Endangered museums (4) : the Musée de l’Assistance Publique

1. Hôtel Miramion, which houses the
Musée de l’Assistance Publique
Facade on the quai de la Tournelle
Photo : Didier Rykner

Last 6th June, Frédéric Mitterand was scheduled to visit, as part of the operation « Rendez-vous au jardin », the gardens of the Hôtel Miramion (ill. 1), which houses the Musée de l’Assistance Publique – Hôpitaux de Paris (AP-HP), as announced in the official program. But the Minister of Culture’s visit was cancelled at the last minute following a demand by the cabinet of the Minister of Health, Roselyne Bachelot. It would not have been very diplomatic to attract attention to an establishment which was supposed to close down a few days later.

Indeed, as of 4th July 2010, at the end of the last exhibition : L’Humanisation de l’hôpital. Mode d’emploi, this institution which was created in 1931 to welcome and exhibit works saved after the destruction of the Hôpital de la Charité, is now officially closed to the public. Consequently, the Association des amis du musée de l’Assistance Publique-Hôpitaux de Paris launched a petition last July (which we encourage our readers at The Art Tribune to sign). We contacted the Ministry of Health which directed us towards the Assistance Publique. The Communications Department there told us [1] : “Repair work has begun inside the museum to bring installations up to standard, renew the building and reorganize the space on the ground floor to coordinate colloquia and other events. This will last until early autumn for a cost of 472.000 € including 100.000 € to move the collections. The purpose remains as always the preservation of heritage. We are reflecting on the best way of bringing the collections closer to the patients and the personnel in the hospitals. The museum costs 2 million euros a year. The decision to close the museum has not been made for the moment and all possible solutions are still being considered.”
A sign on the door of the Hôtel Miramion states “the museum is closed exceptionally due to repair work” (ill. 2). As for the Ministry of Culture, directly concerned by the closing of a museum in France, it once again stands out for its silence on the subject.

2. Sign on the facade of
the Musée de l’Assistance Publique
July 2010
Photo : Didier Rykner

3. Extract of a meeting about the museum’s future the 9th july 2010

This lack of pronouncement is perhaps better however than a misleading statement. Not all solutions are being considered, a decision has been made ; the closing is not exceptional (normally implying that it is only temporary), but rather permanent. We have proof of it thanks to the minutes of a meeting concerning the museum which was held on 9 July 2010 at management headquarters of the AP-HP. The paragraph entitled Evolution des missions du Musée states : “Closing of the Museum to the general public” (ill. 3). The exact terms have just been released : the museum will be permanently closed to the public, except for annual events such as “Nuits Blanches “(all-night museum opening) or “Journées du patrimoine” (heritage weekend) and group visits which could take place once a week (the day has not been determined) with a reservation.
The explanations describing the repair work are also deceiving : this is not about bringing the building up to required standards to ensure the safety of the collections, in fact no specialized architect in this field has been consulted. The project does not justify the closing of the entire museum as it concerns only two rooms on the ground floor. The first floor could still remain open and welcome the public as it is separate from the lower level. The way the text is formulated has convinced us that the repair work affects the museum itself, and not the contrary as claimed, and that the actual purpose of the project is simply to transform the rooms which until now were open to the general public [2] so that they can be used to rent out for organizing events (ill. 4).

4. Room at the Musée de l’Assistance Publique
on the ground floor
On the left, Christmas’ tree of Jean Geoffroy’s nurse
Before the repair work
Now, in transformation « salle événementielle »

5. Room on the first floor
of the Musée de l’Assistance Publique
On the middle, the painting of Terbrugghen
On the right, Saint Nicholas of Bari attributed
to Francesco Solimena
Photo : Didier Rykner

Here again we have an example of how the fate of a French museum lies in the hands of accounting offices. The only avowed reason to justify closing the museum (which is seen as so embarrassing that it is carried out during the summer so that it will not be noticed and without saying what this is all about) is the cost of maintaining this establishment which is 70€ per visitor (totaling 20.000 in 2009) ! If we were to apply these figures to cultural institutions generally our museums would soon be closed down, but also theatres, the Opéra de Paris (the cost of a seat is well over 70€), libraries and all other offerings. Once more, this is taking a short-sighted view of the matter focusing on only one aspect [3]. Visitor attendance has increased steadily in the last few years (compared to 8.000 in 1995). Given the significant interest of the collections, it could be even higher. But for this to happen, the AP-HP would have to focus on a more ambitious policy for the museum and establish a vision for the future. This is far from being the case at the moment. The budget for the Assistance publique was 6.5 million euros in 2009. The cost of the museum is thus the same, even taking into consideration that of 2009 before the economic measures described in note 3, less than 0.02% of the budget (or about 0.2% of the cost for the vaccination campaign against swine flu last winter…). Does anyone seriously think that closing this museum to the public is going to solve the AP-HP’s financial problems ?

