The Universal Museum, the complexities of a real generous utopia: episode 1/5 of the podcast Art is the museum

The generous and humanist idea of Universal Museumwas based on the desire to open up to everyone a place dedicated to education and the pleasure of discovery. The conception of a “French-style universalism”, which included the human dimension of those welcomed to the museum, differed from the encyclopaedic aspiration.

For much of the 19th century, the universal dimension of the museum institution underpinned the thinking of museum curators, particularly at the Louvre, in the complementarity of collections. It was expressed, in particular, by the curiosity brought to the works of distant and distant civilizationsdiscovered thanks to excavations carried out in particular in the Middle East (Assyrians/Khorsabad), or by the interest aroused by certain acquisitions such as, for example, the Latour-Allard Mexican Antiquities collection.

without completely disappearing, the idea of ​​a universal museum, not as a historical substrate but as a horizon of development, faded away, especially after the Second World War. The creation of new national museums, each engaged in different objects or periods, favored the study of singular collections. On the other hand, at the same time, the issue of openness to all remained as a renewed aspiration.

The notion found a new echo, in 2002, with the publication, by the directors of several major museums, of the declaration of the importance and value of universal museums, evoking in particular the first requests for restitution. Then, above all, in 2007, with the creation, of

Louvre Abu Dhabia new museum born from the agreement between the United Arab Emirates and France, which claims to be a universal museum while questioning the contours of the definition and giving it a new topicality.

Today, a strong challenge to universalism has emerged, perceived as a dominant vision, starting from the western point of view. The universal museum, although born before any implementation of a colonial policy, appears to be subservient to colonialism and today features its strongest symbolic expression.
However, the commitment of museums is not lacking, and the reflection implemented in institutions is, in the face of these criticisms, manifest.

To talk about it, Dominique de Font-Réaulx, general curator at the Louvre Museum, producer of series “

Art is the museumreceives, for the first episode, Constance RiviereDirector General of the Public Establishment of the Palais de la Porte Dorée and Pierre Singaravelouhistorian, professor at the University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne and at King’s College in London.

The New Waves

59 mins

Pierre Singaravelou “I believe that today, what is interesting is that a new reflection is being carried out almost everywhere in the world on what remains relevant in the Universal Museum project, in that it obliges us to think outside of ourselves. […] Universal museums force us to think elsewhere, to think of others and above all consistently remind us that most works of art stem from a transnational history. […] Most of these works, whether archaeological works or impressionist painting, result from appropriation, transfer and reinvention. The universal museum reminds us of these connections, these circulations essential to this reflection on the history of art.”

Constance Riviere “If the museum has an important vocation in society, it is that of gradually contributing to the common history becoming a shared memory. And so countries that would be deprived of any ability to tell this story through works and objects would also be deprived of the right to be able to tell their own story.”

Constance RiviereThe question of the link between the Museum of the History of Immigration and the Colonial Palace is a link that has raised many questions since its creation. […] It is a building which tells on its low relief, in an extremely caricatural way, the contributions of the colonies to France […]. And then each country is characterized by its raw materials with very structural representations of half-naked bodies. […] We are of course on a building which is a colonial propaganda building with all the difficulties that this can represent.”

Bas-relief hippopotamus hunting scene
Bas-relief hippopotamus hunting scene

– Pascal Lemaître © Palace of the Golden Gate

Constance Riviere “The Universal we are talking about today for museums is an eminently political subject throughout the 19th century and for the first half of the 20th century. For example, the universality of rights has for a very long time accommodated women do not have the right to vote; yet at the same time it is in the name of this universal that women have been able to claim the right to vote and obtain it. So the ambiguity of the universal of the universal museum is consubstantial with the very notion of universality.”

Pierre Singaravelou “The Louvre Museum, from 1793, and the British Museum, from 1753, constitute the prototypes of this universal museum and embody its ambivalences. The Universal Museum is a museum that claims to host works of art from all over But it is also a museum that wishes to address all the peoples of the planet.[…] That is to say a universalist museum by its collections and cosmopolitan from the point of view of its visitors. But I was talking about paradoxes because the universalism of the collections of the Louvre partly results from a predation of the revolutionary wars then of the Napoleonic wars.

Constance Riviere “The real question is, to use the expression of Souleymane Bachir Diagne: how is it that we manage to be in a “horizontal universal” which is a universal of the relation and not a universal taxation?

Pierre SingaravelouSpain was considered until the beginning of the 19th century by most Western European critics as a backward and oriental country, which was not as worthy of interest as Greco-Roman antiquities, but also than the great schools of Italian painting of the Renaissance, or even the Flemish primitives. […] And in 1838, Louis-Philippe sent Baron Taylor on an operation during the Carlist Wars to recover 450 canvases from the greatest Spanish masters, in order to open a Spanish gallery in the Louvre. […] It is the power of these great universal museums to immediately consecrate a school of painting.

The Annunciation (detail) by Zurbarán (1638-1639), canvas exhibited at the Galerie de Louis-Philippe at the Louvre between 1838 and 1848
The Annunciation (detail) by Zurbarán (1638-1639), canvas exhibited at the Galerie de Louis-Philippe at the Louvre between 1838 and 1848

– Francisco de Zurbaran

The course of history

51 mins

The Great Ideas Table

33 mins

For further

➢ About Constance Rivière
Its presentation pages: on the website of the

Ministry of Culture (press release of his appointment to the Palais de la Porte Dorée), on the website

Babelioon wikipedia, on the network

LinkedInhis page

Presentation page of its

two novels : U

no girl without history (2019) and

The house of loneliness (2021) published by Stock editions.
• To readan article,

Constance Rivière, director of the Porte-Dorée palace: “You have to find a form of indifference to overcome false obstacles”by Lisa Vignoli published in the magazine Madame Figaro (December 2022).
Website of

Golden Gate Palace.
Presentation of the international colloquium

Sharing Museums/Shared Museumsorganized by the National Museum of the History of Immigration in Paris, October 20, 21 and 22, 2022.

Pierre Singaravelou
Pierre Singaravelou

– © Claire Delfino

➢ About Pierre Singaravélou
Its presentation pages: on the site of

Paris 1 Pantheon-Sorbonne University,

his portrait (2021) by Virginie Bloch-Lainé on the website

the storyon the site


wikipediaand its page


His publications on the website.
Presentation of the conference cycle,

Ghosts of the Louvre, the missing museumsgiven by Pierre Singaravélou (December 2022) and to be published under the same title, (published by Louvre/Hazan, in October 2023).
Presentation of his work I

the Worlds of Orsaypublished by Editions du Seuil in 2021 (publisher’s website).
Presentation of his work

The world seen from Asia. A cartographic history, co-written with

Fabrice Argounesgeographer, published by Éditions du Seuil in 2018 (publisher’s website).
• To read, an article,

Pierre Singaravélou: “We must free ourselves from European art history by giving a voice to the voiceless” by Florelle Guillaume published in the Revue fine arts (October 2021).

Musical excerpts

  • Excerpt from “

    9th symphony in d minor“Opus 125,”Choral II: molto vivace” by Ludwig van Beethoven, performed by the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra.

  • I

    interview by and by Christophe – Album: “Bevilacqua” 25th anniversary deluxe edition (2013).

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