Sarkozy plans new Paris history museum

Georges Pompidou’s dream was a modern arts center. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing signed off on the popular Musée d’Orsay. Every French president since de Gaulle has imagined some Pharaonic cultural monument or other to honor La Grande Nation, as the mocking German media occasionally call their Gallic neighbor, and to enshrine himself, of course. François Mitterrand became a virtual Ramesses II, opening the Bastille Opera, a new National Library, the Arab World Institute and the Louvre pyramid.

By contrast, Nicolas Sarkozy long seemed to flaunt his impatience with high culture.  But Mr. Sarkozy has now decided that he wants a cultural legacy after all. He has cooked up the Maison de l’Histoire de France, the country’s first national museum of French history, to open in 2015, in a wing of the rambling palace in the Marais district of Paris currently occupied by the National Archives. The idea is to distill centuries of Gallic gloire into a chronological display, supplemented by lectures, seminars and temporary shows borrowing materials from the country’s already plentiful local and regional history museums.

That’s the plan, anyway. For months, protesters have taken to the barricades, appalled by the notion of the museum. The biggest “cultural revolt” of the president’s tenure is what one British newspaper gloatingly called the latest French contretemps. The problem? It boils down to a few issues: What does it mean to be French in the 21st century? And whose “history” should be celebrated? In an increasingly fractious and multicultural nation, the questions have no simple answers.  

Sarkozy first trotted out the notion of a Maison de l’Histoire a few years ago while concocting a ministry for immigration and national identity. His culture minister, Frédéric Mitterrand, chimed in, promising that the history museum would illuminate France’s “soul,” whatever that meant. Mr. Sarkozy has since reversed himself about the ministry in the face of a barrage of criticism, returning immigration to the interior minister’s portfolio and jettisoning the national identity tag. As for the museum, his associates insist it will be a serious, independent institution airing all views, not a political tool.  

Source: New York Times