ISSN : 2266-6060

Decolonizing museums

Paris, March 2019.

The Orsay Museum has (finally!) decided to tackle the issue of racism by reassigning a first name and a surname to all the characters in the works in its collection. With diary archives, photos and notebooks, it reports on the links between models and artists: hours spent together at the workshop, fee, evenings with mutual friends. Then, when it was necessary to access the Salon, the inscription ‘Rendez-vous with Madeleine’ became ‘Portait of a Negress’ – denying her any subjectivity. Thus, ‘The black model, from Géricault to Matisse’ aims (among others) to highlight the structural character of racism in French society of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century. The demonstration is clear: once out of the privacy of apartments, to allow artists to access the public space, black models lost their identity for the benefit of a racial denomination. One imagines the archival treasures that had to be deployed to find the first names and, when that was impossible, write (not without regrets) ‘portrait of a black woman’ on cartels, catalogues and registers. Yes, finally, French museums highlight the political dimensions of the conservation function and take their part in the decolonization of knowledge.

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