Through the looking glass of maritimeness

Le texte qui suit a été présenté lors d’une table ronde franco-russe sur le thème Navigation, pêche et identités maritimes, XVe-XIXe siècles, organisée par Irina Gouzévitch (Centre Maurice Halbwachs), Liliane Hilaire-Pérez (Université Paris Diderot / EHESS) et Alexei Kraikovski (NRU Higher School of Economics, St. Petersburg). Cette table ronde, qui s’est déroulée le 22 décembre 2017 à l’Université Paris Diderot, a permis d’échanger dans une perspective transnationale autour de la notion de maritimité.

Through the looking glass of maritimeness

Maritimeness is a vague and ambiguous concept based on a geographical and cultural approach of the maritime world, which in itself does not exist as a united whole, but it offers a useful conceptual frame. I intend to introduce a rather distorting image of maritimeness via its political and inland dimension through the marine museum in Paris. We will discuss whether the museum really mirrors the maritime world, the sea, the shore and its inhabitants and workers, or if it offers a pure illusion. I will focus on the XIXth century, even though the XXth century is as well of interest but quite differently because the museum becomes that of an arm, the Navy. For the XXIth century, perception and image of maritimeness is at stake as the museum closed this year for a complete refurbishment and is trying to redefine its mission and museography.

The founding of the Museum, 1814-1830

The first Restauration intends to found a naval museum in Paris as soon as 1814 to house the collections of ship-models scattered in various places, and to give the Navy a showcase that can bring to the capital knowledge of the maritime world. When it as last opens to the public in 1830, it is placed under supervision of the Ministry of Navy and the Maison du Roi, and under the protection of the Dauphin, Grand amiral de France. Its foundation and its name reveal the ambiguity of the project: naval museum, soon to be named “musée de marine”, it is neither the museum of the Navy nor the museum of the maritime world. Its collections are provided for by the arsenals and model makers paid by the navy, but its budget comes from the civil list and the fine arts administration. It is attached to the Home Office from 1848 to 1920, when the museum comes under the supervision of the Ministry of Navy and is named after this arm. The museum is housed in the Louvre with the fine arts, paintings, sculpture, etc. Its initial goal is quite wide and embraces an open-minded but straightforward view of the maritime world:

  • war and merchant ships,
  • harbours, dockyard, machines, gears and instruments
  • famous seafarers from war heroes to explorers.
  • whatever sailors and ships can bring from all over the world

But the ambiguous relationship between France and the maritime world will soon reveal itself through the museum and its collections.

As Alain Corbin well pointed out, for French people and until the early days of the XIXth century, the sea is the territory of emptiness, hostile, dangerous and peopled with monsters. The sea can nevertheless be associated with a few essential functions:

  • feeding with fishing
  • trading with inshore and seagoing navigation

-defending, because the French military strategy is mainly one of defense. The Boulogne fleet ended up as a failure and France has had very few naval battles to be proud since Louis XIV, hence the importance of exalting them through monumental paintings and the figures of national heroes like Jean Bart or Duquesne. These glories are certainly not as well-known as they ought to be amongst the public. On the contrary, the images related to the sea in the collective imagination are mainly those of dramas, especially after the Napoleonic Wars and the reintegration of Ancien Regime Navy officers with the restoration of the monarchy, symbolized by the shipwreck of the Méduse. See its image given by Gericault, horrid and desperate.

The French Restauration wants to fight against these images, to give the state a powerful Navy, and wants the country to regain confidence in its navy: the Navy needs money, ships and sailors but also needs to conquer the public opinion, especially within the capital. The Naval museum of Paris is founded on this last purpose. It aims at reflecting the French maritimeness by displaying its heroes and shipbuilding industry led by science and reason in order to arouse vocations for maritime careers and to encourage the Parliament in voting increasing budgets for the Navy. The French Restauration also takes up with the tradition of round the world voyages and the museum houses more and more artefacts from far away civilizations or savages. Naval officers and diplomats tend to give the museum what they bring back from their voyages. Extra-european artefacts become the metaphorical identity of the French maritimeness, over-shadowing the realities of the maritime world, much cruder and coarser.

The museum is confronted with the withdrawal of the Navy in the end of the Monarchie de Juillet and during the 2d Republic: in consequence, fewer and fewer specifically naval artefacts enter the collection. In the 1850’s, 73% of the collections are of ethnographic nature, a fact that leads to the creation of an ethnographical museum within the marine museum.

A new vision

During the XIXth Century, the vision of the sea is deeply transformed: the repulsive images, however romantic, of tempests and loneliness of the man facing an overbearing nature, turn into attraction. The neglect in which naval issues are kept is well repaid by Napoleon’s naval policy (M. Battesti). The emptiness of the oceans is filled by accurate cartography, even though the effort is already well began in the XVIIIth Century with Cook settling the question of the austral continent; XIXth Century sailors still try to eradicate phantom islands from the maps and young oceanography peoples the oceans with science and gets rid of fantasies.

