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Musée des Tissus, Lyon – please help!

Just when I was starting to feel all seasonally-appropriately fuzzy and soft and warm inside, a Bad News (TM) email dropped into my inbox… the Musée des Tissus in Lyon is in danger of being closed.

This museum holds an immense collection of historical textiles from all over the world and is one of the most important, if not the most important textile museum that we have. (You can search a part of their collection online here. It’s all in French, unfortunately, but you could try “tricot” for knitting (which includes a Coptic sock) or “laine” for wool or “soie” for silk or “broderie” for embroidery. Just to get an impression of what treasures they hold.)

You’d think that an important, large, critically-acclaimed museum would be safe from closure, right? However, things look truly dire. There’s a long article (in French) here, and I’ll try to give you the gist of it in English, but make sure to have a look at the article itself for the pictures. It’s very long though, so the TL;DR: the Chamber of Commerce of Lyon, who ran the museum up to now, is undergoing budget cuts and restructures that prevent it from holding on to the museum. The city, the Louvre and the French state department of culture all want nothing to do with the museum, using a number of paltry excuses.

There’s a petition on to save the museum, started on Monday, and it’s already collected a lot of signatures. Please help – sign the petition and spread the word wherever you can, however you can. This museum is huge for historical textiles, and its closure would be a real catastrophe.

— (This is not a complete translation, just a rough one, shortened in places. Should you find a mistake, please let me know – my French has become very rusty and creaky over the years.)

The danger of closure of the museums des Tissus and the sister museum for decoreative arts in Lyon is not a new thing; it’s been in the air for more than a year now. A bit of background: the two museums (which are in effect one museum only) are not very well known to the public, but it’s essential to know a little about their history to understand how the current situation came about.

The museum goes back to the 19th century; it was established to show off the superiority of the silks produced in Lyon (which had not been appreciated enough at the first World Exhibition), so it was basically a marketing scheme. The museum opened its doors in 1864. The Chamber of Commerce ran an ambitious acquirement policy, with well-known experts as evaluators, and it resulted in several donations. The Chamber of Commerce funded the acquisitions. Since 1843, a mission was abroad in China to buy outstanding silks; as the commission consisted of real experts, they brought only actual masterpieces back to France.

The ambitious programme of acquisition of decorative arts objects was tuned back to favour textile acquisitions in the 1870s. In 1891, the museum became le musée historique des Tissus, and the decorative arts collections were placed in other museums or put into the archives. In 1925, the Musée des Arts décoratifs part of the museum was reinstated at the hôtel de Lacroix-Laval, right next to the hôtel de Villeroy where the Musée des Tissus is located.

Though the silks from Lyon are at the basis of the collection, the museum holds documentation of 4500 years of textile history, from Antiquity to today, and from all the continents – the only weak point being Black Africa. There are about 2.5 millions of pieces (though they are counting each textile sampler catalogue as one item only, even if they hold hundreds more fabrics each). It is the most important textile collection of the world, only rivalled by those from the Metropolitan Museum, the V&A and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Experts from museums and textile research institutions from all over the world are all in agreement that the collections in Lyon are incredible and incredibly important. For instance, Lesley Miller from the V&A in London says «The Musee des Tissus is one of the most important collections worldwide in terms of its size and range, geographical and chronological coverage. It is also unique in the scope of its holdings of products of the local silk industry, which was – and still is – international in its impact. It contributes to international scholarship through its reserve collections, library, permanent displays and temporary exhibitions.»

Apart from textiles, the museum holds fabric designs in the tens of thousands range. In 1999, the museum was offered the archives of the house Bianchini Ferrier, working for ten years with Raoul Dufy, so it has hundreds of designs made by that artist. The museum holds no less than 200 designs by Antoine Berjon, the world’s biggest collection of velvets Grégoire, … The Decorative Arts part also has about ten thousand designs of old masters, of which only a small part has been studied to this day. There are drawings from Rosso Fiorentino, Philippe de Champaigne, Inrges and many more. There are artworks from wood, ceramics, emaile, ivory, glass, … and all this are only a few examples of the riches this museum holds.

So why does the Chamber of Commerce, so proud of their history, now happy to think about closing the museum today? It looks like the state is to blame. It has sucked the Chamber dry in two ways: between 2015 and 2017, they are going to lose about 40% of their income from taxes. And in 2015, the state has taken wway a lot of money from their short-term assets. In Lyon, that was a cheque of about 15 millions of Euros, cutting their capital down a lot and making functioning difficult. In January 2015, the staff has been cut down by 15%, which did not affect the museum yet. In 2016, a new plan is foreseen, and it can be understood very well why the Chamber of Commerce, when its core is heavily affected by the cuttings, cannot go on to protect the museum. In addition, there are restructurings going on in the CoC, as there are new regions being established, and Lyon is going to fusion with Roanne and Saint-Etienne on January 1, 2016. And if the Chamber of Lyon is very attached to its museum, there’s no guarantee that the two other areas will appreciate the history and support the museum. The CoC Lyon wants to preserve the museum very much, and they are willing to transfer the custodianship of the museum, including the two houses where it is in, to prevent it from being closed. The only question is – to whom?

