The French President's Museum
Mitterrand permits visitors a look at strange and wonderful gifts from heads of state
CHATEAU CHINON, FRANCE — IT'S unlikely that anyone would pay particular attention to this little town in a wild and colorful area in southern Burgundy, were it not for an 18th-century nunnery turned into a unique museum that dominates the ancient ramparts.It is called the Musee Septennat and here, since 1986, it has displayed the most spectacular of the thousands of gifts presented to President Francois Mitterrand by visiting statesmen, dignitaries, and ordinary citizens during his 10 years in office. Why Chateau Chinon and not Paris? First, Mr. Mitterrand was Mayor of Chateau Chinon from 1959 to 1981, before he climbed the political ladder to the presidency. So, locating the Mitterrand museum here represented something of a political as well as a cultural gesture. Secondly, Mitterrand has said that these gifts, ranging from glittering ceremonial swords to African ivory carvings and ancient Roman coins - belong not to him personally but to "the people." Mitterrand's predecessor, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, got into a lot of trouble when it was discovered that he had personally accepted a gift of diamonds from a Central African dictator. Right inside the museum entrance, the visitor is greeted by a handwritten message from the president. "It seems to me quite natural that the presents received by me as President of the Republic should be available to be seen by all." This conviction led him to work with the town of Chateau Chinon and the Department of the Nievre to acquire the rundown nunnery, and to build the museum. In addition to the museum, Mitterrand last year bestowed 12,000 books on the library of the Jean-Juares Cultural Center in Nevere. Some 1,000 of these volumes are from his personal library. Genevieve Monnier, art historian and curator of the graphics arts department at the Louvre, is on leave from her job and works for Mitterrand, making her headquarters at the L'Elysee Palace. She represents the president's interests in architecture, the arts, and museums. "President Mitterrand has a very personal interest both in the Septennat museum, and in the Nevere library," she said. Beautifully lit, and tastefully displayed, the glittering collection of gifts - there are some 2,000 of them - reflects cultural differences in national ceremonial tastes. The visitor is struck by the fact that some of the most ostentatious gifts came from third-world countries. An exquisitely fashioned miniature of a 19th-century sailing ship from the Seychelles sits next to huge ivory tusks. Beside them stands an imposing wooden carving of an elephant, encrusted with ivory hangings from India. (Presents of ivory are now frowned on by the president.) The range of gifts include: silver jewelry from Niger, a tomahawk-shaped gold and ivory saber from Indonesia, gold- and ruby-smothered ceremonial swords and scabbards from Syria, and a two-handled black-and-mauve 7th-century B.C. vase from Greece. Gabon offered a gold mask. The Saudis presented the president with a charming little gilded clock edged in blue stone. Mexico contributed an Inca plate, and the United States offered Mitterrand a gold eagle enclosed in a block of crystal. The Germans brought a rather somberly modernistic black-and-white chess set. There are Arabian saddles, a huge stuffed lion and a panther, a handsome brass coffer, and a variety of items from Mauritania, Senegal, Algeria, and Djibouti. In the museum's basement one finds, apart from some wonderful African art, an exquisite miniature of a San Francisco cable car presented to Mitterrand by former San Francisco Mayor Diane Feinstein in 1984. According to Ms. Monnier, reconstruction continues so that, by late this year, the museum's capacity will be doubled. The project's architect is Jean Jacques Fernier, who did the imaginative conversion of the basement. This fall Chateau Chinon adds another attraction. An elaborate costume museum will open in a building just down the hill from the Septennat. Annick Michelet is its curator and the exhibit will include 18th-, 19th-, and 20th-century costumes, some of which were displayed at the Napoleon exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Monnier describes the Septennat concept as "unique." In the US, gifts offered to the president are catalogued and dispersed "at the pleasure of the president," according to the White House press office. President Bush recently decided that his papers were to be lodged in a library at Texas A&M University at College Station, Texas, and in the future presidential gifts will likely be on view there as well. While Mitterrand has set the policy for gifts, he has made one or two exceptions. "He did keep a walking stick," admits Monnier, "and President and Mrs. Reagan brought him a quilt, which Mr. Mitterrand liked so much, he is still using it in his country home outside Paris."
The Septennat is open seven days a week, from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and during the summer to 9 p.m. on Fridays.