Sociological observation of the Museum of Fine Arts in Reims

Made by Otilia Avram – Eléna Pougin

The Museum of Fine Arts in Reims ; or how museums are encountering difficulties to catch the attention of certain social groups

“Taste is the area per excellence of the denial of the social” – Bourdieu

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When we refer to the word “museum”, we discover that it comes directly from latin, adopted to describe a place supposed to be a “school of arts”. The first time it has been used was around the 17th century in English, to define libraries made for scholars. Right from the start, it was supposed to be a “building created to display objects relating to art.” The museum of Fine Arts in Reims doesn’t deviate from this definition as it is a place where people get the chance to see paintings, sculptures, stained glass, objects and other artistic items. Located in the city centre, next to the Opera of Reims, the cinema and the main streets of the city, the museum is among the most famous ones in the city. It has been founded in 1794, and was first fostering pieces from the French Revolution of 1789.

Originally, the museum was housed in the city hall but has been moved in 1908 to the former Saint-Denis Abbey since the collection had been enlarged by a consequent number of new works of art. Most of them have been received as donations or gifts and it is now a place where you can find loads of masterpieces made in Europe from the 16th to the 20th century. The pieces are organized in a chronological order and divided according to precise themes. We organized three visits, the first and second one being three hours long, and the last one lasting 2 hours. When we conducted our observation, the museum was undergoing some renovations which made available only the left side to visitors and reduced its size almost by half. This was indeed an issue of accessibility and has been quite disappointing for both of us. The most admired exhibition was the one centred around the artistic movement called “Renaissance”. Moreover, the paintings that captured the attention of the public were belonging to Phillips de Champagne, Jacob van Loo and Marc Chagall.

Entrance of the Museum of Fine Arts, Reims

Despite its strategic location and the effort implemented by the museum that we will later focus on, the museum was nevertheless encountering difficulties to catch the attention of its visitors, no matter how interesting the pieces were. As a museum should fulfil an important role in the city, since it is supposed to “educate citizens and to enlight them”, we choose the Museum of Fine Arts in Reims while we were aiming to observe whether the museum was fulfilling its social functions, or not. Thus, we decided to ask ourselves during our observation, to what extent are the visitors of the Museum of Fine Arts in Reims redefining its particular role in society ?

I. Expectations and preparation

Both fond of art, choosing the museum was also a way for us to analyze one of the environments we often frequent, sometimes without truly paying attention to the people visiting at the same time as we do. However, we did not thought at first that this would make it at some point difficult to distanciate ourselves from the study and to use the Weberian axiological neutrality. That is the reason why we often needed one another to put ourselves away from a judgemental perspective only based on our expectations.

On the other hand, it also made the observation quite interesting as we were attached to the topic of the analysis. To avoid having biased assumptions, we tried to do our best to prepare our study beforehand, by writing together every single judgement we had while thinking of the field. We adjusted them after visiting the museum for the first time, as seeing the museum under renovations and being tatty could also have influenced us in our research. Hence we were expecting to explore the strategies employed by the museum to attract visitors and to highlight its masterpieces.

Moreover, after having seen the museum, we also wanted to point out that museums in smaller cities were suffering from lack of funds to protect their works of art. We also considered that we wanted to show how people were not that interested in going to museums and in learning about cultural movements, but more often tended to visit them because of stereotypes. To some extent, we thought museums were proofs of taste and cultural knowledge, which is why people would go only to show that they were well-educated and classy. Our impression was shaped by the work of Pierre Bourdieu centred around social classes. Highly relevant is the book entitled Distinction: a social critique of the judgement of taste, in which Bourdieu defines the concept of “habitus” as “a set of dispositions acquired by the individual during his socialization, the ways of thinking, perceiving, behaving, moving, talking, judging (morally, esthetically) that the individual accumulates during his social experiences create a framework that models his social practices”. Therefore, we acknowledged that a visit to the museum is an activity attributed usually to the middle and upper classes, since, according to Bourdieu and his theory of capital, they own more in terms of social and economic capital, but most importantly, in terms of cultural capital.

