The daily life of the Louvre in the 1900s

Again this time, a nice find in the 20144775 collection of the archives of the Louvre’s Department of Egyptian Antiquities, namely in the article 20144775/5, describe in the inventory “department reports”. It is nothing less than daily notebooks kept by the heads of the department, containing a wealth of details on current affairs and the activity of the department. I have only looked at the first four, which run from January 1868 to January 1920.

3rd notebook (Boreux, 1913-1920), 3 January 1914: the Mona Lisa returns after its theft

The noteboooks

These first four notebooks correspond to three different hands, which are not difficult to link to their authors by comparing the dates covered1 and the members of the department mentioned in the third person in each notebook. The first (January 1868 to June 1908) is probably kept by Paul Pierret (assistant curator under Rougé, then curator of the department from 1873 to 1908), in a very elegant handwriting. There are few entries, mainly about the museum’s acquisitions.

The second (October 1911-June 1912) bears a handwriting that is much more difficult to decipher; it seems to be the work of Georges Bénédite, curator of the department from 1908 to 1926.

The third (September 1911 to December 1912) and fourth (January 1913 to January 1920) notebooks, on the other hand, are completed with a particularly legible handwriting, and kept with surprising regularity and attention to detail. These are certainly the work of Charles Boreux, then assistant curator.

The diversity of the topics covered in these notebooks makes them a gold mine. With a tone that is always formal, but remains personal, they evoke with disconcerting meticulousness the timetable of those in charge of the department: correspondence, discussions with one scholar or another, the other departments of the museum, or a simple visitor; each letter sent or received from 4 March 1912 onwards is even given a registration reference, “LR” for mail received and “LE” for mail sent (“Lettre reçue” and “lettre envoyée”)2. There are also incidents that occur (quite regularly, by the way – see below) with the museum’s guards, and a number of comments on the opening hours of the rooms, their surveillance, the improvements made to them, the purchase of furniture, restoration work, moulding, binding, projects for works acquisition and deposit, authorisations given to researchers and their requests for information, etc. In a word, it is the life of the department that is recounted in these pages.

Selected pieces

Rather than following the multitude of cases or summarising the themes in more detail, I cannot resist the temptation to simply extract a few suggestive passages from these notebooks that will set the tone and spirit of their contents (as usual, I have tried to use the original punctuation).

1st noteboook (Pierret, 1868-1908)

Answered negatively to a Mr. Bruchet who asked to buy the mummies from the Museum.3

16 January 1868
1st notebook (Pierret, 1868-1908), May-June 1908: acquisition of the groups of Nebmerutef

Mr. Bénédite presented: on 11 June 30 May to the Committee, and on 2 June to the Council, two objects of the highest interest brought back by him from Egypt, and representing, one in diorite and the other in alabaster, a scribe crouching beside a cynocephalus representing the god Thoth. The seller asked for 50,000 F. The committee and the council granted 40,000 F.

May-June 1908

Alabaster group of Nebmerutef (Louvre E 11153; source: Wikimedia Commons).

2nd notebook (Bénédite, 1911-1912)

Saw the guard of the Henri IV room who thought it necessary to inform me of the decay of a stele on the central pillar. This stele has been decaying for more than a year.

Wednesday 18 October 1911

Ordered to remove the deteriorated stele from the Henri IV Room AF 96.4

Thursday 19

Received circular of 20 Oct. relating to photographers (sic).

Answered that I would be in favour of

1° banning photographers from the museum during public opening hours

2° giving them only quarterly authorisations

3° [illegible] at the Louvre a photograph monopoly service with a monopoly for unpublished monuments. […]

PS to my letter to the Director: I request the establishment of a tax on permanent photography permits.

Friday 20 October

Received M. Bisson de la Roque, student at the École du Louvre; asks to consult the [illegible]. Tells me about his holiday trips, has been to London and Oxford. Has plans to travel to Cairo and spend a few months at the Archaeological Institute as a full member. I have indicated to him as a subject for a thesis for the École du Louvre The shoe.

