Religious and “star system” objects in the Mucem’s collections
A dress, a console, a belt buckle, a football shirt, a pair of shoes, a bathing suit and a stereo: this is a list of simple everyday objects that bear witness to their era. This list does not have the same impact when you attach the names of the people to whom they belonged: Edith Piaf’s dress, Pink Floyd’s mixing console, St. Vincent Palotti’s belt buckle, Cristiano Ronaldo’s football shirt, Mistinguett’s shoes, Miss France’s bathing suit and Psychkoze’s “catastereo”. From innocuous objects, they take on real power, sparkling with the brilliance of fame. They become desirable and even “magical”. But these relics come with a price that is itself far from innocuous...
Touch me and you’ll be happy: the power of the relic
According to Bergson, Man is a “machine for making gods”. We all need transcendence, the sacred, myths, to love, to admire, to believe. Durkheim, Eliade and many anthropologists and sociologists have explained this need for religion within our societies. And when those societies become secularized, the old religions are abandoned in favour of new forms of religious inclination, embodied by illustrious personalities: film and music stars, politicians, athletes, kings and princesses, and so on. And by the objects that once belonged to them.
Faith and healing: relics of saints
Relics (from the Latin reliquae, or “remains”) are things left behind by a venerated figure after their death. They can be a body fragment, like the upper part of the skull of 18th century St. Germain (2002.4.137.2) or an object belonging to him, such as a belt buckle (2002.4.378) worn by St. Vincent Palloti (1795-1850), a Roman priest who founded the Society of the Catholic Apostolate and was canonized in 1963. The worship of these objects can be explained by the transfer of the saint’s sacredness, first to his “remains” and then to the devout.
The worship of relics is a common practice in multiple religions, particularly Catholicism. They are meant to bring grace and, more prosaically, healing and good fortune to those who contemplate and invoke them. In short, a happy life here on earth. For example, the faithful who pray to St. Emygde (2002.4.139.2) hope to recover their eyesight. In fact, the Bishop of Ascoli Piceno, in the March of Ancona in Italy, is perfect for the blind: he lived in the Roman Empire at the turn of the 4th century and died as a martyr to his faith after having performed many miracles, particularly curing blindness.
These sacred objects are typically preserved in containers that are themselves made of precious materials, like the medieval reliquary of St. Faith of Conques, made of gold, glass and precious gems. These receptacles often bear the image of the adored holy person, like the statuette of St. Walpurga, a pious 18th century English abbess. A cavity, carved out of the back of the sculpture, contains a liquid in a bottle (2002.4.33.1-3). This is “St. Walpurga’s oil”, miraculous water that flows from the saint’s tomb in Eichstätt, Germany, reputed to heal illnesses. Other reliquaries may take the form of the preserved bone fragment (arm reliquary, 2002.4.146) or look like pendants so they can be worn daily as protection (2002.4.298).
The protective and healing properties attributed to saints and their relics can also be found in the secular domain. Lady Diana was the perfect example of this. During her lifetime, many considered her to be the “princess of hearts”, the “consoler of the afflicted” and the “light of children with cancer”, as Gonzague Saint-Bris wrote in his biography of Diana Spencer. Many admirers believed she was endowed with marvellous powers: meeting her and touching her were an assurance of miraculous healing (2004.55.159). Her death elevated her to sainthood, and the Pont de l’Alma, the site of her tragic death in 1997, became a veritable place of pilgrimage. This can be seen in the many religious objects donated by the “faithful” of the Princess of Wales, like this holy image of the healing Saint Roch with the following inscription: “Diana, I loved you even though you didn’t know me, very much so. I admire your son William. Anne from Escaudain, 59124, Northern France” (1998.113.6). 20 years after her death, Lady Di’s personal effects continue to be extraordinarily popular with the general public. An exhibition of her most beautiful gowns is sure to draw a large crowd. And when those same gowns are sold at auction, like five of them were in 2014, the prices skyrocket to more than €100,000 apiece. This is very similar to the phenomena inspired by the relics of holy figures during the Middle Ages: they were so coveted that abbeys and religious centres would pay considerable sums, or even order their theft, so as to acquire them and their powers, their prestige, and the thousands of pilgrims drawn each year by their miraculous reputations.
From saint to idol: divine celebrity
The identical process of adoration is at work amongst those who venerate a secular celebrity. All the anthropologists investigating the world of fans have confirmed it, without however likening passion for a star to devotion to a holy person. We would cite Gabriel Segré’s work on the community of devoted admirers of Elvis Presley in the late 1990s, the French Ethnography Centre’s study of fans of Claude François, and Edgar Morin’s classic essay, Les stars (Stars), which has been updated and republished many times since 1972. Possessing an object that belonged to an adulated celebrity makes the owner happier. The possessor has the impression of sharing in the former owner’s private life, being closer to him/her, and capturing part of their beauty, talent and fame. Like with a saint’s relic, a star’s “remains” become a lucky charm, protection against the vagaries of life.
