Christophe Leribault, President of the Musée d’Orsay: “We must make our collections much more intelligible”

Christophe Leribault, at the Musée d'Orsay, in Paris, on June 21, 2022.

Appointed in 2021 to the presidency of the Musée d’Orsay, Christophe Leribault intends to reorganize the visit route from top to bottom and undertake major works at the open museum, between 2025 and 2027.

The Musée d’Orsay had already carried out major works in 2011 and modified the presentation of its collections. Why do it all over again today?

We do not redo for fun, but to make the collection much more intelligible. A third of our visitors are under 25 years old. We must re-explain to them in a convincing manner the period covered by the Musée d’Orsay, this second half of the 19e century until the war of 1914. We are in a train station: you have to imagine a real trip, a story allowing you to better immerse yourself in this period. For this receding century to continue to speak to us, we need to introduce more context. We must remember the personalities who made this era, such as Louis Pasteur, Jules Verne or Jules Ferry, set the frameworks of this society born of scientific, cultural and economic development which changed the scale of the world.

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It is important for visitors to understand that this period is at the root of many contemporary issues. The 19the century has seen pandemics, technological challenges as great as the Internet and ChatGPT today: it’s a time of the mass press, of department stores, of labor migration, of the populating of America with the arrival Irish and Italians. But also the depletion of natural resources, the fortification of borders and colonization.

The Tate Britain, in London, and the Rijksmuseum, in Amsterdam, tackle this colonial question head-on and without taboo. What is your approach?

In a museum, unlike social networks, you can explain things calmly, show maps, evoke hidden issues without evading them or storing paintings representing personalities criticized today. The idea is not to have signs that say “think this or that”, but to provide the keys to understanding, to bring nuance. Jules Ferry is not only the architect of the secular school, he was also the architect of colonial expansion. Our role is to make people understand how a historical fact like colonization has influenced artists – I’m thinking, for example, of Charles Cordier or Gustave Guillaumet. The orientalist painter Etienne Dinet had a real love for the Maghreb, he even converted to Islam.

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