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The Centre Pompidou in Paris (photo by Allison Meier/Hyperallergic)

A government audit of 1,218 French museums has revealed that some 80% do not know the full contents of their collections, with many collections facing further serious hazards, Libération reported. The preliminary document, released Wednesday after eight months of research and ahead of a full report due at the end of the year, cites several shocking oversights; for example, the Louvre is critiqued for storing Classical sculptures in a subterranean chamber that could not be properly evacuated in the event of an overflow of the Seine river. Noting instances of theft, the report states that numerous collections are kept under insufficient security measures. Issues of provenance related to World War II looting continue to plague several institutions, the report adds, blaming inadequate resources for the incomplete cataloging and other issues.

The study was carried out under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture and was authorized by a 2002 law designating those public and private museums with a “public interest.” Of the 1,218 museums that fall under this designation, called “Musées de France” (“Museums of France”), 82% are owned by local or regional government entities, 13% by private foundations and associations, and 5% by the federal French state. Experts at several British and American museums were consulted regarding their practices, the study states, naming Tate Britain, the British Museum, Phillips Collection, Museum of Modern Art, and Metropolitan Museum, among others.

The French are renowned for their ironclad laws on cultural patrimony, and the “Musées de France” designation of 2002 is no exception. The law makes the contents of such collections “inalienable, imprescriptible, and exempt from seizure” (even in case of theft); once in a designated collection, artworks can only change hands between similarly designated institutions, exiting this “public domain” only under “exceptional circumstances.”

All translations by the author; h/t Artnet

Mostafa Heddaya

Mostafa Heddaya is the former managing editor of Hyperallergic.

2 replies on “French Museum Collections in Trouble”

  1. Sadly, the french museums have been quite stingy about hiring (actual) Conservators as caretakers of collections, preferring to hire them on contracts rather than on permanent positions. This is obviously starting to show.

  2. How is this possible with the law stating that all public institutions must carry out inventories of their collections every 10 years? This is unacceptable.

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