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Caught My Eye: An AFC Treasure for Museology Nerds!

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Excerpts from both pages of Georges Henri Rivière’s letter to the Archive of American Folk-Song in October 1953

The delight of opening a folder in the AFC reading room and seeing this treasure has, unfortunately, blurred my memory of the exact path of inquiry that led me to it! If you are a museology and/or museum history nerd like me, I think you may understand.[1]

To be precise, it is two treasures, and the first guided me to the second – a sort of “one-two punch,” archives-style. They are signed letters from the French museologist Georges Henri Rivière (1897-1985) during two separate periods of his illustrious career. The first is a letter from 1953, when Rivière was director of the Musée des Arts et Traditions Populaires (Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions, or ATP) in Paris, which he founded; the second, dated 1973, was written during his tenure as Permanent Advisor to the International Council of Museums (ICOM), a global organization that comprises over 37,000 institutional and professional members (of which Rivière was the first director, from 1948 to 1965).

The 1953 letter is part of the correspondence between the AFC’s predecessor, the Archive of American Folk-Song (hereafter the Archive), within the Library’s Music Division, and the Ethnomusicology Department of the Musée de l’Homme (Museum of Man) in Paris, whose collections were inherited by the Musée du Quai Branly–Jacques Chirac, opened in 2006. From what I can tell, the correspondence began in the mid-1940s and aimed at establishing an exchange of musical recordings between the two. Indeed, this was a period of great expansion for the Archive’s collections, particularly in terms of its international scope. Duncan Emrich, the Head of the Archive (1945-1955), put forward a four-year plan and proposed budget, which, as Peter Bartis highlights (p.160), ‘raised the Librarian’s brow’ and included “an additional allocation to cover the cost of eight thousand additional field recordings of traditional performances from foreign countries…” Moreover, the then Head of the Library’s Music Division, Harold Spivacke, was also proudly involved with the exchange of albums of music and folklore with other countries at this time.

In a letter from 1946 addressed to Spivacke, Gilbert Rouget, an ethnomusicologist and assistant to the director of Musée de l’Homme, is replying to an inquiry sent from the Archive about exchanging records of U.S. folk and traditional music for ‘comparable’ recordings from France. Rouget’s response is interesting, and underscores the distinctions made between folklore and anthropology , as well as how they are defined in different museological contexts. He informed Spivacke of the following:

I would like to first clarify some points: the Museum of Man is concerned with ethnography of the world except France, French ethnography is left with the Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions […] The majority of our discography is non-French. [my translation]

Here, the distinction between ‘world ethnography’ and ‘French ethnography’ is rather clear-cut, reflecting the separate missions of the two museums and bringing to mind Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s succinct comparison: “what colonialism is to the history of anthropology, nationalism is to the history of folklore” (p.143). As such, Rouget recommends that the Archive contact Rivière, the director of the museum most concerned with “le folklore Français.” In terms of what the Museum of Man could offer, he discusses a forthcoming set of thirty discs based on recordings –predominantly “la musique de femmes” (women’s music) – made in 1939 in Madagascar, a French colony during the time. He also notes that the discs could be traded for several albums in the “Folk Music of the United States” series, one of several exchanges that were completed in the late 1940s and 1950s.

It appears that Riviere’s response is to already ongoing correspondence with Emrich, who possibly wrote Rivière for the first time in 1948. In any case, Rivière’s letter from October 1953 discusses a discography of recorded music in “France and abroad, in commerce or outside commerce, regarding the popular vocal music of a romance language and non romance language of the metropolitan French territory,” published as a regular column in the Society of French Ethnography’s journal, Popular Arts and Traditions. He also requested that information regarding relevant recordings from the Archive be included in an upcoming issue of the journal. He states:

In this section “Discographie” we hope to help researchers in French musical ethnography, or those who enjoy French musical folklore, and, by informing them objectively and regularly of the records being issued in their fields of interest throughout the world, to facilitate their access to recorded documentation. This new effort adds to the phonographic records of our museum (ATP records) and, like them, it answers the need to spread knowledge about French folk music on records. I am convinced that your institution will help us in this endeavor so closely related to your own work and I thank you in advance.[2]

Georges Henri Rivière

With respect to museum history, why is Rivière important? And what was the ATP, and why did it differ from the Museum of Man? The answer lies at the heart of Rivière’s research interests and museum philosophy, which transformed not only French museology over the latter half of the 20th century, but also international museum theory and practice through to today. As museologist Peter Davis contends (p.67), Rivière was “steeped in the traditions of French ethnography,” and worked in the 1930s to create a ‘musée de synthèse,’ one that would integrate French culture, history and the “French way of life” in its displays, and that would proudly counter Museum of Man’s focus on the rest of the world’s cultures. Although not the first to do this, Rivière was interested in turning the museological gaze – one that was often used to promote, as well as falsify, the greatness of the colonial enterprise, constructing the ‘other’ for the consumption of European museum-goers – to the cultural communities of ‘home’ and their ways of life.[3]

Davis (p.67) describes the ATP’s exhibits as the following:

The displays in the ATP originally showed collections arranged in typographical series or according to evolutionary or functional design. They were based on the academic work carried out by the French ruralist school who were attempting to define the special characteristics of the French countryside. Post-[WWII], however, the displays were changed to contextualise the objects ‘by reconstructing the setting from which they had been extracted: a fire was lit in the fireplace, a bird was caught in the trap, the tool was set to work on raw materials.’

