Interview with Jean-Jacques Aillagon, president of the Etablissement public du Domaine national de Versailles


Versailles is currently in the spotlight : the reconstitution of the Grille Royale, a controversial exhibition of Jeff Koons, the restoration of the Petit Trianon…We had written a very critical article in 2006 (in French, on La Tribune de l’Art) about the management of the Domain which had set off a good deal of reaction. A year and a half later, we thought it would be interesting, following the appointment of Jean-Jacques Aillagon as head of the Etablissement public, to take stock of current as well as future projects. This is a long interview as only internet allows, touching on a great number of subjects (see also our editorial, an article on the restorations and casts of the sculptures in the park and a news item on the restoration of the Petit Trianon).

What was the budget for the Jeff Koons exhibition ?

The production costs for the exhibition totaled 1.9 million euros, 800,000 of which went solely to the Split Rocker which is in the gardens and is a reference to Le Nôtre. The budget was made possible by using the funds which the establishment normally spends on Versailles Off, about 300,000 euros, to which we added about 1,600,000 euros of outside contributions.

But these 300,000 euros could have been used for something else.

Had the money come from public subsidies, that would have been a problem, although... But the château of Versailles does not receive a subsidy from the State for running it so it only uses its own income for these activities.

Yes, nonetheless the money might have gone to restoring certain things.

Restorations and acquisitions are our first priority. This year alone, I have already devoted 18 million euros of patronage money for this purpose. The fundamental interests of the establishment are in no way neglected despite this. If we were to deprive the conservation and enhancement of the heritage here at Versailles of funds in order to organize contemporary art exhibitions, this would be not only absurd, but also questionable, as our primary mission, I repeat, is to assume our responsibility towards the heritage which has been entrusted to us. Given the efforts applied toward this goal, I am confident that I am carrying out my obligations. Let’s just take the example of acquisitions. They have never been as abundant as this year, with the acquisition of the Saulnier console for the Dauphin, the chairs for Mme du Barry’s apartment which will be displayed later, the rug for the Louis XV chapel for which the admnistrative acquisiton process is underway...

Has the rug been acquired ?

Not yet. The process always takes a long time. The ad hoc committe has to judge if it is a fair price as it qualifies for a tax deduction from the State. This entails discussions between the Budget departments and the ministry of Culture. At least six months are needed to finalize the acquisition. But the process is a way of enriching the public collections with spectacular national treasures. This is another excellent consequence of the patronage law which further benefits the “museum law”.

In speaking of the Koons exhibition you told the Figaro that you wanted to attract more visitors to Versailles. But aren’t there already too many people ?

That is a rather hasty interpretation of my words. I believe in fact that the purpose of this type of exhibition is not to deliberately attract more visitors. But if we can stir the interest of a new audience in this way, drawing people that would otherwise not have come, or who have never come to Versailles before, this is obviously a good thing. But the goal is not to make this profitable in a purely business sense. As you know, Versailles already draws a great number of visitors. The problems of welcoming everyone are considerable and we take them seriously. Having said this, I feel we can still welcome a larger public by re-organizing opening hours, encouraging people to come at off-hours when there are fewer visitors. We have noticed that the biggest crowds, despite lower entrance fees for the afternoon, arrive between 10 and 13. I would like to see opening hours adapt progressively, emphasizing evening visits which seem to interest many people and attract a regional public which is not free during the day.

And also, as you said, by opening up more 19th century rooms ?

Exactly. Little by little the château can be opened up further. For the last several months, we have systematically opened a floor in the French art rooms in the North wing. They are now an integral part of the visit which thus allowed us to reorganize visitor flow. By going up the Questel staircase we avoid the immediate backup occurring in the Salon d’Hercule when people arrive via the Gabriel staircase. Things work much better this way. We are also trying to increase the opening of the Galerie des Batailles. I feel that our contract with the public means opening the Grands Appartements, the Dauphin and Dauphine’s apartments which are always open now, opening Mesdames’ apartments on the weekend which is what we already do, opening at least one floor of French painting every day and opening as much as possible in the South wing the Galerie des Batailles, the most beautiful illustration of the Museum of French history which is so dear to me. These last few months, along with personnel representatives, we have done everything we could to optimize the entrance and surveillance facilities to guarantee the quality of visitor welcome. We have launched a project reorganizing work schedules allowing employees to choose a non-stop day, reinforcing their presence throughout the château. Under an apprentice system called the Pacte which is financed by the State, the government has made eight other employees available, a much appreciated addition.