Tuesday 24 October

This morning at 11:00, the guard [“Pelisons”?] on duty in the Salle des Colonnes tells me that it is difficult for him to keep an eye on the Campana (sic)5 if M. Boreux obliges him not to lose sight of the jewellery display case; I authorize him to exercise his surveillance by walking in such a way as to keep an alternate eye on the two enfilades of rooms.

Monday, October 30

Too much hesitation in applying the instructions. The door of the Columns room was locked today, thank God, it was only locked, but not the shadow of a guard from the 7 chimneys room to the funeral room: [Dessoubray?], on the orders of his chief, left our rooms to watch the passage from the funeral hall to the Campana.

Tuesday 7 November

The bad weather i.e. the darkness forces us to postpone the installation test which was to take place in the the gods room.

Mr. Boreux informs me of an impertinent letter from Mr. Prisse d’Avesnes6. He will be replied to.

Tuesday 5 December

Gave my first lesson7 in the morning. Very large audience. Difficult to do without projectors in these conditions.

Tuesday 12 December

Received a visitor asking to see a mummy. I accompanied him myself to the Algiers room.

Thursday 22 April 1912

3rd notebook (Boreux, 1911-1912)

Received Laffont, who has succeeded in hardening with stearin the dead steles removed from the Henri IV gallery and who will now be able to mould them without the risk of seeing them crumble during the operation.8

2 February 1912

Boucher has stuck, in the Henry IV gallery, on the nine false wooden steles replacing originals [illegible] by time, labels bearing the indication ‘Withdrawn due to deterioration by the action of time’…9

Thursday 15 February

Saw Chassinat, who had come to announce officially at the Louvre that he had resigned as Director of the Cairo School and that he was appointed Honorary Director. He told me that he had not wanted to publicise this discussion, which in fact dates back to 1 January, because he wanted to leave the Minister of Public Instruction complete freedom of action. He asked me to inform Mr. Bénédite of this.

Wednesday 13 March

Received a note from the Director about the Collongues incident (LR No. 12) – I summoned Collongues: he had simply used the excuse of a job I had supposedly given him to do, in order to avoid a chore. I made the observations that this procedure deserved and I told him that I would inform the Director.

Monday 18 March

Received a visit from Mr. Léon Wolles, 72 Blvd Richard Lenoir, who came to see sarcophagi still containing their mummies, and also mummies stripped of their bandages. I showed him both in the Algiers gallery.

Tuesday 19 March

Received a visit from Mr. the Dr Lazare Belléli, who came to ask me if the Louvre possessed any Aramaic papyrus from the Elephantine excavations. I gave him a negative answer. Mr. Belléli, who appears to be of a very restless nature, is the author of a book recently published in London, in which he claims to show that the Aramaic papyri in the English and German museums are false. Mr. Belléli is at odds with all the Aramaeologists to whom I have successively suggested that he should address himself in order to enlighten his religion (Clermont Ganneau, Abbot Chat etc.).

Wednesday 29 May

I had to report to the Director the unseemly attitude of the peacekeeper on duty in the Algiers gallery, who replied, when I told him that I was a curator at the Louvre and that I could therefore keep my cane, ‘I’m not obliged to believe you’. The consequence of this incident will no doubt be that, at the request of Mr. Bénédite, we will be given an identity card or medal.

Saturday 22 June

The Secretariat has given us an identity card allowing us to circulate every day in the halls of all the National Museums (cf. Saturday 22).

Monday 24 June

Received a visit from Dr L. Reutter. Pharmacist in Neuchâtel (Switzerland: address in Paris: at Pr. de Ribaucourt, 86 Blvd de Port-Royal). He would like some pieces of shrouds soiled with sania, in order to analyse them. He would also like to give a free course at the Louvre, in which he would study, from the point of view of their chemical composition, the various ingredients used in mummification; finally, he is looking for a journal to which he could give a work on ‘the mummy used as a medicine in the Middle Ages’. I told him that I would ask for an appointment with Mr. Bénédite10 and that I would write to him on the day when the latter would be able to receive him.

