Châteaux and museums in Europe: an artistic heritage in the face of war (19th-20th century)

Duration: 2022-...

Having organised a symposium devoted to the protection of the Île-de-France heritage during the Second World War (« Les châteaux-musées franciliens et la guerre : une protection stratégique (1939-1945) », 3 et 4 juin 2021) and a first mission to Germany to collect information from the private archives of Count Franz Wolff Metternich (1893-1978), the Palace of Versailles and its Research Centre are continuing their investigations into the history of artistic heritage in times of war. Starting with Versailles, it will conduct a vast investigation into the conditions that French and European châteaux and museums experienced during these complex periods, from the end of the Napoleonic Empire to the Second World War.

Wars are particularly critical moments for heritage, which is often the victim of extensive damage caused, intentionally or otherwise, by the various warring forces. In many ways, these troubled times encouraged all sorts of looting, damage and even the total destruction of both monumental and artistic heritage and museum collections. Thus, many institutions now have in their inventories works lost during conflicts, which may or may not be found subsequently, often on the art market. Despite the many difficulties brought on by wars, it is also evident that they can, in some cases, lead to periods of opportunity for châteaux and/or museums to restructure, enrich their collections and reassess their strategic place in relation to each other.

These transformations – welcomed or suffered - of artistic heritage against a background of conflict, raise many questions and require all kinds of reflection on its protection, exploitation and future in times of war. The study will focus on châteaux and museums as well as châteaux-museums that combine the two entities, whether public or private

The example of the Palace of Versailles, occupied four times during its history (1814, 1815, 1870-1871 and 1940-1944) by foreign nations, attests to the importance of the symbol. Over and above the damage suffered, and the way in which attempts were made to mitigate it - both beforehand and retrospectively - it is important to understand how these wars influenced the future of this monument (instrument of diplomacy, its role in the organisation of peace procedures, etc.), as well as the museum it houses.

Continuing the initial work carried out over the past two years, the first stage of this programme will be devoted to the study of artistic heritage during the Second World War in the châteaux and/or museums of France and Europe. On the one hand, particular attention will be paid to the role of the various protection bodies, particularly international ones, such as the Kunstschutz (German organisation for the protection of works of art in occupied territories) and the MFAA (Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Section, which was a sort of counterpart to that of the Allies between 1943 and 1946). The context of this conflict requires, on the other hand, an in-depth search for the provenance of the works acquired by museum and cultural institutions during this period, as well as a careful examination of those obtained through donations and bequests.

The second phase of the programme will consist of putting the statements obtained into perspective with those of previous wars, especially the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871 and the First World War.

Main objectives of this research

  • Archival research conducted in France, Europe, Russia and the United States;
  • Setting up of a corpus of archival, bibliographic, radio and audiovisual sources;
  • Establishment of partnerships with French, European, American and Russian institutions whose archives relate to this subject or are carrying out equivalent research missions;
  • Putting into perspective the means of protection (or “passive defence”) rolled out in successive wars, and making comparisons regarding national and international territories;
  • Evaluation of the proportion of châteaux and/or museums partially or completely destroyed during the various conflicts;
  • Evaluation of the damage observed and the role of châteaux in defending art collections;
  • Development of a history of museum protection in wartime (1870-1945);
  • Typological and artistic analysis of the choice of works protected in wartime (1870-1945);
  • Survey to identify the number of works (missing, damaged or presumed destroyed) in museum institutions during successive conflicts;
  • Putting into context the attempts of seizure, transfer, exchange and restitution considered by the States;
  • Evaluation of the place of artistic works as objects of “reparations” and “compensatory payments” in the negotiations and drawing up of peace treaties (1870-1945);
  • Research into provenance for works acquired in wartime;
  • Results, consultation and networking (in particular through study days, symposia, scientific publications, etc.) of research from members of the scientific committee and researchers associated with this programme.

Programme Directors: Claire Bonnotte Khelil, Doctor of Art History, Scientific Collaborator at the musée national des châteaux de Versailles et de Trianon ; Christina Kott, Doctor of History and Civilisations, Lecturer at the université Paris-Panthéon-Assas.

Scientific Committee in the process of being set up

Actions performed

>  Mission from 17 to 21 January, 2022 in Brauweiler to the Archives of the Rhineland Nobility, to consult the boxes and files of Count Wolff Metternich concerning the German Department for the Protection of Works of Art (Kunstschutz).

>  Identifying the most relevant documents, and photographing them (1,300 pictures taken).
>  Writing of 16 contextualisation reports; explanation and translation of the photographed documents.

>  Symposium « Les châteaux-musées franciliens et la guerre : une protection stratégique 1939-1945 » June 3 and 4, 2022 online.
>  Uploading of audio recordings of the symposium on the CRCV YouTube channel.
>  Publication of the conference proceedings under the direction of Claire Bonnotte Khelil and Christina Kott, on April 24, 2024 by éditions Hermann.

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