Over the years, the museum’s exhibitions expanded to include urban communities and their cultures before it closed in 2005.[4] Nonetheless, the spotlight on French ethnography is important here, as well as how this ethnographic information was interpreted and disseminated. In particular, the practice of contextualizing material culture within the artificial (or inherently decontextualizing) museum setting, such as described above, has been categorized by Kirshenblatt-Gimblett as the in situ exhibiting of objects. She (p.18) explains:

The artfulness of the ethnographic object is an art of excision, of detachment, an art of the excerpt. Where does the object begin, and where does it end? […] Shall we exhibit the cup with the saucer, the tea, the cream and sugar, the spoon, the napkin and placemat, the table and chair, the rug?

This in situ notion is certainly helpful when thinking about basic museological techniques through to today, but what if it was taken further, extending the idea outside museums to the political, economic, environmental, and sociocultural contexts from which ethnographic objects have been traditionally removed? This is exactly what Rivière and his colleague, the distinguished French museologist Hugues de Varine, attempted with establishing the “ecomuseum” in late 1960s France – the source of my excitement when coming across the letters!


During the mid-20th century, both Rivière and de Varine were dissatisfied with traditional museology. In particular, they wanted to reconfigure museums to be more holistic in their understanding and dissemination of cultural heritage, as well as to be more responsive to – and reflective of – local community needs. Yet, they were each motivated by specific visions: de Varine desired to enhance the community role of museums “within an economic and political framework,” while Rivière was most interested in interpreting the human experience within its environmental contexts, taking the in situ concept as far as it could go (Davis, 2011, pp.66-67). With regard to the social role of museums, de Varine has since stated:

[The 1960s] was also a period of great prosperity among the countries of the “first world”, of stagnation, both cultural and economic, in the second world, of liberation and self-assessment in the third world…it was also a period of social and cultural struggle on the part of minorities and oppressed groups everywhere […] So, it was not abnormal that, even in the traditionally stable and conservative museum world, a number of original minds would look for solutions outside the established standards.

Rivière also argued that museums should “situate [humanity] in its natural environment…[portraying] nature both in its wildness, but also as adapted by traditional and industrial society in their own image.”

One early example of their collaborative work, L’Ecomusée du Creusot-Montceau-les-Mines (Le Creusot), which still exists today, encompasses roughly 500 square kilometers in the Burgundy region of France. At the time, it comprised the two urban communities of Le Creusot, a center for iron and steel works, and Le Montceau-les-Mines, a coal mining area. Together, including the more rural areas in between, the population was 150,000 during the early 1970s, and for much of its industrial life, it was run by one family: the Schneiders. Anthropologist Octave Debary explains (p.124):

[In 1836] the Schneiders settled in the middle of nowhere and built everything – including schools and hospitals – from scratch…Schneider hospitals with Schneider maternity wards, Schneider schools, houses, stadiums, and old people’s homes – even the churches belonged to them!

Ecomusée Le Creusot: the chateau where the Schneider family once lived. Shared to Flickr with a Creative Commons License.

Since WWII, the two industries were in sharp decline, leading to an increase in unemployment. As a result, in the late 1960s, local community representatives, in addition to de Varine and Rivière, had become involved with a new museum project to provide jobs, as well as ‘raise the morale’ of the region’s inhabitants, as de Varine noted in 1996.

At the core of this new museum project was what has been called “museum therapy.” In essence, through a ‘double-input’[5] system, where local actors were included in the decision making processes of creating this museum, a sense of ownership over the project and, thus, pride of participation, could be fostered. Moreover, the ecomuseum was not confined to one building: it included the entire region of Le Creusot-Montceau-les-Mines. One basic characteristic of this revolutionary scheme was that, in Varine’s words “[t]he museum’s only boundaries are those of the community it serves […]The whole community constitutes a living museum, its public being permanently inside […]The museum does not have visitors but inhabitants.” As such, Le Creusot’s ‘center of operations’ – originally called the Museum of Man and Industry – was (and is) situated within the 18th century chateau that was once the home of the Schneider family. However, other buildings and sites were signposted to encourage visitors to “go round the urban community just as one goes round a museum.” Furthermore, community members would decide what the main sites of the ecomuseum were, as well as what themes and objects should be used for displays, including at the main chateau building.

