March 15, 2001 issue. This file presents an archive copy of the issue of the FYI France ejournal, ISSN 1071-5916, which was distributed via email on March 15, 2001.
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In Paris, on the Rue Richelieu, there used to be this big library...
Many of us have wondered what is to become of the vast, stately spaces -- the "Salle Labrouste", etc. -- on the Right Bank which once housed the bulk of the Bibliothèque Nationale.
Well, now there is a very nice website,
which explains at least the plan -- the dream for some, nightmare for others -- which many in Paris increasingly have been dreaming / nightmaring for the assemblage of a bold new "Institut National d'Histoire de l'Art / INHA" on the old BN Rue Richelieu site.
In French, English, German and Italian, the "Association de Préfiguration de l'Institut National d'Histoire de l'Art" -- child of the "Mission pour l'Institut National d'Histoire de l'Art", which has been at work on all this for nearly a decade -- describes the dream of bringing together a seemingly - vast collection of central Paris art schools, associations, and libraries, beneath the roof of the old BN.
As of now 43 institutions are involved, many of them very familiar to readers here: "unités d'enseignement, centres de recherche, bibliothèques, antennes d'institutions étrangères, revues, sociétés savantes".
It is not entirely clear -- or "settled", I expect -- of exactly what said "involvement" ultimately will consist, for each. Several of these are very ancient institutions -- very difficult to dislocate -- for now they all are being called "Institutions partenaires"...
-- such, anyway, is the plan.
Combining any two of such a disparate and doubtless - entrenched and inevitably strong - minded set of organizations would be a strenuous achievement, at best, attempted anywhere -- leave it to Paris, I suppose, to throw caution to the winds in trying to meld 43 of them, or at least aspects of them, together in a single project.
But then the Parisians did get their new national library built, at Tolbiac, so let's see what this latest extremely ambitious Big Paris Project proposes, and might accomplish:
The overall rationale is clear and even obvious, for anyone who ever tried to pursue any study of art history in central Paris during the last century: you used to have to wander all over the city, there was great overlap and no - doubt - expensive duplication, and everybody did things just a little bit differently -- different opening hours, different use policies, different organization and classification and photocopy policies and telephone availability, and everyone had their own very individualistic holiday schedule! -- all charming "French" eccentricities, for a tourist, but maddening for any time - and - budget constrained researcher.
So here is what they are hoping to do:
"Why an Institut National d'Histoire de l'Art ?"
"Today most organizations devoted to research and teaching in the history of art in France must operate in deplorable working conditions. Unsuitable workspaces and a lack of information services transform the daily lives of thousands of students into an obstacle course, impeding the development of cooperative research, limiting conferences and group discussion of the methods and goals of the discipline, and making exchanges with foreign colleagues difficult. The danger of sclerosis and malaise is pressing.
"Ever since the submission of the André Chastel Report in 1983, numerous studies all have concluded that a strong intiative is needed in this area. These studies have rendered more and more clearly the image of the institution which must be put into place. But the decisive event was the decision to construct the Tolbiac site, for the transfer there of a large part of the activities of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.
"In 1992, new studies were made to, on the one hand, develop plans for the evolution of the specialized departments of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (Manuscrits, Estampes et Photographies, Cartes et Plans, Monnaies, Médailles et Antiques, Arts du Spectacle, Musique), and on the other, to regroup reference libraries in the history of art -- and notably the Bibliothèque d'Art et d'Archéologie - Jacques Doucet -- all of which would be transferred to the Rue de Richelieu beginning in 1993, and finally to develop a plan for the teaching and research organizations necessary at the site.
"A report on the Institut International d'Histoire des Arts was assigned to Pierre Encrevé by Lionel Jospin, the Ministre de l'Education Nationale, and Jack Lang, the Ministre de la Culture et de la Communication. The general recommendations of this report, which was submitted in October 1992, and the conclusions of a study made in 1993 by Philippe Bélaval of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, were taken up by the Mission pour l'Institut National d'Histoire de l'Art, assigned by the Prime Minister in 1994 to Michel Laclotte.
