DÉCOUVREZ LES 14 MUSÉES DE LA VILLE DE PARIS
Victor Hugo in objects
So famous was Victor Hugo that an unprecedented number of objects of all kinds were made in his image from the 1870s to the 1890s. But this glory was also created in the privacy of the home, with souvenirs or relics related to the poet's life and his family, especially Léopoldine. These were kept in the museum from the beginning, making a “private museum” alongside the “people’s museum”. When the museum was opened, two rooms portrayed a “private” and a “people’s” Hugo. The instigators of this way of presenting things, Paul Meurice and Paul Beuve, wanted to “build a temple” to the glory of Victor Hugo. From one room to the other, a tour was created to explain the man and his legend.
The private museum contained objects illustrating the social and professional life of the poet on the one hand, and relics on the other. They were all intended to retrace his life and tell his story.
Kept by Victor Hugo himself, then religiously collected by his family, was a jumble of his clothing as a member of the Académie and as a peer of France, sashes worn as a Member of Parliament and as a Senator, a piece of bread from the siege of Paris, the inkwell he used to write The Legend of the Ages and the quills used for Les Miserables... They were accompanied by objects of remembrance or honour: decorations, medals, charms, gifts or laurel wreaths.
There were also relics - locks of hair, shirts and shoes of Jeanne, a dog collar and a substantial collection of objects related to Léopoldine, who died tragically in 1843. There were her bridal wreath and gown, the dress she was wearing when she drowned... These objects showed the sort of family worship dedicated to her, with a kind of altar - a corner cupboard in the bedroom of Adèle Hugo - in Hauteville House in Guernsey.
The public Hugo succeeded the private Hugo in this remarkable “people’s museum”. It was on his return home on the evening of the poet’s funeral, on 1 June 1885, that Paul Beuve bought a terracotta clay dish bearing the portrait of Victor Hugo. From that moment onwards this modest employee would spend his time searching flea markets and other markets in a quest for plates, inkwells, photos, maps, almanacs, advertisements, busts, masks, pipe bowls, snuff boxes, medals, charms, song books and ink bottles... all bearing the poet’s effigy. Started in 1885, the collection contained 4,000 items in 1895 and 8,000 in 1902. At that point it was agreed with Paul Meurice that part of the collection would join the one at the future Victor Hugo museum. Paul Beuve was the first librarian there.
There were ordinary objects as well as industrial and mass-produced items which reflected the greed of traders seeking publicity. They are worth more in what they tell us both about the time and the popularity of Hugo in the years 1870s - 1902 than they are aesthetically. It is their sheer number that demonstrates the incredible impact of the work of Hugo and the place, both symbolic and actual, that the poet occupied in the soul of the French nation: these objects, based on two or three portraits by Nadar, Pierre Petit and Carjat, depict a consensual Hugo, a Hugo father-figure, a universal genius and moral conscience. This was evidence, if not in terms of relevance then at least in terms of effectiveness, of Victor Hugo’s image as a benevolent genius, one which is still with us today, white beard included.