In a less macabre way than with the bodily remains of saints, secular worship is not embodied in the same type of relics, although a cavity-riddled molar of John Lennon, given by the Beatles to one of his admirers after a dentist’s appointment, was sold by one fan to another in 2011. The Mucem itself has casts of both of Edith Piaf’s hands (19184.108.40.206 and 19220.127.116.11), but these are only wax models, not the singer’s actual metacarpals... Fans are more likely to transfer their idolatrous ardour to artefacts that are symbolic of the adored person: a musician’s stage clothes or musical instrument, the costume worn on set by film and television stars, shirts, trophies and medals belonging to stadium gods and beauty queens, famous authors’ typewriters, painters’ palettes, and so on. The history of the Mucem’s collections explains why and how this type of star relic has become a part of our national heritage, rather than any others.
- Idols of the young (and less young!)
Our museum has a large number of objects that belonged to French popular music stars. Most of the objects presented here come from acquisitions made for the Museum of Song, a planned institution that never came to be, but whose collections ended up at the Mucem. Georges Henri Rivière, a great lover of jazz and song and founder of the National Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions, and producer Louis Merlin launched a call to create a museum of song in 1962. Many famous people contributed to the project. For example, Bruno Coquatrix, the director of the legendary Parisian concert hall, the Olympia, offered up Edith Piaf’s last stage gown (1965.125.1 + photo of Piaf on stage if royalty-free). This collection action yielded a series of moving souvenirs of French music hall and popular music stars of the 20th century: Josephine Baker (1918.104.22.168-6), Mistinguett (1965.124.1) (1965.124.2 and 1965.124.3) (1922.214.171.124-2) (1965.124.4) and Françoise Hardy (1966.163.1, posed photo in Trésors du quotidien (Everyday Treasures) + stage photo if royalty-free), to name but a few.
The Mucem’s collections also include other relics of music stars with more international careers than our specifically French artists. This is the case, for example, of the mixing console used by Pink Floyd, the famous British psychedelic and progressive rock band, donated by the sound company On-Off in Chelles (Ile-de-France Region) (2002.183.1.4).
- Beauty queens
In her book De la célébrité. Excellence et singularité en régime médiatique (On Celebrity: Excellence and Singularity in Media Regimes) (2012), Nathalie Heinich reviews the different types of celebrities, paying special attention to beauty queens, top models and other icons of physical perfection. This recent profession owes its increasing popularity to the appearance and development of press photography, fashion houses and the ready-to-wear industry. Just like the profession of actor appeared with the birth of cinema, that of fashion model is a 20th century invention. Because models, unlike artists on the silver screen, do not owe their fame to their talent, they provide a clear illustration of the importance of beauty in our society: beauty alone can thrust someone to the top, solely for the advantageous physique.
Miss France, the winner of an annual competition created in 1920 to elect “the most beautiful woman in France”, is an integral part of this category of celebrities, whose primary virtue is that they are appealing to the eye. Geneviève de Fontenay, the emblematic tutelary figure for the Misses and long-time chairman of the contest, and Véronique Fagot, Miss France 1977, both donated items to the museum that were representative of the selection of a beauty queen: crown, sash and bathing suit (the swimsuit competition is one of the contest’s key components) (1982.26.2) (1982.26.3 + article on Miss France 1981; unfortunately, there is no photo of the tiara…).
- Gods of the stadium
For some time now, top-level athletes have been members of the ever expanding celebrities club. Some of them are even amongst the leaders of the pack in France, as witnessed by the number one slot, occupied by judoka David Douillet in 2016 for the sixth year running.
Adulated by their supporters, professional footballers are gods in shorts and shirts bearing corporate logos. In the eyes of their fans, their personal belongings are as precious as a saint’s relic, which is why the Mucem conducted a survey on supporterism in Europe and the Mediterranean in 2015 and 2016, during which it acquired five shirts worn by prestigious players on the pitch: Cristiano Ronaldo (2015.2.2), Alfredo Di Stéfano (2015.14.2), Diego Maradona (2015.14.3), Michel Platini (2016.1.1 + photo) and Zinédine Zidane (2016.1.2). This last shirt was even in the possession of Lilian Thuram before being sold by a specialized merchant. The value of objects that once belonged to celebrities is not just a symbolic or “religious” one: their financial importance is far from negligible...
