Meet with Philippe Bélaval, President of the Centre des Monuments Nationaux

By Cecilia de Vulpian

Président du Centre des Monuments Nationaux.

President of the Centre des Monuments Nationaux.

A MONUMENTAL PHILOSOPHY

Philippe Bélaval is head of the Centre des Monuments Nationaux (CMN) since June 2012. He leads this 100 year old institution with phenomenal creativity and energy, backed by an accurate and wise vision of architectural heritage. The approximately 100 monuments managed by the CMN leave him little time in his Parisian office, the Hôtel de Sully. Nevertheless Philippe Bélaval received us between his many trips. We met a man to listen to.

CDV: DID THE CMN HAVE A GOOD VACATION THIS SUMMER?

PH.B: Yes, the weather was gloomy, the open-air activities didn’t give us too much competition so people visited the monuments and the châteaux! I would add that a certain number of our initiatives had a huge success, and therefore attracted a good crowd. I am satisfied. But in economic terms the year hasn’t been extraordinary. The level of activity in our bookstores shows that visitors have a real problem of being able to spend money and buy. This incites a strong price moderation for the future. We are very near to a situation in which we will be expulsed if we give into the temptation to increase our price. We will have diminished activities and will turn our backs to our mission of opening cultural events to all.

CDV: THE SYSTEM OF EQUALIZATION ON WHICH THE CMN BASES ITS OPERATIONS HAS TO DEPEND ON A VERY COMPLEX ARBITRATION. WHAT ARE THE CRITERIA TO MAKE THESE DECISIONS?

Ph.B: At the risk of surprising you, it becomes very empiric! There are not two monuments that are absolutely alike in terms of structure, location, what it offers in cultural terms, and staff. We are trying of course to use the management tools that allow us to assure the best possible balance of the means answering the real needs of the monuments, in a very pragmatic manner. Our goal is to guarantee the best possible conditions for public visits

CDV: SINCE 2009 YOU HAVE BECOME AN “ETABLISSEMENT PUBLIC”*, THEREBY GAINING FLEXIBILITY IN THE AUTHORITY OVER PROJECTS.
* L’Etablissement Public dispose d’une autonomie administrative et financière pour remplir une mission d’intérêt général, sous le contrôle de la collectivité publique. Une certaine souplesse lui permet de mieux assurer certains services publics.

PhB: When action is needed for a specific work on a monument we make our plans and establish our calendar of intervention in function of different obligations. In the past we were dependent on the authority of the Ministère de la Culture and the Directions des Affaires Culturelles Régionales (DRAC) each having its own specific priorities. If we suggested taking action on a certain point, this would not always meet the priorities of the DRAC.

We would sometimes wait months to complete the intervention. And once a team of artisans arrived saying, « You have to close down we are to begin » Coordinating public welcome and cultural events on a work site, is absolutely necessary for flexibility and economy and for the public’s satisfaction. In order to manage a place efficiently, there should be only one manager.

CMN_le Mont St Michel

le Mont St Michel

CDV: THESE QUESTION RELATED TO THE CONSERVATION AND THE RESTAURATION OF OUR HERITAGE ARE LIKE RUSSIAN DOLLS, ONE QUESTION BRINGS UP ANOTHER. THIS REQUIRES A GREAT UNDERSTANDING, EVEN A PASSION, FOR THE SUBJECT. YOU ARE A PRODUCT OF THE ADMINISTRATION; AT WHAT POINT DID YOU DISCOVER THIS PASSION?

You are absolutely right to bring up this question, it is a job one can’t do without passion.
It must not be done with an excess of passion, in any case an excess of harmful passion which blinds one to certain realities, in relation to certain issues. For me Heritage with a capital H is not a total of which preservation has to take precedence over all other economic, social or other considerations. I think that Heritage preservation is not « a world in itself » Heritage is in a determined area, in an human context; to put everything in a basket, fixed in place, indifferent to social evolution and changing mentalities, isn’t doing a service to the country. It doesn’t help the Patrimony to cut it from life. On the contrary it must be left in everyday life. When did I first feel this passion? I don’t know. I liked history very much when I was a child – my parents brought me to visit monuments. I was sensitive to the atmosphere of châteaux, cathedrals, to what this meant in terms of evoking the past and this taste stayed with me. Taking care of heritage came rather late in my career. But I believe that it is what suits me best.