6. Hendrick ter Brugghen (1587-1629)
The Mockery of Christ
Oil on canvas - 154 x 117 cm
Paris, Musée de l’Assistance Publique
Photo : All rights reserved

7. Pierre Mosnier (1641-1703)
Allegory of Louis XIV
Oil on canvas - 160 x 360 cm
Paris, Musée de l’Assistance Publique
Photo : All rights reserved

And yet, even in its current condition, with an outdated 1970’s layout (ill. 5), the AP-HP museum is first quality.
It is doubly interesting for visitors and attracts two kinds of audiences. First of all, it presents a historical account of the Hôpitaux de Paris and medicine in France. It seems that the President of the Republic would like to create a still non-existent museum of French history ; but does this mean closing the ones we have ? Also, and this will probably interest readers of The Art Tribune who are not necessarily aware of it, the collections constitute a veritable museum of Fine Arts with an extensive selection of paintings, sculptures and even drawings. Its finest masterpiece is no doubt The Mockery of Christ by ter Brugghen (ill. 6), which any of the world’s major museums would be proud to hang in its galleries. But this is not the only one of its kind. There is also The War of Love by Jean de Hoey, a Saint Nicholas of Bari from the Neapolitan school, attributed in all likelihood to Francesco Solimena, Saint Genevieve Praying for the Sick by Nicolas de Plattemontagne, an Allegory of Louis XIV by Pierre Mosnier (ill. 7), two beautiful works by Noël Coypel from the chapel of the former Hôpital Laënnec [4] (ill. 8), several paintings from the 17th century Florentine school including a beautiful Judith and Holophernes, a Marcias in Chains attributed to Cerano by Arnauld Brejon de Lavergnée as well as a Genoese Job on his Litter from the circle of Gioacchino Asserreto.
The 19th century is particularly well represented with a portrait by Henri Scheffer, an Ecce Homo by Eugène Devéria, a marble bust of a nun by the Romantic sculptor Hippolyte Maindron, a large decorative composition by Georges Clairin (ill. 9) and Children with Ringworm Praying by Isidore Pils (ill. 10)… We should also include an important collection of earthenware pottery in the pharmacy room, as well as engravings and numerous art objects.

8. Noël Coypel (1628-1707)
The Visitation
Oil on canvas - 104 x 148 cm
Paris, Musée de l’Assistance Publique

9. Georges Clairin (1843-1919)
The Patients Cured, 1898
Oil on canvas
Paris, Musée de l’Assistance Publique
Photo : All rights reserved

These various pieces which constitute in fact a wealthy collection come from private donations, but also, and above all, from other hospitals which can no longer keep them. Thus, in 2006, the former Hôpital Corentin-Celton in Issy-les-Moulineaux donated a painting by Augustin Belle, Saint Roch (ill. 11), recently restored and now hanging in the museum staircase. The chapel of this hospital has in fact been transformed into “a cultural exhibition space”. We strongly regret that this canvas, which used to decorate a religious building, was removed but that is another matter. Now that the Assistance Publique has decided to abandon several old buildings by selling them off (current government policy), most probably, alas, other works will likely follow the fate of the QP-HP museum which, as now seems clear, will definitely be closed to the public.

10. Isidore Pils (1813-1875)
Children with Ringworm Praying, 1853
Oil on canvas - 262 x 197 cm
Paris, Musée de l’Assistance Publique
Photo : Didier Rykner

11. Augustin-Louis Belle (1757-1841)
Saint Roch
Oil on canvas - 229.5 x 193.5 cm
Paris, Musée de l’Assistance Publique
Photo : Didier Rykner

In concluding, we wonder if the ultimate objective of the government is not to close all of the small museums little by little and keep only major establishments such as the Louvre and Versailles. The Cabinet de Médailles is still threatened (see our article in french), the Musée de la Monnaie is about to close (we will soon talk about it in an article), the Musée de l’AP-HP is closed… Let us remember that the mission of the Musées de France is notably (article L. 441-2 of the Code du Patrimoine) to “make their collections accessible to the largest public possible”. This is an obligation which the Ministry of Health has casually ignored without the slightest reaction from the Ministry of Culture.

Notes 1. 2. 3. 4.

Didier Rykner, lundi 13 septembre 2010


[1] Telephone conversation held on 4 August 2010 at 9:15.

[2] One houses the reconstitution of the Salle de garde at La Charité. We do not know if the works there will be removed, as was the case for the other.

[3] Figures can be bent to say many things and these are to be interpreted in a particularly careful way as they are quite confusing. The 2 million euros (annual cost) which the Assistance Publique quoted was exaggerated on purpose since multiplying 70€ by 20.000 visitors results in an annual cost of 1.400.000€. This figure of 70€, with no explanation as to how it was calculated, can itself be shown to be false. New economic measures are being applied : elimination of temporary exhibitions, a regrettable move but not as serious as closing down the museum (and which in fact would allow for a larger display of permanent works) and a cut of 5 museum attendants. This will result in a 2011 annual budget of 620.000€ - less than one-third of the amount given to us by the Assistance Publique, that is an individual visitor cost, taking into account an average entrance fee of 2€, below 30€, less than half of the original 70€ figure. Several studies have shown in any case that money invested in museums and heritage is profitable on a macro-economic level, if only because the millions of tourists who visit spend significantly in France, although the amount cannot be broken down per individual establishment. Finally, let us point out that the quoted budget includes moving the works in the storage facilities, currently in zones which are easily flooded, to new installations at the Hôpital Bicêtre, a project dating back to 1994 which is being completed only now.

[4] On this point, we would have to come back and discuss the future of this religious structure and the works it still holds. We have not been able to determine the whereabouts of Philippe de Champaigne’s Guardian Angel which was still in situ a few years ago.

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