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Brigitte Nicolas,
director of the Musée de la Compagnie des Indes in Lorient

Brigitte Nicolas, head curator of the Musée de la Compagnie des Indes in Lorient, talks about her career, her artistic preferences and shares with us her project for spring 2024: the Prince de Conty's gold saved from the wreck of a frigate belonging to the Compagnie des Indes in the 18th century.

Could you tell us about the musée de la Compagnie des Indes in Lorient, which you currently run?


The only one of its kind in France, the Musée de la Compagnie des Indes, the art and history museum of the city of Lorient, is listed as a “Musée de France”. It is located in the citadel of Port-Louis, a military fortress overlooking the sea, built by the Spanish at the end of the 16th century and modified several times over the following two centuries. Its theme, unique in France, traces the history of the great maritime trading companies of the 17th and 18th centuries and their original ties with the town of Lorient. Models of ships, dioramas illustrating shipbuilding, life on board, the trading posts of Pondicherry and Canton, and the life of slaves on a coffee plantation in Bourbon; naval objects, paintings, non-European artefacts, porcelain and lacquerware from China, textiles from India, etc. all bear witness, for better or worse, to the commercial, political, social and cultural impact of the European maritime venture around the world in the early days of globalization.

Despite its small size, the museum is very active, often lending its collections around the world and staging its own temporary exhibitions within the permanent collection. The museum's loan and exhibition activities regularly lead to changes and upgrades in the scenography of the permanent collection, making the Musée de la Compagnie des Indes a very lively museum. An active policy of enriching the collections over the last fifteen years through the deposit and purchase of works further enhances this phenomenon. The major national museums, such as the National Museum of Asian Arts - Guimet, the musée du quai Branly - Jacques-Chirac and the Château de Versailles, are invaluable partners in this process. The acquisition budget, financed by the City of Lorient and very actively supported by the State, the region, and the department, enables new works to be added to the collections every year, some of them very beautiful, some very rare, some of them precious and even luxurious, bearing witness to a rich history of intermingling and, above all, little known to the general public. In just a few years, they have reinforced the museum's strong and unique identity.


What is your ambition for the museum? What are the main challenges facing the museum?


My ambition over the last twenty years has been to give this small museum, which was initially deprived of resources, the means to develop in terms of conservation, restoration, and the acquisition of works, as well as in terms of cultural activities and mediation. I quickly redesigned the museum's permanent exhibition to bring it into line with contemporary historiography. The challenges are mainly related to the small spaces in which the museum finds itself constrained. The setting of the citadel is sublime but does not allow the museum to expand. So, we need to find ways of continuing to revamp the exhibition to raise public awareness of the complex phenomena that accompanied the East India Companies: the slave trade, slavery, and colonisation, but also the harshness of life on board, the flow of capital, goods and people around the planet - in short, globalisation.



Could you describe your background?


After studying art history and archaeology at the University of Rennes, I began my career as a curator with the Department of Morbihan, where I held the positions of Curator of Movable Heritage and Curator of Antiquities and Works of Art for 12 years before being appointed Director of Culture. The latter post proved to be too far removed from collections for me, so I applied for the position I've now held for over 20 years! I never thought I'd stay at the head of the Musée de la Compagnie des Indes for so long, but the work is such that I've been fully occupied with it for years. It has given me much satisfaction, the most important of which is the policy of enriching the collections, which truly fascinates me. Developing a collection, even with modest means, is a challenge and an adventure that is constantly renewed and extremely gratifying. I love meeting collectors and antique dealers, the atmosphere in the auction rooms, the excitement of pre-emption procedures, the sheer adrenalin of it all. Above all, I love researching works of art, documenting them, and understanding them. The ultimate reward is watching visitors in the museum contemplate and appropriate the works, and in that I am often rewarded.

Do you have a favourite object in the museum? A particular link with one of the works?


I really like a lot of the works in the museum, particularly the ones I've been able to bring into the collections, and especially the ones that have been a long time coming. But I often joke that my favourite work is this one, and that I'll be taking it with me when I retire:


Mounted coffee fountain

Fountain: Japan, Arita, 1680-1700

Porcelain with underglaze cobalt oxide decoration

Mount: Northern Europe, United Provinces (?), circa 1700

Cast, cut, chiselled, engraved and gilded bronze

Purchased from Galerie François Hayem, Paris

Acquisition made with the support of the FRAM and the Conseil départemental of Morbihan

City of Lorient - Musée de la Compagnie des Indes - 2015.2.1

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This object was created in Japan at the Arita porcelain factory. A private commission, it was then fitted with a gilded bronze frame in Europe. This enhances the blue and white of the porcelain, enriching it with its luxurious quality. A similarly mounted piece was kept in the collection of Auguste Le Fort (1670-1733), Grand Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, who claimed to be suffering from porcelain sickness, such was his passion for these objects. These exceptional objects, dating from the period when coffee consumption was still restricted to the elite, between 1680 and 1700, found their way onto the richest tables in Europe. The combination of Asian porcelain technology and Northern European shapes and mounts makes these hybrid command porcelains, developed in the East from a plant native to Africa, marvellous worldly objects. I see all this in this object and that's why, in addition to its intrinsic beauty, it appeals to me so much.



Is there an exhibition you particularly enjoyed and would like to recommend?


I recently returned to the Musée du Nouveau-Monde in La Rochelle and really enjoyed it. The collections are beautiful and diverse, the message is clever and straightforward, and the place is beautiful. I particularly recommend it, as well as the Natural History Museum in the same town.



The work that inspires you?


There are so many! But one of the catalogues I most enjoy reading and leafing through is the one for the exhibition Encounters, The meeting of Asia and Europe, 1500-1800 at the Victoria and Albert Museum.


And one of the books I appreciate most for its historiographical approach is Romain Bertrand's L'Histoire à parts égales.



Could we find out more about your projects (possible publications) and/or the theme you would like to tackle (exhibition, publication, etc.)?


I'm working with my team on a project for a new scenography (spring 2024) within the museum dedicated to the history of the prince de Conty. After sailing to China in 1746, this frigate belonging to the Compagnie des Indes was shipwrecked south of Belle-Île-en-Mer, killing most of its crew. The Compagnie de Commerce organised salvage operations for the cargo, which included gold ingots. The wreck, discovered in 1974, was the subject of archaeological excavations authorised by the DRASSM, but these were tainted by illegality. The DRASSM then carried out a survey of the site in 1985. The history of this ship is of great importance to the musée de la Compagnie des Indes, as it is to date the only ship belonging to the trading company to have been the subject of underwater excavations in mainland France. Alongside this, I hope to publish the artworks that have entered the museum's collections, particularly those relating to European commissions in Asia in the fields of textiles, porcelain, lacquerware, marquetry and so on. But to do that, I need a bit of time... which I really lack!



Find out more:


  • Musée de la Compagnie des Indes of Lorient:

  • Collectif, Anna JACKSON & Amin JAFFER, Encounters, The meeting of Asia and Europe, 1500-1800, exhibition catalogue. Victoria and Albert Museum publications, London, 2004.

  • Romain BERTRAND, L'Histoire à parts égales. Le Seuil, 2011.

  • Musée du Nouveau Monde de La Rochelle :

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