There was talk of a conflict of interest concerning the Koons retrospective since you directed the Fondation Pinault which is one of Koon’s biggest collectors and has loaned many of the works.

You know very well that every time a work from a private collection is displayed in an exhibition, be it classic, modern or contemporary its value is enhanced. After the exhibition on silver furniture, some private owners wondered if they should put their pieces on the market. I even think one of them did so. As concerns Jeff Koons, I can only say that he didn’t have to wait for this exhibition to attain the highest prices on the art market. But there is no doubt that it further valorizes the artist and provides him with incredible exposure. Does this mean that exhibitions should no longer be organized so as not to increase the value of an artist or a work ? Obviously not ! We would end up like Blanche de Castille who preferred to see her son dead rather than have him commit a mortal sin ! Anyway, there’s no question of sin here.

Wouldn’t it be fantastic and finally justify all of this, if Jeff Koons were to sell one of his works to the advantage of Versailles ?

Why not ? I would diplomatically like to suggest he do so. I think that Versailles would be happy to receive a sign of his friendship and interest in this exceptional heritage. But this should remain a personal and spontaneous matter and not result from any sense of obligation.

You also said, in the Figaro, that if the exhibition were not successful you wouldn’t do it again. But how can you know since this concerns the apartments and not specific rooms ?

It was a shortcut. What I was trying to say was that if the public was in no way interested in this kind of exhibition, there wouldn’t be any reason to insist again. I have the distinct impression that the exhibition has aroused real interest, if I am to judge in any case by the intensity of international media coverage and even by the excellent level of attendance over the past few weeks following a summer season which, at Versailles just like at all the French monuments, was a bit morose. Although we did not see a drop in attendance, our 5% forecast in growth was not reached for July and August. Having said this, I feel that for the year as a whole, we will have reached our global objectives, thanks to “silver furniture” and “Jeff Koons”.

When entering the rooms, it is obvious that the works are much better protected. Doesn’t this give visitors the impression that Koons is more important than the artists of Versailles ?

The heritage on display here belongs to the nation and is therefore naturally respected by the public even if, alas, there are instances of someone trying to destroy an art work. Jeff Koons’ works do not belong to us, they are insured for considerable sums of money which determines the premiums we pay, so lenders always pay particular attention to security measures... all of that explains the “protective” museum arrangements. Theoretically, I would prefer that these works be presented without any kind of protective surrounding. Obviously, displaying a sculpture under a glass or plexiglass case prevents visitors from seeing it in ideal conditions. Take Rabbit for instance, a reference to silver furniture as Béatrix Saule pointed out to me, its shiny surface clashes with the glass which is also shiny, making it less than perfect. It would be better if we could do away with all of that. But technically, it’s just impossible.

To close the chapter on Jeff Koons, you’ve already talked of staging an exhibition next year on another contemporary artist. Don’t you feel that this is too systematic, and a bit like transforming Versailles into a contemporary art gallery ?

No, we shouldn’t be systematic and we shouldn’t decide on programming something until we’ve worked with an artist and are sure that his proposal is of real interest. If this is not the case, then we shouldn’t pursue a project which we do not find convincing. Doing this once a year is interesting because it sets an annual date, but here also this does not have to be an automatic obligation. As I have said repeatedly, and do so again, our first duty to Versailles is to take care of the heritage for which we are responsible, enhance it and make it better known. This is the reason why next year we have programmed two historical exhibitions, one on Louis XIV and another one on official costumes in 17th and 18th century European courts. These are the two highlights of the program next year. If we can add a contemporary exhibition as well, why not, but this should not be seen as something which has to be imposed.

In your press conference you mentioned that Buren might work on the Gabriel staircase. Does what you said still hold ?