28 June

I showed the Department to the Bey of Tunis.

Tuesday 16 July

Passed to the Army Museum, to ask for information about a polish called [“Bamt”?]. […] Mr Bénédite has asked me to reopen the Algiers gallery to the public, and to empty it, consequently, of all the monuments which are not steles. The monuments will have to be stored in our storeroom in the Cour de l’En-Cas.

Monday 18 November

On a trial basis, the Henry IV Gallery and the Staircase were opened today at eleven o’clock, at the same time as the rest of the Egyptian Museum (They were previously only open at 12:30).

Thursday, November 21

4th notebook (Boreux, 1913-1920)

The night watchman Pupil having passed through the Egyptian Rooms on the first floor with a dripping oil lamp, the floors of the Room of Votive Objects, the Room of Sculpture, the Room of Bronzes and the Room of the Dog are completely stained. It looks like a trail made with oil by the guard. That trail was cleaned up, but pretty badly, and one have polished over it, which at the moment only highlights it more.

Monday, February 3, 1913

On Friday night a number of the objects in the ivory display case (a kohl case and some styles – north-east corner of the case) fell out. I found some shards, from some of them I did not identify, in the bottom of the display case, between the desk and the glass. The damage must have been caused either by the men on the night patrol or rather by the police dogs. I therefore asked Mr. Roques to repress the ardour of the latter, at least in the rooms on the first floor.11

Mr Gunn came to collate the C 14 stela; but there was no guard waiting for him at the Henry II gate. He was allowed with great difficulty upstairs to the corridor of the Offices where he waited, until 10.15 a.m. I was told, that Mr Roques, warned of his coming, sent him the guard [Eugel, Sugel, Lugel?], who took him to the Gallery of Algiers. I telephoned M. Roques that I wished in future that it would be the guard who wait when necessary, and not the scholar. Mr. Roques finds, on the contrary, that his role is to send ato send the guard only once he is notified that the expected scholar is there. To have this matter of principle decided, we agreed that Mr. Roques will report this incident to the Director.”

Saturday 15 March

Received Mr Guimet, passing through Paris, who came to tell us that the sarcophagi we had given him the previous year for his new Musée de Lyon were in place and looking very good. The inauguration of the Lyon museum is due to take place on 25 May.

Friday 9 May

A night watchman, while clumsily carrying reflector lamps used to light the Charles X Museum, has spread an oil trail some oil on the floors of all our 1st floor rooms. This is – in a less serious way, the stains being less large and less continuous – a repetition of the accident that already occurred on February 3.

Wednesday, May 14

Some final thoughts

The examination of these notebooks raised several questions about their primary purpose and the way they were written.

To begin with, I think that they do not quite form a real serie. Indeed, Pierret’s notebook is not kept on a regular basis, and is mainly concerned with acquisitions, their presentation to the museum’s deliberative bodies, etc. It is also half empty.

The next three form a more homogeneous group, and respond to each other: the department’s activity is described by Boreux at the beginning of autumn 1911 in the third notebook, then stops until January 1912, while Bénédite begins the second notebook from mid-October 1911 and then continues it in parallel with his colleague’s.

In these three, the concern for security is omnipresent, especially in the first entries, devoted by Boreux to noting the results of his patrols to check how many guards are assigned to the Egyptian rooms12. The content gradually expands and bears witness to the exchanges maintained with scholars and dealers, the management of the galleries and relations with the other departments of the museum (communication with the administration does not seem to have been very smooth13).

This remains to be confirmed, but it would seem plausible that the keeping of a diary was one of the measures introduced after the theft of the Mona Lisa (10 August 1911), which was still occupying people’s minds in the autumn14. This practice seems at first to have been reserved for the head of the department, i.e. Boreux at first, since he was acting for Bénédite for a few weeks in the autumn of 1911. From January 1912, the two curators kept their notebooks in parallel. I do not know at this stage whether this was a directive from their hierarchy or a choice on their part to document their activity more precisely; an extremely cursory search on my part has not, moreover, enabled me to find equivalent notebooks in the archives of the other departments.