However, at the same time we also realized that we were thinking unconsciously that some social classes were not feeling as they belonged in museums and that we would often see people from the same social group even though the museum of Fine Arts in Reims is free for students. Last but not least, after a first visit, we guessed that people were lacking interest in the museum and were usually disappointed in its exhibitions. In the light of those assumptions, we precisely had to focus on those themes in order to either validate or refute them. That is exactly what we tried to do during this observation by using those first empirical thoughts in order to find some areas we had to analyze.  As we had seen each other twice before going to our first session on the field, we were quite prepared and knew what we wanted to analyze and pay attention to while taking notes for the first time. Hence, we decided to come with our everyday clothes in order to mix with other people as we wanted not to stand out from the crowd and intended to be seen as random visitors.

II. Questions and data analysis

We also knew that we had to ask some questions in order to make our study more relevant since we chose to include data into our observation. Thus, during the first session, we asked employees about some numbers (visitors, most frequented hours, most frequented days, how they are solicited or not by the visitors…). During the second one, we asked people wandering in the different rooms, and focused especially on those that seemed not to pay attention at all and the ones appearing as the most interested. We talked with them about the paintings and sculptures that they liked and about their motivations to visit the museum. Moreover, we spoke with them about their artistic preferences and their hobbies in their everyday-lives and if those were related to art or not.

Lastly, we used our third session only to observe displaying attitudes and behaviours in order to check if it made a difference or not, since us asking questions could have alerted the visitors that we were analyzing the museum, hence distorted their reactions. Moreover we also planned that we were going to conduct one session during school days and two others on the weekends. This particular decision lies on the fact that we realized there might be more children from Monday to Friday, since schools often decide to bring children out to museums. Otherwise, we intended to do the two other sessions on the weekends since it is the only time of the week where most people can afford to go on cultural activities and thus, we would have more things to observe. However, the museum remained each time quite empty compared to its size. Each time, we asked and counted the population present on the museum.

          Men       Women      Groups  Couples Families       Alone

16/03761128231227
23/03881241131845
28/0314281103

Indeed, the museum has approximately 40 visitors per day and around 200 visitors during the weekends. In terms of gender, we have noticed that there were significantly more women than men (around 5 women for one men). The overwhelming majority is represented by people over the age of 35. On particular occasions, one could notice far more children than students and adults in their early 20s. Taking race into account, the visitors tended to be overwhelmingly Asians and Whites, Black people being rather underrepresented. We also measured the time people spent admiring the pieces exposed and also the time they spent in each room. We counted the time spent per piece according to three criterias : age, gender and race. The time spent in each room is an average.

Firstly, according to age, older people spent approximately 20 seconds per artwork and were often looking at each work of art, young adults approximately 10 seconds, skipping many pieces, and for children, it truly depended. They could stay for long minutes in front of a painting and several seconds in front of a piece of furniture for example. In terms of race, it was clearly noticeable that Asian people paid considerably more attention to the paintings than White and Black people. Lastly, regarding gender, in general, women used to spend more time per piece than men. A particularity that caught our attention was the fact that couples or people in the company of friends and family tended to break the previously described rules and were spending on average more time focusing on a painting than people who were alone.They also used to discuss the pieces with the person accompanying them.

Time spent in front of a painting (approximately)

Young malesOld malesYoung femalesOld Females
European1552515
African1052010
Asian20103020

Regarding the time spent in each of the three rooms, the average was the following : 10 minutes in the room downstairs which was an temporary exhibition about the Grand Est region and almost 20 minutes in the first room from the first floor and approximately 30 in the second one. This could mainly be explained by a difference in the lightnings and exposure of the pieces as the second room of the first floor was brighter and more luminous than others. An unpleasant surprise was that we noticed very few teenagers and people between 20 and 30 years old, even though we were expecting to see many coming for the hype and the “stylish” consequence going to a museum implies. This younger segment of the population seemed to lose interest in art and in cultural activities in general, an attitude that could result in undesired consequences, such as a less informed, less educated and less sensible future generation.