The Gabriel staircase is disappointing. For some, like you, it is disappointing intrinsically because it is purely and simply a reconstitution. For others, as in the case of Frédéric Didier for example, it is disappointing because it was done in an imperfect manner and executed in a debatable way. This staircase is incredibly and embarrassingly arid although it serves a very useful purpose. So the question is : should it be left in this state and we put up with it ? Do we try to make it more convincing by changing it architecturally ? This would be the choice of the chief architect for historical monuments. Do we try to introduce a contemporary design to underline that it is a contemporary monument, and invite an artist such as Daniel Buren to create a work there ? I talked with the artist about it but the conversation did not go beyond an exchange of views. The whole matter is rather delicate and complicated and in fact calls for an open debate if we were to embark on such a project which, for the moment, is not on our agenda.

How do you feel about reconstitutions ?

I am against systematically reconstituting missing elements, on principle, although a reconstitution might at times be useful in understanding a monument. When I became head of the establishment, I found the project for the reconstruction of the royal grille underway. I take responsibility for it since I actually find it useful in reconstituting the symbolic character of the organization of the outdoor space, of the château with the progressively narrower spaces, which increasingly close the space, the Place d’Armes, the Cour d’Honneur, the Cour Royale and even the kind of altar placed at a degree which is the Cour de Marbre.

But I think that at Versailles we are dealing with a collage of centuries. There is no need to return to a supposedly ideal and perfect state. When one looks at Versailles carefully, one can see that the château, as we know it today, is a result of successive and sometimes contradictory contributions. The execution of the Pavillon Dufour is for example rather clumsy. The uncompleted project for the reconstruction of the wing according to Gabriel’s ideal scheme resulted in a kind of écorché, with very respectable scars. I think that except for what has been done legitimately for the royal grille, there is no need to reconstitute missing pieces of a building if they are not based on an existing element. I explained this in a very friendly discussion with the chief architect, Frédéric Didier, telling him that I was not in favour of recreating the central staircase in the North wing which had been mentioned at one time. This wing was remodelled by Louis-Philippe into an exhibition gallery with rooms lined up on three different levels. I feel it would be presumptuous, useless, out of proportion and questionable to return to a former state which is of course documented, but for which there are no existing elements any more. The question which might be asked, but of an entirely different nature, concerns the reconstitution of the arbours. This is a botanical heritage, thus a living one, for which a reconstitution is, by nature, necessary on a regular basis. When an arbour was rich in hydraulic devices and statues which have today disappeared or are very deteriorated, a potential reconstruction must be approached very carefully, to avoid producing something which might be considered fake. In this case, I would not be against the possibility of creating something in the spirit of the 17th or 18th century, “in the manner of”, or even more deliberately, via a contemporary creation especially since France boasts world renowned designers.

So, it is out of the question to redo the Labyrinth.

The same exact one as Charles Perrault’s no, quite obviously. It would be too risky and much too expensive. The one designed in the late 18th century is also a problem because the plants are so dense that the vegetation is choked off and dies. Its current state is run down and disorganized, with high trees, and all the plants from the king’s garden which cover it. In my opinion, the best thing would be to return to the first labyrinth with plants only, or else come up with a contemporary landscape design. The Commission supérieure des monuments historiques (High Commission for Historical Monuments) has debated the question at length. The debate will continue until a reasonable and practical solution can be found.

Is it normal for someone to be chief architect of Versailles his whole life and not allow another viewpoint on the château or the park ? Furthermore, is it normal that there is no scientific committee, except in the case of the restoration of the Hall of Mirrors which is considered almost unanimously to be a success, and which would make collective decisions with the participation of the appropriate specialists ? This was not the case for the grille.

For the grille, the Commission supérieure des monuments historiques deliberated on the question and in fact pronounced itself in favour of it.

Yes, but it was consulted at the beginning, and gave a very general, global approval without looking at the details.

It is very scrupulous in its debates which at times are contradictory. Its opinions are well founded and observant. This involves the chief architects for historical monuments (ACMH) whose competence I respect but I also wish to respect the fairness of their relationship with monument owners. As minister of Culture, I was the one who made it possible for owners to turn to the architect of their choice instead of being forced to accept the one which the administrative authorities picked. I would find it normal, although this is not the case now, that the same apply for public establishments in charge of monuments belonging to the State. The agreement between the establishment and the architect could be renewed, for a long period justified by the duration of most projects involving monuments, but not so long that it becomes a prebend or a habit. This would create a balanced and respectful relationship. I have to add that this opinion is not in any way motivated by the slightest reservation in regards to our two chief architects, MM. Lablaude and Didier, whom I hold in high esteem, but rather based on the conviction that public action in historical monuments has to progressively change.

