Reconstructing the history of the French Royal Collections from North America involves composing the biographies of objects, collectors, and heritage institutions. Archival research provides information on the provenance of the objects and the nature of the exchange relations between Native American Nations, and the French.
When the Count of Artois was constituting his Cabinet, his sons were living in the north wing of the Versailles Palace, where they shared their lodgings with their governor Sérent and the domestic staff. Since there was little space in which to work, it was decided to move the collection to Sérent's town house at no. 8, rue des Réservoirs, just next to the Palace.
The name of Denis-Jacques Fayolle is inseparable from the cabinet of curiosities which Charles-Philippe of Bourbon, the Count of Artois and younger brother of Louis XVI, built up from 1785 to 1789 for his sons' education. The collection's extraordinary scope is illustrated by the inventory made in 1792: apart from the 14,538 specimens of naturalia , there are 362 items of 'Clothing, arms and utensils from the different peoples of Asia, Africa and America', 39 'divinities from the same peoples',…
The Royal North American Collections of the musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac comprise more than 230 objects from today's Canada and the United States, collected between 1650 and 1850, and incorporated into royal, and later national, French collections.
The French Revolution destroyed this system linking cabinets de curiosités and arts and science collections to the Crown, the aristocracy, and the clergy. The collections were seized, nationalized and, for those considered to be items of value as national heritage, sent to new conservation institutions.
The first French contacts with Native populations in North America date back to the sixteenth century, when whalers, mariners and merchants made periodic forays into these territories by sea or overland, from Newfoundland in today’s Canada, to the Mississippi Delta in today’s Gulf of Mexico. Some rare accounts and descriptions of the barter and trade between these indirect agents of the French Crown and a variety of Native inhabitants have come down to us.
Documenting the Indigenous objects preserved in museum collections is a fascinating and exciting task. It can also be frustrating, when the information about them is too patchy, and researchers have difficulty understanding and interpreting them. In such cases, they have to search the archives again, cross-reference the available information, and use comparative and multi-disciplinary methods to make the silences speak.