"In 1998 the government of Lionel Jospin agreed to the creation of an Institut National d'Histoire de l'Art, responsible jointly to the Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication and to the Ministère de l'Education nationale, de la Recherche et de la Technologie. This new organization is to be multidisciplinary, and it will be open to the studies of the fixed image, the moving image, and the arts du spectacle."
(tr.JK -- from the INHA website at,
Such, anyway, is the dream. I first heard about it myself 'way back in 1992 -- and even then proponents already had been discussing it excitedly, and opponents had been digging in their heels determinedly, already for a decade in Paris. There have been various "rumors of demise" on several occasions in the decade since. But some people, and ideas -- and some needs, perhaps -- are tenacious, so today the INHA dream appears to be, still, very much alive.
The library is to be an integral part of the INHA: already it is assembling well over 1/2 million "documents", which will become available to the public as early as 2006 -- that is one big "art" collection, and 2006 is only 5 years away now, folks --
"The Library and the Documentation Center"
"The Library of the INHA
"The Institut National d'Histoire de l'Art is assembling an open research library. It will develop collections of reference works in art and in archeology. This library will become a major resource center for Western Art, from classical antiquity to our times. In all of its areas, including architecture and urbanism, it will aim for completeness. It will unite the collections of the Bibliothèque Centrale des Musées Nationaux, the l'Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, the Bibliothèque d'Art et d'Archéologie - Jacques Doucet, and the Ecole Nationale des Chartes. A program which will fill in any gaps in the collection already has been launched, with the aid of working groups of specialists.
"The library will consist of a collection of about one million volumes, complemented by specialized documents (manuscripts, plans, prints, photographs) at, notably, the considerable collections in these areas of the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts and the Bibliothèque d'Art et d'Archéologie.
"The Bibliothèque de l'INHA will be accessible to a large user - public of students, researchers, and specialists (student - researchers, curators), and also to various professionals (documentalists, commercial users, etc.).
"In order to facilitate stack - access for authorized users, the entire collection will be re - cataloged and then classified according to a standardized system.
"The staffs of the four libraries involved are working together, pooling their ideas on the operation of the future Bibliothèque de l'INHA and on the complementarity of their various efforts.
"The current missions of the different partners (inter - library lending for the Bibliothèque d'Art et d'Archéologie, for example, or leading a national network, for the Bibliothèque Centrale des Musées Nationaux) will be continued. The Bibliothèque de l'INHA also will launch new digitization programs, and will offer new document delivery services.
"The Documentation Center
"An extraordinary effort will be devoted to the building of our documents collection (photos, and digital research tools). It is well known that in France organizations for these purposes are gravely lacking. The creation of a documentation center comparable to those which exist abroad must be done from scratch, or nearly. This documentation center will include photo libraries, databases, and thematic collections.
"This is not a matter of creating a universal documentation center, however, as in certain areas well organized collections already exist: the documentation of painting at the Louvre, for example, or the documentation at the Musée d'Orsay, that of the Musée National d'Art Moderne - Centre de Création Industrielle at the Centre Georges-Pompidou, and that of the Archives de la Critique d'Art.
"For reasons of efficiency, and complementarity with institutions abroad, the technical and financial efforts will concentrate on the patrimoine national. Many themes have been suggested: the history of the histories of art and of archeology in France, the collections and the commercial market for art in France, archives of the 20th century, musical inconography. It is well understood that such themes will demand precise definition, and will have to be approved by a technical advisory council.
"The photography collection, which is derived from diverse sources, will be classified thematically, systematized in several ways (through indexing, cataloging, digitization, bibliographic research), and made available for distance communication.
"The construction of this documentation center is a strenuous, costly, but indispensable task. The creation, organization, and operation of the center will be the direct responsibility of the management of the Institute. But the enrichment of the collections will not be possible without the active technical cooperation of the organizations which the Institute unites, and the specialized departments of the Bibliothe`que Nationale de France, as well as the museums, the Archives Nationales, the other universities, all the libraries of France, all centers of research for the patrimoine national, and foreign organizations (each according to its specialty). This collective project will build the federation which is to be the Institut National d'Histoire de l'Art -- by linking together, concretely and permanently, the entire community of French art historians."
