Nature and local power: mayors and natural history museums in provincial France, 1800-1860
In the wake of the nineteenth century, the French administrative and territorial maps had been deeply reshuffled. A new figure emerged, that of the mayor. From 1800 to ca.1860, his status showed relative constancy: nominated by the executive power, his function remained perhaps equivocal as he represented the state as well as the interests of his local community – which also included the management of museums newly born from the Revolution. However spontaneous or unfinished they might have seemed, they shared a common root in the museological science developed in eighteenth-century natural history cabinets. During the first half of the nineteenth century, museums were established as well-founded, visible elements of the urban scientific space. Yet, even if they were inspired from naturalist classification, the share of museums dedicated to natural history was variable and dependent on the decisions of individuals. As the key holder of authority but also as an individual whose social practices were embedded in a local community of notables and savants, it was the mayor who was at the heart of the decision-making process related to museums. In doing so, he also partook in the elaboration of a discourse on nature: altogether a discourse on the material dimensions of how nature should be displayed, a discourse of justification on how nature served public good and a discourse on local nature as an instrument of appropriation of the regional space.
This paper aims at illuminating the evolution of the practice of mayorship and more specifically the complementary influences of natural science and the exercise of local power.