This raises the question of why the Bénédite notebook was discontinued after 1912, although he remains in office until 1926. Were other similar notebooks disposed of or downgraded before they were transferred to the former national museums archives? It is possible, however, that the parallel maintenance of two notebooks by both the curator and the assistant curator was eventually deemed redundant, and that Bénédite left it to Boreux.

In any case, it is quite fascinating to find the developments of a case, detailed day by day in entries that respond to each other; one can regularly witness the bureaucratic inertia of the museum’s daily management. Despite their richness, these notebooks are not, however, exhaustive chronicles of the life of the galleries: it was with no success that I searched for mention of the incident that occurred in the autumn of 1913 with Michel de Crayencour.

The way they are written raises questions. It shows the formalism expected of an administrative operational management tool; although most of the entries are short, they are also very precise, and it is easy to imagine that the contents of the notebooks formed the first documentation for the two monthly reports that the department sent to the director, the regular submission of which is duly recorded and referenced (was this also a measure taken after the theft of the Mona Lisa?)15. There are, however, a number of indications that have no real value for the service, despite their savour today. Thus, Bénédite comments on the frequentation of the rooms16 or, even more curious, evokes his solitary visit to the museum on Christmas Day!17. As for Boreux, he mentions in the course of ongoing cases his misadventures with the team of workmen who disturbed his office to install an alarm, and drags his weariness over twelve days18. Unless these notations reflect an extreme desire to keep track of the slightest event in order to a posteriori justify oneself or cross-reference testimonies?

It is in any case a fascinating document whose value is even more evident when it follows the day-to-day activity of the department during a dramatic period to which I will surely devote a future post…19

4th notebook (Boreux, 1913-1920), 3 August 1914: Germany declares war.

This post was translated into English from the French original Le quotidien du Louvre dans les années 1900, 16 October 2021.

  1. For a list of the heads of the department and their dates of office, see Guichard, Sylvie, “Département des antiquités égyptiennes” dans Lintz, Yannick (dir.), Histoire du Louvre, t. 3 Dictionnaire thématique et culturel, Paris, 2016, p. 80-84, p. 84. []
  2. Where letters lack this reference, it is even stated that it is an “uncopied letter to the ‘Copy of Letters'”, e.g. 3rd notebook, 25 and 28 September and 6 October 1912. []
  3. The curious letter whose reply is mentioned here has been preserved and can be found in article 20144775/17; he proposed to acquire the damaged mummies from the museum for which he might have a use, which he did not specify. []
  4. See the extracts reproduced here from the 3rd notebook, 2 and 15 February 1912. []
  5. That is, the Campana [museum], the south enfilade on the first floor of the south wing of the Cour carrée, parallel to the Charles-X museum. As the following excerpt shows, the expression “les [salles] Campana” was also used []
  6. This is the son of the archaeologist, deceased since 1879, who was in conflict with the department concerning the attribution to his father of casts taken from the mastaba of Ti. This case lasted for months. []
  7. I.e. his first lesson at the École du Louvre for the school year 1911-1912. []
  8. See the extracts reproduced here from the 2nd notebook, on the 18 October 1911, and from the 3rd notebook, on the 15 February 1912. []
  9. See the extracts reproduced here from the 2nd notebook, on 2 February 1912. []
  10. He was ill at the time. []
  11. See “The Watchdogs of the Louvre“, 25 July 2019 (translated September 2021). []
  12. September 1911: “Contrary to the provisions of the circular dated 12 September, the Egyptian Museum remained closed all day on Wednesday 13. I had to give special visit permission for the next day, Thursday – a day when the rooms were regularly closed – to two Americans, Miss Ruth Lynda Deyo and Miss Winifred Christie [These are two pianists; Winifred Christie was actually Scottish. Ruth Lynda Deyo eventually moved to Egypt], who had only 48 hours in Paris, and who could not, as a result of this office error, visit the Egyptian Museum.”