(tr.JK -- from the INHA website at,
Controversies and Realities, and Panache
The "combining" of large institutions, such as libraries, conjures up Gotterdamerung visions in the minds of some people. There are the prices to be paid for "combination": things lost and / or damaged in transit, lovable old eccentricities left to wither in the new inevitably - more - efficient environment, and personal service, which somehow never is the same under the new regime, at least for those who were fortunate enough to have enjoyed it under the old.
As with the Bibliothèque François Mitterrand construction controversies, all of the above issues and more have found their advocates, already, among critics of the INHA idea, and the criticisms no doubt will continue -- and grow more shrill, as completion dates approach.
But the gains to be made are many as well -- perhaps more. My own memories of trying to find architecture information in central Paris -- as a reasonably intelligent if somewhat naive and hopelessly - young researcher, back in the early 1970s -- are of a byzantine if lovably - eccentric system, designed to frustrate any but the already very - well - initiated. How much worse it must have been, back then, for others -- perhaps foreigners who knew nothing of the language, but also anyone at all unfamiliar with the intricacies of the French bureaucracy... patterned on the Chinese mandarinate, I think Etienne Balazs said...
Now, though, France and particularly Paris live in a globalizing world, as do we all, and French art and its history need to confront some modern realities. So I suppose the well - loved byzantines who guided me in the filling out of forms, in 1970 Paris, must give way to something more generally user - friendly, now. But it also is terribly expensive, after all, to duplicate reference collections, and information services, and collections themselves, across a vast variety of institutions -- at least 43 are involved in this project alone, to date -- all devoted to the same or similar activity. And that duplication expense is much greater, now that journal subscription prices and digital infrastructure costs have replaced the pencil sharpener outlays of the not - so - distant past: different budgets, different realities.
And, finally, there may be much to be gained simply by shaking up the old formula: "sclerosis", definitely -- I remember thinking how sclerotic the central Paris procedures were, back in 1970, when I was 21 -- so the young artists, and young art historians, who now are only 21 but who face the very same and now very old procedures and bureaucracy which I confronted back then, definitely must think that the Paris arteries have hardened.
Change does take nerve, however. There always are a few losses, to balance the gains somewhat -- and change can be very costly, as the Bibliothèque Franc,ois Mitterrand discovered. Change is needed however, nowadays, in anything involving "information": the old paradigms no longer work, the new ones have not been perfected or even invented yet, the cost structures are shifting too radically -- institutions have to "get nimble", and stay there, just to keep up.
So this is the thing which interests me most, personally, about this INHA project: the French are known for their nerve, what they themselves call -- sometimes ruefully -- their "panache" (think "Cyrano"), proven most recently by their completion, at very high odds, of that giant new library up at Tolbiac.
Now they say that they will build a giant new art history institute at the old location on the Rue Richelieu, one which will be "multidisciplinary, and open to the studies of the fixed image, the moving image, and the arts du spectacle" and "available for distance communication"...
Well, I say, "go for it, folks!" -- the rest of us are wondering just how we are going to crack this particular one, too, so if you guys have the nerve, the "panache", to get going on it, the rest of us all will be watching -- a few with daggers drawn, but all watching, and all with great excitement. We're with you, and good luck.
And this time around, at least, they're recycling a beautiful old building rather than constructing anew: so hopefully there won't be endless arguments, on this one, about "building heights" and "tropical woods"... but something else, maybe...
Re. the February FYI France issue on Montolieu:
I am grateful to Robin Briggs and several others for having pointed out to me, privately and diplomatically, the geological impossibility of inhabiting both the valley of the Garonne and that of the Aude at the same time... and Carcassonne definitely is located only in the latter. When you cut and paste from word processors, always be sure that the entire paragraph goes over -- not an unedited earlier mistake which then gets tacked on to a later but contradictory version. Too bad, as "the valley of the Garonne" has such a nice ring to it...
Corrections are always welcome -- very much appreciated, in fact.
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