Love my tie-in merchandise, empty your bank account: the value of the object of worship
For the past 20 years, sociologist Gabriel Segré has been studying the world of fans. And the financial value of stars’ “relics” did not escape him. In his book Fans de … Sociologie des nouveaux cultes contemporains (Fans of...: Sociology of New Contemporary Religions) (2014), he explains that, during a star’s lifetime, fans often seek out, acquire and collect a large number of objects whose symbolic and sentimental value can be priceless. As soon as their death is announced, those items multiply, and the market experiences strong growth: the number of objects in circulation increases, in parallel to their symbolic and market values
Market economy and the “star system”
In today’s consumer society, stars and their images are meant to be sold, bought and consumed. Reproduced by the thousands, they result in tie-in merchandise, in the primary sense of the term: they tie in with the star and are devoid of the aura of an authentic relic. But these objects are no less desirable for all that. For a more or less modest sum, they allow us to bring stars into our daily lives. Does the British royal family not take tea with us when we take a sip from a cup commemorating the wedding of Charles and Diana or William and Kate? (Kate and William wedding cup, study material). Do we not feel the Beatles’ presence in our cars when the four bobble heads with their likenesses (2001.69.3-6) shake their heads to the rhythm of our car stereos?
Some artists understood the commercial value of their persons very early on. Claude François, who passed away in 1978, was one of the first to join the celebrity market. For example, every new member of the Claude François Forever club received a piece of fabric cut out of one of this stage costumes along with their membership card. The voice of “Cloclo” still rings out today, from beyond the grave, in his fans’ lounges, thanks to the vinyl albums and CDs that have been continuously produced for nearly 40 years (2003.196.163). His captivating scent may give the illusion of his presence to anyone who buys Eau Noire (19126.96.36.199-2), a fragrance designed by the singer and sold from 1976 to well after his death. Like the saint medals that Catholics wear, Cloclo’s fans can also buy a medal emblazoned with the image of their idol... (1979.60.11).
Many other examples might be mentioned (t-shirts, posters, paint-it-yourself plaster casts, etc.), given the vast quantity of objects in the Mucem’s collections that depict the artist, after a survey of his grieving fans, conducted by the French Ethnography Centre in 1979 and 1980 on behalf of the museum. The museum may even continue to expand this collection: the market for relics and tie-in merchandise is a thriving one! Not a year goes by in France without Claude François items being put up for sale...
The value of authenticity
Of course, hanging a poster of Elvis Presley (2001.69.17.132) on your bedroom wall can give you the illusion of waking up next to him each morning but, if you want to imagine that you have taken on a celebrity’s power and aura, there is nothing like an object that actually belonged to him, that he touched, and so that is “charged” with his power. And to guarantee that authenticity, nothing beats a signature. For example, JonOne’s jacket (2003.141.2), particularly since it bears the famous top hat-wearing character that has become the New York street artist’s emblem. Or singer and actor Maurice Chevalier’s boater hat, signed and dedicated “To the Museum of Song – With all my heart – Maurice Chevalier – 1965” (1966.211.1). This hat is also endowed with a very strong symbolic value: the boater is the accessory that Maurice Chevalier never went without in his whole career. A silhouette wearing a boater on a photograph or drawn by a cartoonist was immediately recognizable by all as being that of the immortal singer of “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” in the film Gigi.
Although the postcard and greeting card respectively signed by Johnny Halliday and Sheila, and sent to the manager of the nightclub Golf-Drouot, Henri Leproux, did not spend much time in the hands of the two 1960s singers, they still retain great power: that of having been chosen from amongst all the rest to be sent to a friend (2001.69.14.28) (1966.211.1). And street artist Psychkoze’s “catastereo”, a ghetto blaster (a type of radio cassette player emblematic of the hip-hop movement that provides the musical accompaniment to street dancers) decorated by the artist in 1985 (2004.65.3), is doubly “charged”: it bears the signatures of celebrities from the world of rap and graffiti, including that of Joey Starr, the charismatic singer of French hip-hop group NTM.
In the absence of the guarantee of authenticity of a signature, the fact that an object was given or sold directly by a star is enough to vouch for its “sacred” nature. This is the case of this architectural model donated to the Mucem by Johnny Hallyday and producer Jean-Claude Camus. It shows the layout of the stage for the singer’s Stadium Tour, a series of concerts given in 2003 for his 60th birthday (2003.153.1). Lastly, if there is nothing in the celebrity’s own hand to prove that an object belonged to him/her, there is still the option of a certificate of appraisal. This common practice in the world of fine art is an ancient tradition on the market for saints’ relics. As a result, many Catholic objects have a document and a wax seal certifying their originality. These papers are symptomatically called “authentics” (2002.4.331 and Belt buckle belonging to St. Vincent Palloti (2002.4.378) shown above).
In the end, what gives a relic its power is less its certified authenticity and more the faith that worshippers place in it. For example, there is nothing to prove that this souvenir hair painting (1986.18.8) was made using Napoleon’s hair. The portrait of the emperor has an inscription on the back that reads, “DENOYEL relegae C, C, 1814 souvenir of the island of Elba”, which seems to be rather weak proof in comparison to a possible DNA test. But what if, each time its owner looked at it, he felt happier, closer to the great man, and protected by him from the vagaries of life? Is it not that belief which, at the end of the day, imbues it with its aura, its magic and its effectiveness? And if this souvenir painting later joined the collections of a museum like the Mucem, would it not become all the more sacred? After all, identifying an object as part of a cultural heritage is just another form of consecration.