    “On Saturday the 16th, between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m., the guarding of the entire 11th sector (Campana Museum and the Egyptian Rooms on the 1st floor) was carried out by a single guard, who had on the other hand been instructed not to stray far from the Columns room, because this commands the door to the upper floors. This means that surveillance in this entire part of the Louvre was, for two hours, purely nominal and illusory.

    Monday 18th, same observation.

    Tuesday 19th – id. –

    Wednesdey 20th – id. –

    Thursday 21th – id. –

    Friday 22th – id. – That day I drew Mr Pujalet’s attention to this lack of surveillance, and asked, for our rooms on the first floor, in addition to the guard in charge of watching over them outside opening days, for a second guard who would circulate in the mornings in the rooms other than the Columns room and who could watch over the security of the room where the jewellery display case is now located – Mr Pujalet promised to look into this matter.

    From Saturday 23 to Wednesday 27 same observation. I drew Mr Pujalet’s attention to this situation again on Tuesday 26.” []

  13. 3rd notebook (Boreux, 1911-1912), Saturday 7 October 1911: “the Bureaux, enjoying a slightly larger staff, had the 11th sector opened in the afternoon (which had hitherto been open only on Wednesdays and Fridays). The measure can only be approved: it is only regrettable that the Offices did not think it necessary to warn us in any way that they were taking it. It was quite by chance that I was informed in the morning by the man on duty”; 8 February 1912: “The Charles X museum was opened today at eleven o’clock. It seems that as of today, the Egyptian Rooms on the 1st floor will be open on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday at eleven o’clock (the gallery on the ground floor will continue to be open every day at 12.30 p.m.). Other guards assure that the Charles X rooms will be open every day except Monday. But these are only rumours, the Management Secretariat not having thought it necessary to inform us of these changes in opening hours, of which it would be desirable, however, that we were the first to be informed.” []
  14. Bénédite mentions having received a summons from the examining magistrate in charge of the investigation into the theft of the Mona Lisa on Friday 3 November 1911, and notes with equal conscientiousness that he went there on Saturday 4 November and explained his role in the affair – without, however, going into detail about his deposition. []
  15. Addition of 2 June 2019: these fortnightly reports are preserved, classified by department (including the Museums of Versailles and Cluny), in the Archives Nationales under the references 20150044/36 (from 1911 to 1915) and 20150044/37 (from 1916 to 1935); they begin in 1911, which confirms my hypothesis that this redoubled monitoring of the cases was part of the administrative responses to the theft of the Mona Lisa. []
  16. 2nd notebook, Tuesday 8 November 1911: “The Charles X Museum invaded by boarding schools. Sent a note to the director to point out the lack of supervision.” []
  17. 2nd notebook, “Monday 25 Dec. Christmas. Came for a moment to put my correspondence and papers in order. Saw the watch, or at least a man with a lantern at 3:30 [at the end of the?] office corridor.” Thanks to Isabelle Bretthauer’s sharp eye for clarifying the reading of this entry, the writing of which caused me even more difficulties than the others []
  18. 3rd notebook, Thursday 21 March 1912: “A team of workmen invaded my office and began to pierce the walls to run the wires for an alarm bell intended to end up in the Egyptian Jewels room”; Friday 2: “The workmen are still in my office”; Saturday 23: “The workmen are still working in my office”; Monday 25: “The work started in my office is still not finished”; Tuesday 26: “The work in my office is still not finished, but the workers have not even come”; Wednesday 24: “The workers have not appeared in my office all day”; Thursday 28: “The workmen have begun to work in my office again”; Friday 29: “The workmen are still in my office”; Saturday 30: “The workmen have not yet finished in my office”; Monday 1 April: “The workmen have finally left my office”; Thursday 4: “I have resumed possession of my office.” []
  19. Additions on 9 and 30 June 2019: “The Egyptian Department of the Louvre during the First World War”: 1st and 2nd parts. []

Thomas Lebée

Chargé de travaux dirigés (École du Louvre) ; documentaliste scientifique au département des antiquités grecques, étrusques et romaines (musée du Louvre)

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