The new law based on European regulations states that Historical monument projects should be open to architects other than the ACMH, except in the case of national monuments.

I don’t see why national monuments should have to be subjected to totally deregulated standards. The State should of course oversee the strict qualifications of the architects who intervene in historical monuments, especially those which it owns, but this should not open up the possibility of resorting to skills other than those already available among the ACMH. This is a delicate subject because on the one hand, the privileged ties of an architect with a monument stemming from his study and knowledge of it have to be maintained but on the other hand, this specialization should not become a systematic monopoly of all of the work that takes place there on that monument. The best solution would probably be that the owners or those entrusted with the monuments pay for the chief architect’s study and advice, but then that there be a tender among competitors for the actual work. But this solution is not practical as the competing bidders would not all know the project well or would exclude the chief architect because he has a privileged knowledge of the project. Given the situation, in my opinion, the answer lies in keeping the study, advice and work missions associated but with limited, renewable terms and by relieving the ACMH from systematic responsibility for renovating and developing which are not aspects directly related to historical monuments and by taking the initiative, for those restoration projects involving complex historical and theoretical issues, of establishing committees with experts, as in the case of the Hall of Mirrors. The idea of putting back the ornamentation on the cornice of the Grand Trianon is the kind of idea which can be discussed in a useful way by a committee of experts, and does not reflect on the eminent responsibility of the Commission supérieure des monuments historiques.

So, you are ready to establish such a committee ?

Yes, when I find it necessary to do so. For some restorations, it is obvious. This is the case for the paintings of the Queen’s Grand Couvert which will start after the Jeff Koons exhibition, thanks to support from Martell. At times, it is much more complicated as I said and the opinion of a group of excellent experts is useful in shedding light on the project.

Precisely, since this was done for the Hall of Mirrors, why not do it here also ?

I repeat, I do not find it necessary in this case. Establishing a committee requires a great deal of very serious work, it should only be done if considered useful and necessary.

Still, shouldn’t there be a close follow-up by a few specialists, if only informally, to discuss these options ?

These debates take place among the members of the scientific teams within the establishment who do not hesitate to ask other colleagues or specialists for their opinions as needed and in an informal way. Let’s not forget either that the choice of companies for the restoration involves a tender and that this also provides a chance to treat technical, historical and artistic problems involved in the project. We should reserve the “heavy artillery” of a committee in which the chief architect’s viewpoint is welcome and much-needed for extraordinary cases.

About the Hall of Mirrors, after the restoration, rain still fell on it as the roof had leaks. In your opinion, wouldn’t it have been wiser to restore the hall after repairing the roof first ?

As you know, the restoration of the roof for the main building is currently underway. These repairs are necessary. To be perfectly logical, it is true that it would have been better to do the roof before the décors, but when Vinci made its very generous patronage offer, it would have been absurd to turn it down as we couldn’t know when funding for the restoration of the roof would become available. As a matter of fact, I’m sure that this restoration speeded the process. In real life, you know, you sometimes have to compromise between what is ideal and what is possible. Having said this, I firmly believe that in the most systematic possible way, we should proceed logically, and more generally, give priority to the most needed works, those concerning the walls, the roof, security and safety and obviously those parts of the monument which might be endangered. For the Grand Trianon, for example, I think it is extremely urgent that we treat the roof and the wood framing. The debate about replacing some of the ornamentations thus seems secondary and would anyway be debated by a committee of the kind we discussed earlier.

Do you agree that this committee should not be selected by the architect ?

No, of course not. A wide range of views should be expressed there. It should not just be a body which acquiesces to everything. Having said that, at the end of the day someone has to make a decision and this is the job of the State, that is the owner, and the establishment in charge of the monument.

For the Bath of Apollo you found a patron as the group was brought inside this summer.

The Bains d’Apollon were indeed brought inside and restoration is underway as is the casting process. The patron for this restoration is the Versailles Foundation. The rock will also have to be restored as it is in bad shape, overrun with vegetation and has leaks everywhere. The group cannot be put back in place, even if this time it will be a copy, until the “fake nature” surrounding it has been restored. I am looking for another patron who would fund this restoration which will cost about 600,000 euros.

