The French Model – Eco-museums

In comparison with most European countries, the idea of collecting and presenting provincial dwellings of different regions in one location is not very popular in France. It contrasts, for example, with Scandinavian countries, Great Britain, Holland, Germany, Romania and Hungary. This is so despite the fact that Georges Henri Rivière, the founder of the Musée national des Arts et Traditions Populaires (National Museum of Folk Art and Traditions), devised plans to establish several open-air museums of ethnography.

From 1932 Rivière deliberated on establishing an “open-air museum of regions in France”, which would have included one hundred buildings from all the regions of the country. On founding the Regional National Parks in 1966, the idea of connecting them with open-air museums was raised again and promoted by George Henri Rivière. Two open-air museums were studied for the plan. One was the Marquèze Museum linked to the Regional National Park in the Landes de Gascogne, in south-west of France, which later became the Grande Lande eco-museum in 1969. The other was the future eco-museum of Ouessant linked to the Armorique Regional National Park in Brittany, the most western part of France.

Only in 1971 was the idea of eco-museums formulated, thanks to a coming together of political and cultural factors. It well matched a tendency deriving from the events of 1968, which aimed to spread culture as broadly as possible, making it accessible for local communities.

A new type of institution, the eco-museum headed by Marcel Evrard in Creusot Montceau-les-Mines, was founded between 1971 and 1974. It is situated neither in a national park nor in a village environment, but is based on the industrial activity of an urban community living in 16 settlements. In the words of Hugues de Varine: “The whole of the community creates a living museum whose audience throughout is within. The museum has residents instead of visitors.” Varine’s concept included the experience spread by the idea of Museo integral in Latin America during the same period. People’s everyday activity is the basis of heritage in Creusot. The residents have to preserve it all, including their own dwellings. Hence, eco-museums appeared as a new response to the issues raised in connection with the educational role of museums. George Henri Rivière stipulated his first definition of an eco-museum in 1973 two years after the concept was born.

These days the population is more mobile and its members are often not from the location where the eco-museum is situated. Thus this has to be taken into account in order for the museum to remain as a lasting basis, which keeps on adapting to the conditions of the present. Local authorities which maintain eco-museums turn them into cultural assets and employ them to promote the tourism of their region, while using them less and less for local development.