserving the legacy one has in charge and making it possible for all visitors, all year round, to enjoy it in a pristine state ? That is a tough question.

As a tour guide, I am of course totally upset when a museum is closed dut to the setting of an exhibition. Some visitors spend a lot of time and money to come walk on Marie-Antoinette’s steps, and bump into closed doors because of this. I do not like it either when I have to recreate the ambiance of a certain era and an extremely modern piece of art is visually forcing us astray. But I also feel that these exhibitions are a bit missing their points : Most of the people that see them -tourists- don’t care about them, while most of the people that would love to see them -locals- don’t go to because the places where they are hosted is not yet understood as a temporary exhibition center, like the Jeu de Paume, the 104 or the Palais de Tokyo for instance.

All in all, I would rather be able to go safely to a museum and see what’s to be seen there without the risk of crashing into something totally different, and I would probably like it better if the big names of the contemporary art scene would go to the 104 or the MacVal which were specially created for this purpose and kinda lack these big names to spur their activity.

But, personally, I love to discover these exhibitions in places that I know too well. It would however be very selfish of me to make my own pleasure prevail over the magical discovery visitors expect to make in these world-class museums.

So if you are to visit one of them, be prepared: you can be assaulted by contemporary art in the most unexpected part of your trip!