CDV: YOU CAME TO BE THE HEAD OF THE CMN WHICH IS A LARGE ADMINISTRATION, IT’S A CHALLENGE WHICH REQUIRES CERTAIN QUALITIES. ONE THAT YOU HAVE PROVEN TO HAVE IS « MEASURE »….

PhB Maybe it is a trait of my personal character. I am not an extremist either in manners or substance except may be just in the distrust in front of extremisms or fanaticism. I agree with those who don’t see how the shock of extremism can make the world go forward in a positive manner. Rather I believe in exchange, sharing and dialogue…I am from Aquitaine, I situate myself really in the intellectual filiation of Montaigne who upheld these convictions during the turbulent times in which he lived.

CDV: SENSE OF MEASURE DOESN’T PREVENT BEING AUDACIOUS. YOU HAVE PUT NEW IDEAS IN PLACE, SUCH AS «CROWDFUNDING», INTERNET CONSULTATION ON THE TOPIC: “WHO DESERVES THE PANTHEON”, YOU KEEP THE POSSIBILITY OF EXPOSING MODERN ART IN MONUMENTS IN SPITE OF ALL DEBATES… YOU ARE QUITE AUDACIOUS!

Ph.B: Yes, more than I appear. I admit this completely! With this” measure” that you have
saluted, I am always wary of « the changers », that is to say to want to change things, to modify them for the pleasure of modification. The context of monument heritage is changing and if we don’t show a minimal sense of adaptation, danger lurks!

I see at least 4 or 5 major sources of change in to the heritage policy since 1980. If you look at the situation today and if you try to figure out how it will evolve in the coming 10 years,
you have :

-a State which has less money to allocate to patrimony.
– Territorial collectivities of which certain – the “departments”- are overcome with other expenses, which makes it more and more difficult to participate in the upkeep of monuments. – Moreover, the new revision of the territorial configuration could create problems for the management of our heritage.
-Social and institutional customs and structure are waning or disappearing completely. In any case, they are tending towards disappearance rather than reinforcement. A good example being the religious heritage.
-Fewer families are likely to keep up the huge chateaux, on large properties…There are many young people who don’t want to live in the chateaux where you have to put chamber pots under the roof when it rains.
-Digital technology completely changes the way in which heritage can be presented and explained.
-And finally, the planet. If we have,2,5, maybe one day 10 million, Chinese tourists in France, and especially in Paris who all want to see the Eiffel Tower, the Mona Lisa, le Sacré Coeur. How can we receive them? How can they travel from place to place?

Values must be saved but the way to talk about them should be completely renewed. There is an enormous adaptation to be made. Today we cannot cling desperately to the concepts that were undoubtedly wonderful 30 or 40 years ago. We must invent contemporary concepts of heritage preservation. It is a task to which I am passionately committed. My two years at the CMN have reinforced this commitment

CDV: ANOTHER QUALITY THAT SEEMS TO BE YOURS IS THE GIFT OF UBIQUITY. IN FACT WHEN ONE LOOKS AT THE NEWS OF THE CMN, ONE HAS THE IMPRESSION THAT YOU ARE EVERYWHERE AT THE SAME TIME

Ph.B: Yes, there are days when I come home a little tired, but I think that this is part of my mission. I need to see things and people I order to understand, that is my nature. And also, I believe that in an institution like ours which is scattered all over France, sometimes in small units, it is extremely important to show those around me that we are interested in what they are doing, that we are with them during the life of the monuments. In this way we create a feeling of belonging to a unique network. So it is true that I run in all directions.
On Sunday I’m in Bourg-en-Bresse, Monday in Clairvaux, I was in Bouges, near to Chateauroux, I am in Vincennes this evening, tomorrow in Saint-Denis, Friday near to Bordeaux…that is part of my strategy to reinforce pride and confidence of the team there. This is in keeping with the orders I received from the Ministère when appointed.

CDV: SPEAKING ABOUT THE PANTHÉON, YOU SUBMITTED A REPORT TO THE PRESIDENT ENTITLED, « MAKE PEOPLE ENTER THE PANTHÉON » I SEE THERE RATHER AN ATTEMPT TO PUT THE PANTHÉON IN THE HEARTS OF THE PEOPLE. IS IT DIFFICULT TO HAVE THE FRENCH LOVE THEIR HERITAGE?

