Exhibition "The Curiosity of a Prince"
The Fate of the Count of Artois' Ethnographic Cabinet, from the Revolution to the Present Day

In 1806, the Versailles Public Library received an extraordinary collection of objects from around the world, most of which can be found today in the musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac. The collections expanded considerably during the nineteenth century, due to the generosity of a number of Versaillais donors. When the musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro in Paris took over the collection in 1934, it comprised roughly 534 items from Asia, Africa, Oceania and the Americas.

Versailles Public Library CROYAN
Room of the Powers of Italy, Gallery of Foreign Affairs, Versailles Public Library
© Ville de Versailles / Pierrick Daul

Several dozen objects dating back to the Ancien Régime, most of which are the oldest preserved specimens anywhere in the world, form part of these diverse collections, and are the source of the Library’s world-wide fame. From a range of geographical locations, they testify to the power of the French Colonial Empire in North America, the Caribbean, today’s Guyana, Senegal, the Reunion Islands and French India. Originally part of the cabinets de curiosités constituted in the 17th and 18th centuries by aristocrats, religious congregations, scholars, enthusiasts, and the House of France, they were confiscated in 1791 and later brought, together with other collections, to the Versailles Palace, which had been transformed into the central storehouse for the Revolution’s seizures in the Seine-et-Oise département. They were later transferred to the Library.

The broad lines of the history of the Versailles collections are known, but questions remain about its origins, and also the provenance of the objects prior to 1792, when the first existing inventory of the oldest objects was carried out. The publications tell us, schematically, that the collection was constituted by the naturalist and former administrator in the Office of the American colonies, Denis-Jacques Fayolle (1729-1804). It was acquired by the marquis Armand-Louis de Sérent (1736-1822), the private tutor to the sons of Charles-Philippe de Bourbon, the Count of Artois, for their education. Strangely, this interpretation of the sources has always played down the role of the Count of Artois – the future Charles X, and younger brother of Louis XVI – in initiating the collection. Yet the Count's intellectual intentions in constituting this cabinet of curiosities for his sons seems to have been decisive.

This is why we are calling the exhibition that will open in Spring 2021 in the Versailles Library, "The Curiosity of a Prince". It will shed new light on the people involved in assembling this exceptional collection, and on the itinerary of its objects through public collections over two hundred years. Far from simply reconstructing the history of a collection, this exhibition moreover provides a unique insight into crucial times for French cultural heritage, from the Ancien Régime, when the cabinets of curiosities and royal collections were assembled, to their dispersion during the Revolution, and to the inauguration of the Museums of France under the Consulate, through the actions of Lucien Bonaparte and Jean-Antoine Chaptal respectively. The historic Versailles Library, located in the former Hôtel des Affaires étrangères et de la Marine built under Louis XV, will be the exhibition’s exquisite setting.

The exhibition presents the Versailles Library’s "Cabinet of curiosities and of decorative objects", which today forms part of the musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac's collections. Some of the Native North American objects are unique, the only preserved examples in the world. There are also exhibits from the treasures of the public library and other institutions in the Yvelines département, including its archival fonds, the natural history cabinet from the High School Hoche, and the Lambinet Museum.

The exhibition gives the last word to one of the partners of the CROYAN research project: the Choctaw Nation from Oklahoma, and the team from the Choctaw Nation Cultural Center in the town of Durant. The Choctaws – called Chactas in the French sources of the period – come from the lower valley of the Mississippi, the region called Louisiana by the French, who colonised the area from 1686 until Napoleon Bonaparte sold the territory to the Americans in 1803. Although reticent about making alliances with the French and British in the region, the Choctaw Nation had many contacts in Europe. Today, the Choctaws are working on reviving traditional practices and lifestyles within their community. The CROYAN project provides a framework for research and knowledge exchange, while introducing a dialogue across time and space with the generations of artists represented in these collections.

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