I can’t help but ask a provoking question : isn’t that barely double the cost of Versailles-off and Jeff Koons… ?

They are not mutually exclusive. We have to develop both and we are determined to do so. As concerns the arbour of the Bath of Apollo the plants have already been restored, the pathways have been marked out again, the sculptures are undergoing restoration and we will find money for the rock. I hope that by the end of next year, everything will be ready.

Not a day goes by without a piece of good news. A few days ago, the World Monument Fund told me that it would provide 50% of the funding for the restoration of the Belvedere at the Trianon. I’m also looking for the other 50% needed there.

Are you going to pursue this imperative policy of bringing the sculptures inside, clearly the only way of saving them according to specialists ?

A certain number of works has already been removed from the park and replaced by casts. This is the case for Bernini’s equestrian statue, the Rape of Proserpine by François Girardon,… all of the sculptures now on display in the lower gallery, such as the Phlematic Man, have been removed from the gardens and replaced by copies. I prefer having casts made rather than copies. Today, there are very few sculptors who can produce copies which are precise and convincing enough. They are often reinterpretations which do not evoke the character, the refinement, the taste of the sculptors of the “ancien régime”, pre-Revolutionary times.

Although the process is more automated, casts provide a chance for preserving the general composition of the garden, its air of authenticity. You may know that the establishment has launched a campaign to adopt the statues in the park which for the moment has brought in close to one and a half million euros, not including the Bath of Apollo. I would like to continue this policy and progressively restore original works and replace them with casts when their preservation is in danger or when their artistic quality is particularly exceptional. I don’t think it’s a good idea to do it for all sculpted elements, especially for purely ornamental ones which, when they are in good condition, can be kept in place. But it is obvious that the most significant and most fragile pieces of the statuary should be brought inside.

Monsieur Arizzoli-Clementel, whom I talked to two years ago, had spoken about a project to bring the sculptures from the park together in the Galerie Basse (Lower Gallery) of the château.

That’s right. Ultimately, the project depends on the renovation of the South wing since we would like for the Galerie Basse, which provides a connection between the château and the Orangerie, to house the statues which have been removed from the park. Today, they have been placed in different locations throughout the château, but we would like to avoid that they be scattered around in just any way, without any meaning. Their installation in the Galerie Basse would be very pertinent. However, I find that the works installed in the Salle des Hoquetons are incongruous and out of place. I think that the removal of the statuary to the château should be done in an intelligent way and not confuse the visitor as to the origins of the statues. Their presentation should be integrated into the entire history of the château and the domain, how it was built progressively, how it evolved, and how Versailles was an “ongoing work”.

Is this what you call the Musée de l’Œuvre ?

Yes. This museum is needed in order for visitors to understand Versailles. Some of the statues will be placed there, although the museum’s aim is not to house them all as the purpose will also be to illustrate the history, the buildings, the temporary as well as the permanent décors, the furniture.

To sum it up, there will be an itinerary where most of the sculptures will be preserved and a Musée de l’Œuvre which will exhibit some of them as way of illustrating the history of the château ?

Yes, that’s it.

The Grandes Eaux have developed tremendously, about a hundred times a year, and this erodes the sculptures. Besides, the music is too loud and overwhelming, at the end of a long day, Lully becomes unbearable even for someone who likes baroque music.

At the same time the public really enjoys the show which has become famous at Versailles. We have to be careful and make sure it is more understated and subtle. This is the reason why I’ve requested that a new sound system be installed marking off separate areas, instead of surrounding the whole garden with the music. I think that the sound system can be improved. It’d be a shame to stop liking Lully.

Yes, exactly, but when you’re standing between two arbours, you hear two different sets of music at the same time ; it’s very unpleasant.

Directional sound systems have made considerable improvements and I’m determined that it become perfect. I’m not one for sentimentalism…. But I must say that the blend of architecture, gardens, fountains, waterworks and music creates a spectacle which is an ideal expression of the King’s dream of Versailles, this King who was obsessed every day with making sure that there was water for his fountains, to the point of planning a rerouting of the Eure river. Today, for obvious reasons, the water runs within a closed circuit.