Danger is not totally tamed but hazardous navigation gradually gives way to clock-ruled navigation thanks to clocks and steamships that can race for speed in the blue ribbon competition. This is the century of technical and scientific conquest of the sea.

The national shore is the new frontier: it also needs to be conquered by cartography (2 main campaigns to draw an accurate map of the French littoral) and infrastructures, marked by a string of signposts: the lighthouses (V. Guigueno). The seaside turns out to be seen as a healthy and leisurely place where to rest the body and the soul from a hectic and polluted city life. The train has opened up the seaside to Parisians, the sea has been invested by seashore activities such as bathing or sailing in regattas. The sea has been magnified under the pen of writers such as Hugo or Michelet, under the brush of realistic of impressionists painters like Monet, Boudin or Corot and popularized by maritime novels from France, England or America: James Fenimore Cooper, Herman Melville, Eugène Sue and Lalandelle, long before Pierre Loti or Jack London, not to say of Jules Verne. In this fictional maritime world, many aspects of maritimeness are disclosed to the public: high-sea navigation, fishing and whaling, trading and discovery of alien or exotic cultures, but also its technical and scientific dimension. Different social groups are exposed in the literature that gives a hint of maritimeness to inland readers.

Does the museum follow the artistic lead?

The name of the museum blurs an already ambiguous project and the collections evolve consequently during the century. For the museum, collection development does not only depend on supervision, on political design, on money or donations, but also depends on the personal interest of the curator, on his personal vision of what ought to be a marine museum, and of his personal network. The Museum has known 3 « eras » in the XIXth Century, curiously mainly corresponding to political regimes:

  • naval engineers under the monarchy who wish to stress the importance of ships and infrastructures and make the museum a Conservatoire of shipbuilding, both designed for instruction and preservation. The museum has its own workshop and model-makers to create its collections. It nevertheless collects in addition most of the production of dockyard workshops.
  • a painter during the Second Empire, when the museum is overwhelmed with exotic artefacts despite the Naval policy led by Napoleon III. There seems to be no need for an instrument of propaganda because the time is that of a strong development of maritime issues in which France seems to play a leading part, or at least is no longer striving to catch up with the British royal and merchant navies: territorial expansion overseas, steam navigation with transatlantic steamers, ironclad battleships. It is a time of power and speed at sea, image magnified by the international exhibitions of Paris and London.
  • retired naval officers during the first decades of the 3d Republic who take over the forgotten prospect of creating a Conservatoire and build collections of models reflecting the diversity of ships and infrastructures: sailing and steam ships for high-seas navigation from the XVIIth-century to present, canoes from all over the world as well as traditional working boats from Europe. It also presents astronomical instruments; tools; samples of rope, wood, sails; models of lighthouses, masting machines, dredgers, etc., and a great number of scale drawings, technical books and so on. The museum, by the will of its curator the admiral Pâris, follows the development of archeology and ethnography. These various collections seem to meet their public under the IIId Republic.

A distorting mirror?

How can a collection of objects and artefacts mirror such a vague, polysemic and essentially cultural and social concept as maritimeness? I dare say it cannot, but it echoes one of its social and cultural dimension: an awakening sensitiveness to sea and shore, a “desire for shore” (A. Corbin) expressed by the public who is seeking in the museum a true and accurate image of what all the novels we talked about conjure up. The museum exposes most of the 5 components of maritime heritage stressed by Françoise Péron in the introduction of the book on maritimeness:

  • monuments and military infrastructrures (lighthouses, military ports)
  • functional components (ships, dockyards, lifeboats)

Those first two components are of strategic importance: displaying the most modern warship or artillery, or lighting system aims at showing the French naval power; it also helps citizens to appropriate the issues and take part in the political, diplomatical, even ideological debates like that around the strategy of the Jeune École.

  • landscapes (paintings)
  • leisure (regattas)

There is one component missing in the museum: it is the socio-cultural one, about seafaring people and people living by the sea. The curator Pâris has a sense of ethnography: he tries to relate boats to crafts and tools, but the human dimension seems to be still missing.

In the meantime these sea-people are becoming “exotic” for Parisians. They are rather idealized for their supposed genuine and healthy way of life, close to nature. It seems that the public finds in the museum what they are looking for. Visitors again use the artefacts displayed in the showcases as a metaphor of sea life and fuel for their imagination. Many accounts on the life of the museum stress the importance of children, attracted by its collection as if they were in a toy shop.

Conclusion

The marine museum of Paris can be considered as an accurate looking glass for maritimeness from an inland and urban point of view. Through its collections and public, it reflects the perception of maritime issues by the public and by the government. It is mainly invested by political power when the rank of France within maritime nations and on the oceans is at stake.


Laisser un commentaire

Votre adresse de messagerie ne sera pas publiée. Les champs obligatoires sont indiqués avec *