Charles Personnaz: at the school for curators

On 28 May 2020, by La Gazette Drouot

On May 16, the Institut National du Patrimoine celebrated its 30th anniversary. We talk to its director, Charles Personnaz, about its past record and the future of this unique institution. 

Charles Personnaz

How is the acute Covid-19 crisis affecting teaching at the INP?
Everything came to a sudden halt with the repatriation of all the student curators doing internships abroad, and the cancellation or postponement of nearly all the continuous learning field schools. But remote classes were set up very quickly. This experience has enabled us to make real progress in distance learning. We are thinking about making it a permanent feature – developing international modules for continuous training, for instance.

How is your teaching developing?
In particular, we are adding some practical classes, because curators need to be well rounded with solid competencies: firstly their scientific expertise, then their skills in team management and communicating information to the public, and lastly their relationship with the outside world. My predecessor added further to training on the technical and administrative aspects. Now we are working on an approach to closely related skills: understanding the workings of invitations to tender, communication, the legal side, and so on. 

Laurent Caputo on his thesis defended in 2020.
Laurent Caputo on his thesis defended in 2020.

So you are nurturing a type of curator who is not just an art historian but also a real manager at the meeting point of several fields, including the art market?
Yes: curators will never be experts in public tendering, sponsorship or public auctions, but they need to have working knowledge in these areas. And to do this, they need to meet most of the players during their training. In the autumn of 2019, we introduced a new joint continuous training course with the École de Chaillot [which trains Architectes des Bâtiments de France and Architectes de Monuments Historiques – Ed.]. This year, we are starting up a plundering-focused programme with the ENSSIB (French National Library and Information Science School). Next year, we are beginning practical workshops with Drouot, where participants will meet auctioneers and dealers and learn what happens with auctions and pre-emptions. Museums and the art market work hand in hand, so they need to be familiar with each other to do away with the somewhat artificial barriers between the two fields.

You are making the restoration department your hobbyhorse…
Attitudes towards this skill are beginning to change. While restorers still don't play a large role in some museums, many are beginning to realise how useful they are within institutions for their knowledge of the collections and the basic action needed in terms of preventive conservation. We need to work on developing outlets for them. This training costs the State a great deal; it'd be absurd for students to leave this activity or the public sector in ten years' time! Few countries are able to pay for the training of restorers at that level. 

Field school in Lebanon
Field school in Lebanon

French museums are now exporting themselves abroad: what's the situation with the INP?
As an operator for the Ministry of Culture and the Quai d’Orsay, we are developing a robust international strategy that also grows our own resources. Very few countries train curators, and particularly restorers, to such a high degree, yet museums are opening everywhere. So there's high demand in terms of training museum professionals. We don't want to spread ourselves too thin, so we work in three priority zones. China has been a partner for the last fifteen years, and in the autumn we started a field school on a Ming temple in Xi’an (Shaanxi). French students have been able to work with their Chinese colleagues on this architectural gem: a first. And this paves the way for other shared ventures, including a possible basic training course shared with the North-West University in Xi’an. In the Middle East, we want to set up a basic training programme for local restorers, and maybe a Masters in Museology. The idea of a centre in Lebanon that would reach out to the entire region is currently being developed. Lastly, as part of the relaunch of a cooperative programme with West Africa, we are also looking to get a foothold there for the long-term. In that region, the University of Dakar could play a role in heritage training, which remains underdeveloped in Africa.

Opening of the Gongshutang Temple field school
Opening of the Gongshutang Temple field school

Through this development on many fronts, is the INP seeking to become a global platform for heritage skills?
Absolutely: that's why we want to boost our scientific and cultural programme. Our aim is to be a thinktank. We need to get people focused on heritage in terms of its many facets and current situation. We lack means, so we are seeking partners like the ICOM (International Committee of Museums) to get our concerns regarding heritage heard. The health crisis is highly revealing at this level, and shows how the heritage skills sector needs to be organised and consolidated in France. We are thinking about staging an event centred around this subject next year. We need to demonstrate that heritage skills are a sector in itself, not just a luxurious distraction.

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