The city is not interested, and the mayor, Gérard Collomb, seems to not realise the importance of the topic. It does not look like the city is working on finding a solution, and the meetings that were held until now have not procured any results. It is true that it’s not easy for the city of Lyon, as they are also having the Musée des Confluences and the Musée Gallo-Romain as a handicap, putting 15 millions into the budget of the Musée des Confluences. However, the numbers of the Musee des Tissus are infinitely more modest.

Contrary to what a report done on demand of the Inspection Generale des Affaires Cultures might make one think, the museums (Tissus & Arts) are not spending much money especially compared to their level of activity, and they are largely self-financed. Their financial status is rather healthy. The current budget (which is not enough, but allows the museums to survive) is about 2.7 millions of Euros. The museums make about 800 000 to 1 million euros per year themselves. That means they generate almost half of their budget themselves, which is very remarkable.

The two museums have an extraordinary level of activity. Since the arrival of Maximilien Durend as director five years ago, not less than 24 exhibitions have been organised. There is an acquisition policy, there have been important donations made, there are conferences and concerts. An example of the activity is the current exhibition le Génie de la Fabrique. In spite of a budget in 2015 of about zero for exhibitions, this is certainly one of the most beautiful and fascinating exhibitions that are currently available. It retraces the history of silk in Lyon, relying entirely on the collections of the museum. It was not possible to edit and print a paper catalogue, so there is a freely available online catalogue. A visit to this exhibition is recommendet to understand the richness of items in the museum. All the specialists from France and abroad that we interviewed have underlined the great competence of Maximilien Durand and his team. In short, we stand before a museum with collections of international importance, with a small but highly competent and motivated team. And it is not only a museum: since its creation in 1954, the CIETA (Centre International d’Étude des Textiles Anciens) is based at the museum in Lyon. The CIETA is an organisation that is working to regroup textile museums, bringing them together and establishing common terminologies and strategies to catalogue and research historical textiles. They are also teaching and training specialists, and evaluate the current research being done. This makes the museum at Lyon to a centre of studies, probably the most important one in Europe, that all the world knows and where all Europe goes.

To save the museum, the director Maximilien Durand has had a very genius idea, that the CoC does approve of. While several of the world’s greatest museums have important textile collections (like the ones mentioned above), those of the Louvre are basically non-existant. The Louvre does stress its universal character, and thus the idea is to let the Louvre annex the two museums, with the Musee des Tissus forming a new department and its sister house joining a remarkable collection to the Louvre, complementing the pieces already in their possession. A first meeting looked like the Louvre was interested, but they pulled back quickly. The benefits for the Louvre, Lyon and the museum are very evident, however – the Louvre would gain a textiles collection, rendering it truly universal; Lyon would win prestige at having a satellite of the Louvre; the museum would be saved and get more international visibility. A win-win-situation. And that at a very low cost, with 1.5 million euros per year to survive, 2 millions for developing.

It seems like this is too intelligent a solution. But the Louvre does see this solution as a “dead end”. Why? Because only a part of the collection is coherent with that of the Louvre, and the rest (the majority) is more an “industrial art approach” that is not in sync with the Louvre’s vocation. There’s also the excuse that they would need to spend 1.7+ millions per year on the new parts, and the Louvre says they cannot afford this… while their yearly budget in 2015 was 199 millions of euros.

This disinterest is not only visible in the Louvre, but also in its custodian, the Direction generale des patrimoines. Their director, Marie-Christine Labourdette, is not willing to understand that the Chamber of Commerce cannot go on to hold the museum. She also insists that because of the origins of the museums as a marketing stint, they have ties to the industry and thus it’s an industrial art museum and not wihtin their scope, more or less. They propose to have a meeting with everyone to find a solution… but who is to take part in this? The city does not want to hear anything about it, the CoC is not able to hold the museum anymore and the region (being restructured) is not available. The situation is dire, time is pressing, but Labourdette seems to expect that all will turn out by itself into a solution eventually.

If the museum should close, the big question is what will happen? The staff will, of course, be dismissed, and the houses taken back by the CoC. And the collections? The decorative arts could go to the Arts museum in Lyon, where they will probably stay in the vaults and archives. The textile collections would have to be transferred to a museum or a collection where the massive amount of pieces can actually be accommodated, and that would only be possible at the Louvre. Transfer and housing would have to be financed half by the state due to law, and half by the owner (the CoC). A stint like this would cost several millions of euros – money that could be used to safeguard the collection in its present place, and keep the museum alive.

Or the museum could be turned into a national museum, which would be absolutely merited by the importance of its collections. There is no French national textile museum yet, so it would be a good addition; but the director Marie-Christine Labourdette don’t want to talk about this.

Thanks for reading this far! I’m afraid I’ve run out of steam, and I’ll skip the rest of this article. It’s more about the financial situation, about a financial report that seems more than a little dodgy, and how the staff is afraid and becoming demoralised, and that something needs to be done to save the museum.

Here’s the petition link again. Please help saving the museum by signing and spreading word about this issue!

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One Response to Musée des Tissus, Lyon – please help!

  1. Arlene Medder says:

    An ounce of prevention, maintaining the museum, is better than a pound of cure, trying to find a new home for the collection.

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