PhB: I doubt a lack of interest in our country
The public stands on line for hours to get into the monuments during the “Journées du Patrimoine” You know the success of television programs such as « Racines et des Ailes » « Secrets d’ Histoire » and also « Le Monument préféré des Français »… I think that there is a real attachment, but this has to be cultivated. Artistic, historic and civic culture isn’t inborn. This connection has to be kept up. If there are still categories which are not concerned, you have to reach them. We must try to make everyone understand what heritage can do for them. For this, we must not rest on our laurels.

CMN_Azay le Rideau

Azay-le-Rideau castle

 

CMN_le Panthéon

Panthéon

 

le Monsatère de Brou

CDV: MANY VISITORS, HAPPY TO DISCOVER THE PANTHÉON, LEFT MESSAGES DURING THE RECENT INSTALLATION OF JR

PhB: The Panthéon is a special, severe monument, closed to the public, for ages, not intellectually accessible and very cold during the winter. Precisely at a time when “how to live together” is disappearing, this monument has a lot to teach us. Victor Hugo, Schoelcher, Marie Curie, and all those who rest there, can forth certain ideals, make us think, give us a perspective on the present situation. Today we criticize our system, our society, our institutions, even our freedom. Do we think that people like Jean Moulin, Pierre Brossolette or Jean Zay who gave their life to defend these values, died for naught? The Panthéon should not be only a necropolis but also a source of life.

CDV: YOU ARE A FOUNDING MEMBER OF THE JURY OF THE RICHARD MORRIS HUNT PRIZE AND THEREFORE AN ACTIVE SPECTATOR OF THIS 26 YEARS FRANCO-AMERICAIN EXCHANGE! DO YOU SEE WHAT CAN STILL BE DEVELOPED THANKS TO THE RMH PRIZE?

PhB. Compared to the United Sates, Ftrance is truly late in awakening to what architecture and architects can do for our society. This is a paradoxes because it is willingly said that architecture is a French art. Throughout the history of French art, architecture has been a major central art and the great periods of heritage have been periods of master builders. The French have a certain distrust in relation to architecture whereas it seems to me that Americans are much more open to it. What is extremely interesting in these exchanges is the creation of a « community » of thinkers determined to integrate heritage architecture into the problematics of today architecture.The network gets bigger, maintains regular contacts, and exchange points of view, and above all makes decisions to reaffirm the place of architecture in our society. An enrichment. I have a great admiration for the architects accomplishments. Potentially they have the power of changing life.

The city of tomorrow must be built on the city of today … with all that it encompasses. When one describes the city of today, its walls and buildings but also the style of living, transportation, social behavior. What should be change, and how? All that brings French and American architects closer on these big issues, in an accordance to the principles of this Prize, are small pebbles that are spreading. And I think that we have to follow attentively this “spreading” because it could be the catalyst for many changes in the world. I don’t know if the times of grand machines, of great institutions haven’t disappeared for the moment, if the real levers of transformation are not in fact in these international contacts -not necessarily very formal – in this solidarity created among men and women of all countries …It is another structure of international life, a very strong catalyst for change. It’s for this reason that I am very happy to be a part in this Jury.

CDV: A LITTLE BONUS QUESTION: IS THE CMN AN OLD MAN FULL OF EXPERIENCE OR A YOUNG MAN WITH A STRONG FUTURE?

PhB: In 1990 the CMN was born under the name of the Caisse des Monuments Historiques. A brilliant intuition. This idea of the “Caisse”, of a peraquation realignment, the system of mutualisation which characterizes it, is fundamental to our economic system, is an brilliant idea, which today still allows to bring back to life, or to maintain in life monuments which alone would be swallowed up. It is a very strong idea, if everyone understands and accompanies the movement, to make it prosper.
The CMN has a long road ahead, a brilliant future and a lot to do ……

LAST NEWS:

During the very popular television show of Stéphane Bern, the French chose their favorite monument ; « Monument Préféré des Français », le Monastère Royal de Brou Under the auspices of the CMN Bourg-en-Bresse dans l’Ain. Masterpiece of Flemish flamboyant Gothic art. XVI c., built at great expense by Margaret of Austria, Duchesse de Savoie, wife of Philibert le Beau.

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