Museum inspiration and collaboration across the Channel

The attention for foreign museums was not a novelty of the 1908 Committee. During the period considered by this exhibition, museums in both France and England continued to look at each other and the comparison between the two countries and their institutions was recalled by museum professionals as well as the press.

For example, the Department of Science and Art looked at the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers as a model for scientific education. The Conservatoire had emerged from the French Revolution: founded in 1794, since 1798 it has occupied the old convent of Saint-Martin-des-Champs. It combines scientific instruction with the display of instruments and machines. Since the 1850s, it has also included the nearby church, which used to be a space to showcase ‘machines en mouvement’, and - until the 1880s - served also as a laboratory.

The Loan Collection of Scientific Apparatus was considered an 'experimental' Conservatoire also by the press, as the extracts below show. At the same time, the French were debating the institution of a museum of decorative art by looking at South Kensington's example.

‘...les dons proviennent en grande partie de l’étranger, ils sont une preuve manifest de la sympathie générale et de l’estime qu’inspire l’institution du conservatoire des arts et métiers de France. L’on remarquera que l’Exposition de 1862 a été moins féconde que celles de 1855 et 1867; cela tient a ce qu’elle avait lieu a Londres, tandis que les deux autres étaient ouvertes a Paris.’ (Morin, Report of the Conservatoire, 1869). 

‘The Conservatoire is a great educational institution, teaching the general public through its exhibitions, and a special public through its lectures. It seems to us to afford an example which our own country might imitate with advantage generally as to scope and also in many of its details.’ (Sir Henry Cole and Francis Fowke, in 12th Report of the Department of Art and Science, 1865, p.280).

Sir Henry Cole, first director of the South Kensington Museum

General Arthur Jules Morin, director of the Conservatoire between 1849 and 1879

‘On the 13th February 1875, the Lords of the Committee of Council of Education in the British Parliament proposed the future ‘enlargement’ of the South Kensington Museum ‘into a Museum somewhat of the nature of the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers in Paris; and other similar institutions on the continent’’

(Catalogue of the Loan Collections of Scientific Apparatus, 1876). 

‘This was a definite step, probably the first, taken by the Government in recognition of the wish of many men of science that we should have in London something analogous to the Conservatoire of Paris.’ 


'It was an institution of a similar character that many of our leading men of science hoped to see established in London. Years rolled on, one after another, and difficulties that could not be overcome presented themselves and prevented the proposition from becoming a reality. This season we have practically had an experimental Conservatoire, and there seems a fair prospect that the experiment will lead to a permanent institution.’ 

(The Times, 1st September 1876).

‘a gigantic emporium for trade puffery, disguised under the euphemistic appellation of a “Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers”?’ (n.d. [1876]).