Thus creating regenerating problems and algae proliferation.

True. Just like everywhere else in Europe, there are problems with the proliferation of green algae at Versailles. This is why we’ve introduced carp from the Amur River in the water who consume the algae and are very effective. That’s also the reason why I’d like to revitalize the water flowing in the circuits and I’ve invited the localities around Versailles to think about ideas for reactivating the aqueduct in Buc, which ends at the train station of Versailles Chantiers, but with long sections still remaining. This would allow the rain which falls on the Saclay plateau to be used for regenerating the water at the château, since it’s of better chemical quality, at the same time applying sustainable development.

Are you ever going to rid the Neptune fountain of the bleachers which mar its view and spoil it practically all year round ?

In my opinion, these bleachers at the Neptune fountain are really terrible. At the same time, I see that a loan was taken out to cover their purchase and won’t be paid off till 2010. I asked if it was possible to move them elsewhere and a study was done. The conclusion was that their removal to another site-several were suggested-would require enormous work for adapting the new site and the structures, all that for almost one million euros. It’s impossible. Given the situation, the bleachers will be put up on the site for the next two years. Then, after that we will come to a decision about organizing the “fêtes de Versailles” somewhere else.

So, in 2011, the bleachers will be removed.

Yes, we have to in order to preserve the site. Furthermore, we need to think about the best way of preserving the garden in general. Visitors have to learn to tell the difference between the garden which is a kind of outdoor château and the park where one can stroll about freely. Too many visitors see it as a kind of public park, and come with their bicycles, dogs without leashes and their soccer balls. It’s heartbreaking to see.

How can you keep this from happening ?

The best solution would be to include the garden within the château’s perimeter to set it off from the park. Right now, it’s clear that the Ministry of Culture maintains the principle of not differentiating between the visit to the park and the visit to the château. This is too bad. I find it regretful. I can only take note. We therefore have to increase the public’s awareness.

Another fountain that is in very bad condition is Latone.

That’s true. It lies on a “hypostyle” architectural structure, a fragile one. The marbles, the statuary, the hydraulic system is very old. Latone needs a complete restoration. I’ve been looking for a patron for a year now, but so far unsuccessfully. Still, I’m sure we will find someone. It’s too bad that the big French water companies haven’t thought about how they would benefit from associating their name with such a masterpiece.

But there’s no danger in the short term ?

No, there’s no obvious risk of collapse.

If there were, could you find the money, even from the State ?

Yes, in that case it would become a priority and would have to be treated as an emergency setting aside any other projects in progress. Let’s remember that the state in their operating framework sets aside between 20 and 25 million euros a year for the renovations we undertake. This money is obviously applied to the most needed and most urgent projects : the walls and roof, the electrical and heating systems, security, service facilities for the public, with a spectacular improvement there once we’ve finished the Dufour wing and the facilities have been moved to the Grand Commun. I am also determined to have more funds released for general maintenance which is too often neglected, meaning that after several decades major restoration work is then needed. At the moment in any case, there are no available funds for the Latone fountain in the State budget.

How much does the State allot per year for these operations ?

Last year, the State gave 24 million euros, which were reduced by 2 million in the course of the year.

How much would it cost to restore Latone ?

Latone, it’s a question of about six or seven million euros.

Another recurring concern at Versailles, is the condition of the ground in the park.

Yes, this is really a problem.

The terraces and the paths are in very bad shape despite all the maintenance and care we provide. This is due to the numbers of visitors in the park and garden. The estimation is of about twenty million people a year. Since the ground is sloped, it also tends to produce gullying. This is also due it seems to their design and some of the materials used, notably limestone which cakes up and powders off. I’ve asked M. Lablaude as well as our heritage management and our gardeners to come up with solutions that are better adapted. A new kind of material is being tested on the ground near the Ceres grille. We will see at the end of the winter how resistant it is. I would very much like to see one of the major public works firms help us take on this very fragile aspect of our heritage. I don’t have whole battalions of gardeners and workers, like Louis XIV, who spent their time adding sand and raking ; this is another aspect of the problem you’ve brought up.

