The Familistere at Guise was a unique social experiment, a concrete Utopia founded in 1859 by the Fourierist and socialist manufacturer, Jean-Baptiste André Godin, near his stove factory. It is now an inhabited heritage siteand museum with residents, working schools, gardens open to the public, and more. The museum is the corner-stone of the "Utopia" project for the cultural, architectural, economic and social development of the Familistere at Guise.“Utopia” is a public project which has been gradually developing since 2000. It is supported by the Conseil départemental de l’Aisne, the town council of Guise, the French state the Ministry for Culture and Communication, the Hauts de France region and the European Union. The mission of the museum is three-fold: Firstly, to restore and develop the buildings and outdoor areas to promote the understanding and appreciation of one of the most remarkable social experiments of the industrial world and inspire a dialogue with modern society; Secondly, to revitalize daily activity on-site and offer the people of Guise, a little country town in northern France, the "equivalent of wealth", to use Godin's expression; and thirdly, to develop a cultural and tourist industry and thus create jobs.
An Inhabited museum
The Familistere at Guise is a museum dedicated to the Familistere experiment and to social Utopias from the nineteenth century up to today. It is housed in the "Palais social", an extraordinary phalanstery and a model of communal housing. Some of the apartments in the right wing and central building are lived in, Familistere schools are now used as town schools, the Italianate theatre hosts a year-round season of drama and musical performances, the Familistere grounds (pleasure garden, modern Peninsula garden and lawns around the 'Palais') are freely open to all and include games and recreation areas (boules pitches, football pitch, riverside fishing), the museum restaurant and café open directly onto the street, and the car parks are used by townspeople going about their daily lives. In the right wing of the Palais, the apartment occupied by Jean-Baptiste André Godin can be visited; it is enshrined in a part of the building entirely given over to housing. The central building itself, housing 3,000 sq.m. of exhibition space (opened in two stages in 2010 and 2014) is shared between residents and visitors. Mention should also be made of the factory founded in 1846, close to the Palais, which still produces stoves and cookers (employing nearly 250 people). The Familistere is a town-museum. Often called a "town within a town", it has become a bustling urban area. The guiding principle when creating the museum was that of mixed use: devising restorations/creations to enhance daily activities as much as possible while satisfying the curiosity of a wide audience, both national and international (65, 000 visitors in 2015); providing facilities as much for the benefit of local people as for visitors.
Museum as Live Experience
This openness desired by the museum's founders goes hand in hand with a wish to create an identifiably 'museum' feel to areas within the Familistere. The museum's scientific staff are responsible for running the entire "Utopia" project. Building restoration, creation of the square, gardens or exhibition rooms are all devised by the museum's team which also oversees the planning and implementation phases entrusted to the architects, museographers, town planners and landscape gardeners. Because of this, the spirit of the Familistere, the mix of uses and town-like feel of the museum are especially apparent in the developments, be they public spaces, services or exhibition rooms. The industrialism which prevailed when the Familistere was founded in the nineteenth century, the communal nature of its organization and its domestic vocation have been freely reinterpreted in contemporary developments: the use of industrial or standardized materials, the size and scale of amenities, the informal way in which visitors move around, etc.
Familistere museography is not confined to presenting the museum; it enables the visitor to experience life in the place. Just like residents in the central building, they walk along the passageways to enter or leave exhibition rooms. In the life-size cross-section, an actual cross-section of the full height of the North wing of the central building by the architects Béatrice Jullien and Catherine Frenak, the visitor gains an almost physical insight into the building, stripped bare. In the four interior scenes of the central building, the visitor can actually experience the size and illumination of apartments at different levels of the 'Palais'. The museum does not shrink from measures which run contrary to normal museum practice: visitors must open solid doors to access exhibition rooms in the central building; the numbering system for these rooms hardly differs from that used for occupied apartments across the corridor, confusing visitors and making them think about where they are, just like any newcomer to the Familistere. Live performances also play an important part in living at the Familistere. Since 2001 the museum has organized a great day of street theatre on May 1st (the Labour Day celebrated by the Familistere since 1867), meetings and visits, bringing together several thousand visitors from near and far. Since 2011 a full theatrical season has been organized in the theatre.
Museum as Dialogue
The urban/domestic quality cultivated and developed by the museum creates a distinctive ambience which encourages exchanges between the powerful Utopian experiment of the Familistere itself, as presented by the museum in different parts of the site, and modern society. The museum exhibition spaces, and materials used in their construction, form a kind of conversation between modern architecture and that of the Familistere. In social and economic terms the restored Familistere again offers the "equivalent of wealth" to local people. In cultural terms it contributes to social debate by helping visitors to react as informed and active citizens.
From the start it was designed to inspire a dialogue, through its visitors, between modern society and the experiment in social justice and solidarity which took place at the Familistere from 1859 to 1968. To this end the museum has gambled – rather like Godin with his associated workers – on the intelligence, open-mindedness and social commitment of its visitors. It is educational but in a rather unusual way: rather than leading its visitors, the museum allows them to make their own choices; rather than instructions based on simplification or the selection of specimens, it prefers teaching based on complexity with a very real wealth of material; it encourages cooperation between different people and different generations.
The central aim of the museum, in its exhibition rooms as much as in its guided tours or theatrical performances, is that of sparking off discussion and social debate, of helping to make the visitor an involved citizen. This is also why disabled access to the entire site was developed with specialist associations, and why the involvement of real people is given priority despite the many multi-media devices available.
In 2015, the Familistere at Guise was awarded the Silletto Prize by the European Museum Forum: “The Judging Panel was impressed by the way the museum both illustrates the past and links it to the present, whilst at the same time being a living museum. It has heroically saved a heritage site and made it flourish again. The museum restores pride to the local community and shows how today’s cultural and economic activities, rooted in the heritage of a site, can help the regeneration of a town following a deep economic crisis.”
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