A cabinet of curiosity for the people

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Joseph Denais museum: the cabinet of curiosity that survived the passage of time

Beaufort-en-Vallée, Sept. 2016 — Beaufort’s Joseph Denais museum, in western France’s Anjou, is a survivor. Built in 1905, it has the proud resplendence of a turn-of-the century post-industrial-revolution institution whose ambition was to enlighten the local community.

These days, with its collection of stuffed animals, Egyptian sarcophagi, Japanese porcelain and impressionist paintings, it has the charming incongruity of a life-size cabinet of curiosity that has miraculously made it into the 21st century.

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The project started off in 1875 when local journalist Denais decided to salvage furniture and artecraft from the church opposite, which was being restored. Denais had already started collecting objects from some of his travels. Twenty years later, he would gift his collection to the town on condition that it should be displayed in a museum.

At the time, the local branch of France’s central bank was also looking for new premises and, in an early example of public-private partnership, a joint development was agreed, with the bank occupying the ground floor of the building and the museum the first floor. The bank has long vacated the premises but the ‘RF’ medallions – for ‘République Française – are still visible on the façade.

By the late 1890s Denais was a regular contributor to Le Figaro and had been elected chairman of the Parisian journalists association, a post he would occupy until 1909. He was spending most of his time in Paris or travelling. But he seemed to have remained involved in the development and management of the collection, donating items he acquired on trips around Europe. These took him to Italy, Greece, and Turkey, as well as Switzerland, Denmark and as far north as Lapland.

Behind glass: display cabinets show suffer birds, shells, fish, or insects
Behind glass: display cabinets show stuffed birds, shells, fish, and insects

For more exotic items, Denais relied on his personal network. Apparently a prominent figure in Parisian circles, he was able to supplement the museum’s collection by arranging open-ended loans from national museums such as Cluny, Guimet and the Sèvres porcelain museum. Loire valley artists, painters especially, also donated some of their work, while local folks and dignitaries gave a variety of everyday and historical objects.

When the building was completed, the museum was one of several around Europe bringing knowledge from faraway worlds and cultures to those who couldn’t travel. This is what knowledge sharing was like before the internet came along.

A century later, the museum is a fascinating insight into how previous generations saw the world. The warden tells me there is only one other museum like this left in France, the musée Saint Loup, in Troyes. I tell her it reminds me of the Horniman – on a smaller scale and without the stuffed walrus – and of the fabulous and equally eclectic collection at Schloss Ambras, outside Innsbruck. She hasn’t heard of either.

After the bank’s departure, the museum expanded on to the ground floor and continued to flourish in the original Denais spirit. The local city council, which bought it in 2001, has teamed up with nearby towns Baugé and Parçay to create a small regional museum network. Without this support, the museum would most certainly have fallen victim to centralisation and public funding cuts, its collection broken up and redistributed to bigger museums around the country.

With a population of about 6,000, Beaufort-en-Vallée isn’t tiny but it’s by no means a large place. There are bigger, much better-known places nearby which could more readily sustain a museum of this kind. That Denais’s museum should still be there is something of a miracle and a tribute to the local community. But it cannot stand still and the trustees must be asking themselves how they can keep it relevant for current and future generations.

As one would expect, it seems to be a favourite destination for local schools. One group was going out as we got there and another one going in when we left. It also seems to attract Loire valley visitors. We were there the last week of September, right at the end of the main tourist season. On our way out, we walked past a cheerful post-lunch party of about 20 Anglo-French classic car enthusiasts who were being taken around the museum. There was friendly reciprocal sneering in front of the statue of Du Guesclin, the 14th century Breton nobleman who fought numerous battles against English troops in the area during the hundred years’ war.

The ground floor is now used for temporary exhibitions showcasing contemporary artists. The current exhibition is Vincent Mauger’s ‘Géométrie des Pierres’, a series of mechanically extruded stones looking like hollow bricks washed by the tide. Some of the smaller ones are strewn around the exhibition space in a Beuys-like fashion, while a few monumental ones dangle like giant hornets nests on the façade.

The museum is regularly featured in the local papers but we had never been. We stopped, almost accidentally, on the way back from a visit to a nearby second-hand furniture shop. I expected an intriguing but perhaps underwhelming local version of John Soane’s museum. Instead, I found a real gem, which I hope the new local authority owners will be able to keep purposeful and sustainable.

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