Our next point is concerning the staff. The staff of the museum was wearing a formal attire. The majority of the employees were welcoming and friendly, eager to answer questions. However, some were not so enthusiastic and seemed to enjoy their job less than some of their colleagues. Those may have been disappointed or annoyed by the very few people coming to discover the museum. However, they communicated fairly easily and frequently with each other, an indicator of a good relationship between them. If particular interest was shown in a piece, the staff was displaying a very positive attitude and was giving signs of availability to provide further details. We can conclude that the majority of the staff had a professional and appropriate attitude, as they were knowledgeable and approachable. Lastly, the museum had two employees per room, therefore we cannot speak of a lack of staff.

We could also make a few remarks regarding the relationship between the visitors. Most of them were coming in groups, either of children coming from school, families or groups of friends. These groups do not or very rarely interact with each other or mix. People stayed within their own groups and if they interacted with others, they usually chose to interact with the staff rather than with other visitors.

III. Predominant lack of interest

The dominant behaviours could be categorized as illustrating, paradoxically, an obvious lack of interest in art. The majority of the visitors spent little time in front of the artworks and prefered to seat in a special area downstairs, next to the vending machines, discussing about topics unrelated to art, such as school, economy, and even grocery-shopping.

Brochures were given to every visitor at the reception, encompassing some basic informations regarding the accessible part of the museum and the location of the different exhibitions. The visitors ignored almost completely those brochures, some of them throwing them in the trash as soon as leaving the reception. The rest held them until the visit ended, without opening them or showing an interest in reading them. Furthermore, the inscriptions on the walls, devoted to explain the artworks and the artistic movements, were mostly unnoticed by the people. There were few to no questions asked to the staff, even though they were there not only to surveil the exposition, but also to explain and give details to visitors. However, we surprisingly catched some people more willing to speak and to look at the architecture of the museum, more than the pieces it was containing. In particular, there is a strange window at the end of the third room available, which seemed to have sparkle more interest to visitors than most of the works of art. We saw many talking about it and asking their peers what they thought about it.

Lastly, a particular common behaviour of the visitors surprised us. It was not a proper behaviour, given the place. Far more people than we expected were talking loudly with each other, were on the phone or spending the majority of their time texting and checking social media, paying little attention to their surroundings. Overall, one can deem their behaviour as being unfit for the occasion, even rude.

For instance, we acknowledged a young girl, probably around 16 years old in the first room of the first floor. She seemed to have Maghrebi origins. We noticed her because she was sitting on a bench, and was quite noisy. She stood there probably for 7 or 8 minutes, watching videos on Snapchat and answering to friends by sending them videos. She was waiting for what seemed to be her mother and her brother, that joined her afterwards. It was on a Saturday afternoon and the young teenager-girl seemed to have better things to do than visiting the museum as she asked her mom : “Have you almost finished ?”, showing her strong impatience to leave the place. As her mother explained that there were still one room left, the girl showed exasperation and sighed, which means she was there only to please her relatives and not to see art, which could explain her reaction. Moreover, this behaviour is a proof of the above-mentioned lack of interest.

A teenager taking her friend in picture in front of the sculpture at the entrance of the museum

However, we found the uninterested behaviour curious and therefore decided to ask some questions regarding the motivations of these people. A 24 years old student agreed to answer our short questionnaire. He lives in Paris and went to Reims for the weekend to visit the city. He was wearing casual clothes and had a friendly and relaxed attitude, speaking with ease and a sort of detachment. He told us that he wanted to see the museum because he considers it a “must” on the list of activities a tourist should do. He believed that it is impossible to visit a new place without including certain activities such as going to museums, galleries, operas, theatres etc. Furthermore, he admitted he was not truly interested in the exhibitions offered by the museum, but nonetheless decided to visit it because it was in his proximity and he felt somehow obliged to do it.

A young couple also accepted to answer to our questions. They were dressed in a stylish manner with expansive clothings (Gucci and Tommy Hilfiger) but still very casual. They spoke loudly during the entire visit, stopping only to take pictures of themselves in front of the artworks. Both of them were locals and were going to a college nearby. They told us that they wanted beautiful pictures for the social media and that going to a museum showed they have intellectual occupations, which is a way to differentiate them from the rest of their peers.