But that’s just it, is an architect the right person to determine how the ground in a garden should be treated ? Aren’t there specialists for such specific matters, outside of the domain at Versailles ?

No doubt. That is exactly why I’ve started a debate on ground coverings. I must say that our gardeners often have very pragmatic viewpoints as they’re very familiar with the problems, and this along with M. Lablaude’s extensive knowledge of the garden and its history, is extremely useful.

Can you tell us something about the Museum of French History ?

I consider it a major priority. The museum is currently being enhanced. The first step, was the building of an orientation room which is now done, which will inform the public about how the Museum of French History was created and Louis-Philippe’s role in it. A portrait of Louis-Philippe has been placed there — with the Galerie des Batailles in the background —, of Marie-Amélie also, as well as one of Nepveu, the architect. There are notecards which recount the history of the château between 6 October 1789 and the end of the Monarchie de Juillet. The next step, will be the creation of a website for the Museum of French History. Work has already started and should be finished by the end of the year, thanks to a partnership with Gaz de France, and based also on a partnership with Orange for its online development. Our curators are working hard on it, especially Béatrix Saule, Frédéric Lacaille and Valérie Bajou. The third step, and the most difficult one, will be to redesign the actual layout of the museum.

It will be very complicated as there will have to be major renovations in the North and South wings, which means an investment of about a hundred million euros. In the meantime, we have to install a pertinent hang in these sections. Thus, in the North wing, we are planning to show a first draft of the Musée de l’Œuvre which will tell the château’s history thus helping the public understand what they are seeing during the visit. A study group made up of specialists from the château but also elsewhere, including Laurent Gervereau and Jean-Noël Jeanneney, is working on the cultural and museographical lines for the project.

There are rooms which obviously cannot be moved. Will the itinerary be a coherent one ?

All of the remodelling inside the château at Versailles since the end of the 19th century has upset the logic of the Museum of French History. No matter how coherent we try to make the collections so that they are easier to understand, there will always be isolated elements here and there. For instance, the Salle des Etats Généraux or the Crusades rooms or the African rooms, will never fit into a coherent itinerary. The plan we will be aiming for is the following : in the North wing, the history of the château at Versailles including the creation of the Museum of French History and the Ancien Régime ; in the South wing, the Revolution, the Empire, the Monarchie de Juillet and, around the Galerie des Batailles, an attempt at an iconographical reconstitution of French history from Merovaeus to the Valois kings. In this way, we will once again enjoy one of Versailles’ most essential aspects, which much too often has been concealed, overlooked, forgotten.

How is the project for the storage facilities coming along ?

As concerns art objects, books, engravings and drawings it depends on when the work on the Grand Commun will be finished. For the rest, we have already started to improve the storage rooms for furniture and paintings in the Grand Commun. M. Arizzoli-Clémentel is zealously working on it.

How does Versailles fit into the Abu Dhabi project ? You are in favour of it.

The château de Versailles is a shareholder in France-Museums and is on the board of directors. However, we have not yet undertaken any specific project with them. As concerns the Louvre, I have always said that I was in favour of its external initiatives including the one in Abu Dhabi, as long as this great museum respected its principal mission of public service : cultural development of its major site, a spirit of professional cooperation with other French museums, and particularly those abroad.

One last question on acquisitions, which you consider particularly important.

This has been a big year for acquisitions at Versailles, the biggest in a long time. The acquisition of the Saulnier console thanks to KPMG proves that the establishment knows how to recover its national treasures. A series of fifteen important architectural drawings was recently acquired at auction. Whenever an object which might interest the château at Versailles comes up for public auction, I am determined that we do everything possible to get it, even when it is just something modest like the baton belonging to the maître d’hôtel of Marie Theresa of Austria which was recently acquired at Sotheby’s thanks to a donation from M. de Royère. Even though this is not a very spectacular object, it is important and touching. There are not many souvenirs of Louis XIV’s wife at Versailles.

So, you don’t mind buying inexpensive objects, unlike some museums which are only interested in the highest prices and complicated financial arrangements ?

Of course not. This object cost about 8,000 euros. But it is an honour to have it in the château collections. I would like it to be seen in the queen’s apartment. It has returned home.

Interview by Didier Rykner


Didier Rykner, dimanche 5 octobre 2008



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