International Encyclopaedia
of the Histories of Anthropology

Mission du patrimoine ethnologique (1980-2020)

Coordinated by François Gasnault

General Curator of Heritage
French Ministry of Culture, UAR 3103 InVisu

Christian Hottin

Chief Curator of Heritage
French Ministry of Culture
EUR Humanités création et patrimoine, UMR 9022 Héritages

The Mission du patrimoine ethnologique (MPE, Ethnological Heritage Board) of the French Ministry of Culture came into being in 1980, shortly after the emergence of the ecomuseums in the 1970s. The context in which the mission emerged was marked by the rediscovery of the rural world and a renewed interest in regional cultures – a movement reflected in the creation of local associations that promoted popular education and were driven by a vigorous ethnographic penchant. Endorsed by a report on the needs and projects of ethnology in France by Redjem Benzaïd, the creation of the MPE followed the recommendations of a working group led by Isac Chiva. It came into being during Jean-Philippe Lecat’s term in office as minister of culture.
The MPE was charged with putting into action the guidelines laid down by the Conseil du patrimoine ethnologique (Ethnological Heritage Council), for which it acted as secretariat. It structured a range of training courses for developing and professionalising research into the ethnology of France namely in universities. This favoured tensions with the musée national des Arts et traditions populaires, whose de facto monopoly in this field was undermined. Marked by a strong dynamic, the MPE obtained the appointment of ethnology advisers in regional administrations and from 1996 became the head of a network of regional cultural centres, the “ethnopôles”. In 2001, it also supported the creation of a new research unit, the Laboratoire d’anthropologie et d’histoire de l’institution de la culture (LAHIC), under the supervision of the Ministry of Culture, the CNRS and EHESS.
Although its operations have been affected since the beginning of the 21st century by the reforms of the central administration – which renamed it as “Mission à l’ethnologie” and then, in 2005, the “mission Ethnology” – in 2006 it was given responsibility for implementing the UNESCO International Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH), which France had just ratified. Four years later, its functions were taken over by the new Direction générale des patrimoines (General directorate for heritage) by a “research management department”, a growing part of whose work relates to ICH, and which in 2021 became the Département de la recherche, de la valorisation et du patrimoine culturel immatériel (Department of Research, Promotion and Intangible Cultural Heritage). Clearly, thanks to the impetus provided by the now defunct MPE, fifteen years have been enough for the ICH to gain visibility and therefore legitimacy within French public policy.

Keywords: Anthropology of Cultural Heritage | Anthropology of France | Heritage | Cultural Intangible Heritage | Mission du patrimoine ethnologique | UNESCO | Musée national des arts et traditions populaires | French Ministry of Culture | Isac Chiva | Daniel Fabre

Secondary sources

Primary Sources

Notes and research instruments

Related topical dossiers

Other Websites

The LAHIC Notebooks (2006-2015)