This particular behavior reminded us of the concept of “tend and pretend”, developed by Pierre Bourdieu in his work Distinction: a social critique of the judgement of taste. The concept refers to the middle class, which tends to be in an ascendant social trajectory while at the same time, by engaging in specific activities, such as visiting museums, going to theatres and reading certain books, pretends to belong or imitates the habits of the upper social class.

Typical outfits – Women holding the brochures of the museum

Moving forward, we observed the attitudes as well as the outfits of the visitors. Firstly, it is important to point out that as many locals as tourists go to the museum. Secondly, the majority of the people were wearing comfortable everyday clothes and had relaxed, leger attitudes. The younger visitors brought their backpacks and wore sneakers. The older people tended to be more on the elegant side, at least it was obvious that they were more put together and that they made an effort to dress well for their visit.

IV. Children and elders

Throughout our observation, we distinguished two types of attitudes among the individuals interested in art. The first attitude is the one of the children or youth and it can be characterized as curious and enthusiastic. The second is the attitude of older individuals, which can be characterized as rather critical and sometimes judgemental. Two relevant scenes were observed and we will reproduce them to facilitate the understanding of the two behaviours.

On a Saturday, around 3pm, two relatively old ladies, of approximately 60 years old and who seemed to be good friends, admired the paintings together and made a series of remarks regarding them. The first lady, shorter than her friend and wearing rather elegant white clothes and a light pink hat, loved a painting depicting the French countryside. She was talking passionately about the brightness of the colours and the realistic representation of a small French village. The lady gesticulated as she spoke, looking at the painting and turning every ten seconds to face her friend, making sure she still has her attention. She declared that the painting reminded her of her childhood years and she quickly became overwhelmed by her emotions.

A few seconds later, she claimed that the painting was in fact a veritable piece of art, since it succeeded in triggering old memories and sparked her excitement and enthusiasm. Her friend seemed rather sceptical. A tad bit taller and with an expression of disappointment on her face, the second lady disregarded the painting almost immediately. According to her, it was a common image, a very simple and easy to make piece, far from being thought-provoking and a product of hard work. “I believe that art must be more complex, more difficult to realize, with a profound meaning. If anyone can do it, what is the purpose of praising it, of attributing it an incommensurable value?” she responded in French.

Two old women talking about a landscape of Champagne-Ardenne

On a Thursday afternoon, a group of what appeared to be middle-school children entered the first room on the top floor, famous among the visitors for its beautiful and four-centuries-old French paintings. They were rather noisy at the beginning, talking with each other, their faces full of enthusiasm and sheer joy. They split in smaller groups and approached each painting, discussed it and asked a lot of questions to their teacher, a woman of around 30 years old, with a kind smile, who answered to each of them and demanded more informations to the staff. The teacher instructed them not to leave the room without her and to patiently wait until all of them get the chance to see the pieces and ask questions.

An interesting aspect was the fact that all the boys wore white or more formal shirts and the girls wore skirts or rather elegant pants. They seemed to be dressed for a special occasion and it was interesting to see that a visit to the local museum is that occasion, the factor that determined them to put an effort when choosing their outfits for the day. Another aspect was their pure enthusiasm, they were so eager to discover everything about the pieces that caught their attention: from questions about the materials used, to ones about the artist and his/her personal life, the children asked them all.

V. Influence of the museum on behaviors

Even though people’s behaviors depends mostly on their incentives to visit a museum, we remarked that they were also rather influenced by the environment it depicts. If some people at the entrance seemed to be rather happy to enter the museum, they often appeared bored at the end of their visit. The museum is indeed not really attractive and does not succeed in interesting people. First of all, its social media accounts do not exceed 350 likes, which is incredibly small when it is supposed to represent the artistic life of a city of 185 000 inhabitants.