Not without issues (and with a far more complex history than I am presenting here), this community-based, in situ approach to interpreting, disseminating, and safeguarding both tangible and intangible cultural heritage was quite remarkable at the time.[6] In stark contrast to more traditional museological practices, the two museologists sought to holistically address the social problems encountered within the region of Le Creusot, a purpose, they argued, that all museums should have (in terms of their own local contexts and community needs).

Over the years, the ecomuseum movement spread to other Francophone regions and beyond. In the mid-1980s, the French-Canadian museologist, René Rivard, produced the following formulae for conveying the basic differences between traditional museums and ecomuseums (based on similar theorizations by de Varine):

Museum = building + collections (+ experts) + public

Ecomuseum = territory + heritage (+ memory) + population [7]

Here, the core tenets of ecomuseology are outlined: the importance of not isolating heritage from its social, political, cultural and environmental contexts, as in the case of traditional museology, and to ensure that local communities are in control of the safeguarding and promotion of their cultural heritage, more so than traditional museum ‘experts.’ Today, there are over 1,000 ecomuseums throughout the world; however, they can differ widely in their fulfillment of the principles that underpin the philosophy.[8]

Another aspect to this museum ‘experiment’ is that much like ecology, ecomuseum projects may not live past one or two generations of participating local communities. This is certainly what happened to Le Creusot in recent decades; among other factors, including changing funding structures, the ecomuseum now operates as a traditional museum. Interestingly, Debary argues (p.79) that Le Creusot became a “musée classique” when the 1990s exhibition on the Schneider family opened in the main building – the chateau in which they once lived. He states: “The Schneiders had become exhibits in a museum – objects symbolising a past history that could now be disposed of” (p.130). His reasoning is similar to what de Varine calls the ‘generation shift’ in the 1980s, a significant factor for the loss of excitement on behalf of the Creusot-Montceau-les-Mines communities for the ecomuseum initiative. The generation of people who were leading the initiative from the beginning aged, and younger members of the area were moving away. In essence, what remained from this ‘pioneering’ generation were their memories and objects, which increasingly were used as exhibition content. The vitality of Le Creusot slowly turned into its tangible remnants, signaling a forgotten era that only existed in a more traditional museological context. However, when viewing cultural heritage, especially that which is living, and related safeguarding work — particularly in collaboration with communities — as more of a process than a product that is meant to stand the test of time, then utilizing ecomuseological theory and practice can be most helpful (a main topic in my own doctoral research).

A letter to Georges Henri Rivière from Alan Lomax in January 1973

Oh, I almost forgot: the second letter! As you can see above, it is part of correspondence in the early 1970s between Alan Lomax, who at the time was running the “Choreometrics Project” at Columbia University, and Rivière. Aside from Rivière’s mentioning the films of French ethnologist Jean Dominique Lajoux, they warmly discussed catching up in Paris over a meal, as Rivière says, ‘in memory of the good old times and to enjoy the new’ [my translation]. It is possible that they had that meal 45 years ago this week, as indicated in Lomax’s January 13th letter, where he was giving Rivière a ten-day heads up about his visit to Paris. It’s clear from Lomax’s affectionate tone that he knew Rivière well, and the research of Ascensión Mazuela-Anguita, former Jon B. Lovelace Fellow in the Study of the Alan Lomax Collections at the Library, suggests that the two went back quite a while, possibly beginning their friendship when Lomax was on his early 1950s fieldwork trip across Spain, during which he used the Museum of Man and ATP as his postal addresses.


1. Todd Harvey, AFC Folklife Specialist, can attest to my disruptive excitement.

2. Professor Nicoleta Bazgan has kindly provided a full translation of the letter.

3. As Davis argues, there were precursors of the ecomuseum, such as the German heimatmuseum and open-air museums, among others, that inspired Rivière and de Varine.

4. The ATP collections have since been subsumed by the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations in Marseille.

5. Rivière’s (1985) notion of ‘double input’ communication is similar to what Robert Baron discusses as ‘dialogic engagement with communities,’ a feature of public folklore work in the U.S.

6.This is not to say that other community-driven cultural heritage initiatives, including museums, were not in existence. For instance, the Baltimore American Indian Center was established in 1968 by American Indian community members living and working in East Baltimore as an important cultural hub and now also museum.

7. Rivard, R. 1984. Opening up the Museum or Toward a New Museology: Ecomuseums and “Open” Museums. Québec. (Copy held at the Documentation Centre, Direction des Musées, Paris).

8. In the mid-2000s, researchers at the International Centre for Cultural and Heritage Studies at Newcastle University (UK) have developed a set of ecomuseum principles; read more here.


  1. Thanks for introducing me to this concept of ecomuseums.

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