First room available at the first floor

Then, the renovations which are cutting the half of the museum have started almost two years ago, which in term rendered the museum less and less visited. Moreover, the two first rooms are poorly-lightened and are not flattering for the works of art as they highlight some flows. There isn’t any single paintings protected by a glass protection or a barrier in order to protect the piece from either being damaged or deteriorated by air and pollution, which probably reduced the quality of the exhibitions presented. In addition, it is not explicitly announced that it is one of the most famous museum in Reims since it has only a small display in front of the building to introduce it to tourists.

The only ad confirming that we are indeed at the Museum of Fine Arts

Needless to say that, as the employees were not really spontaneous, that there isn’t any communication in the city that promotes the museum and that most of the paintings are not well known, people often do not see the necessity of visiting the museum, their motivation being reduced only to proving that they are cultivated. However, the site remains quite interesting for sociologists as it shows how people enter a place that they know nothing about before starting the visit and how they react when confronted to art. The observation and its results would have been surely quite different if we had chosen any renown museum such as the Louvre. Here, it was particularly striking since social groups from small cities, that would not usually have many cultural incentives and activities were still going, even if some not really interested. This way, the place gathered many different people, with incredibly antagonistic behaviors. Even if we could try to create some typology in which older people would be more critical and younger ones more curious, there is no really singular attitude that could convene to each visitor, which could probably be more the case in a bigger museum.

As a conclusion, it is important to keep in mind that the particular behaviours we observed in the Museum of Fine Arts of Reims are both related to the museum’s maintenance and the stereotypes associated to visiting one. Indeed, many studies are proving that loads of people coming from the suburbs are not interested in going to museums because they are convinced they are “out of place”. This feeling is somehow the same as the one described by Passeron and Bourdieu when they studied the behaviors of French students, which they called “elimination”. For the moment, either people feel “at home” or “out of place” in a museum which explains why there are few people visiting the one of Reims. As for their behaviors, since people in the city aren’t faced everyday with cultural interactions, they haven’t learned and integrated the social norms linked to them.

For us, as we are students from Sciences Po and often had the privilege to experience many cultural activities,  their reactions appeared as deviant since we know that we are expected to be quiet, interested and curious while visiting a museum. But this is not obvious for everyone, especially for children and teenagers, who are only discovering this “school of arts”. As we saw earlier, older people are being more critical and judgmental, thus, we could state that behaving in museums is something we learn as we grow up and discover the different cultural instances : it is the result of socialization.

In this museum of Reims, we only saw people that were coming from the middle class, as elites seemed not to consider this museum to be worthy of their time as it is in poor condition (we asked students of Sciences Po and of our triplette for example if they had already visited it or not : they almost all answered that they would rather visit one from the capital city). As for the lower classes, they are not aware that they could come as they wish since museums are free or almost for years now. This information haven’t reached them yet, and if some museums such as the Centre Pompidou in Paris is conducting actions to push them to go (ads, activities especially for them, extended opening hours…), the museum of Reims does not seem to try at the moment, maybe because of the financial difficulties implied by the renovations.

To put in a nutshell, our observation revealed three major points. Firstly, the Museum of Fine Arts in Reims is a place where people’s behaviors vary according to their motivations to visit it. Secondly, the overall impression given is that many people are not taking the museum seriously. Thirdly, it is to be understood that younger people are curious and ask to learn about art whereas older people tend to be more demanding when it comes to pieces of art. Thus, we could conclude by saying that the Museum of Fine Arts is a great depiction to understand the difficulties to which smaller museums are now faced in the 21st century, in an era where everything is available on the web and where art is centralized in the bigger cities of a country. How could museums such as this one overcome those obstacles then?

Bibliography

  • Bourdieu, Pierre and Jean-Claude Passeron. 1979 [1964]. The inheritors. French students and their relation to culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p.8
  • Alpe, Lambert, Beitone, Dollo, Parayre, 2007, Lexique de sociologie, Paris Dalloz, p.204
  • Bourdieu, Pierre, A Social Critique of The Judgement of Taste, 1984
  • Etymonline.com, “museum”
  • Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984 (1st French edition: 1979)
  • Problème des Musées, Paul Valéry

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