Catherine Bertho-Lavenir Former Senior Fellow

Catherine Bertho-Lavenir
January 2011 - July 2011


Catherine Bertho Lavenir is Professor of Contemporary History (Cultural History, Media History, History of Technology) at Université Paris III - Sorbonne Nouvelle since 2003 as well as Vice-President for Human Resources. She is responsible for the Master programme "Médiation culturelle" and teaches at the Graduate School "Arts and Media" (Paris III, Histoire des média/histoire cuturelle). She is also Associate Professor in the Master program in Journalism at the University of Neuchatel. She is a member of CERLIS (Centre de Recherche sur les Liens Sociaux, Université Paris Descartes) as well as associate member of the Centre d'Histoire Culturelle des Sociétés contemporaines, Université de Versailles-Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines (histoire culturelle). From 1977 to 1987, Catherine Bertho-Lavenir worked at the Archives nationales, completing her PhD in History in 1979. 1997 she was appointed Professor for Contemporary History at the Université Blaise Pascal, Clermont-Ferrand. In 2006/2007 she held the chair "Études de la France contemporaine" at the Université de Montréal.

Dated from 2011

Fields of research

Cultural history of technology, telecommunication, media and transport; history of travelling, voyages and tourism; cultural memory in industrial societies; film/television and history; film and society; construction of identity in Europe; history of the notion of cultural heritage.

IKKM Research Project

The art of collecting on the web, or a do-it-yourself identity –kit system.

Our research will bear upon the art of collecting in this digital age, and its links with the building of individual and collective identities. Collecting necessitates processes which bring up a symbolical order to the world, build up a relationship to time, and fashion up images of self and others. Concerning oneself with digital collections to-day should allow one to reconsider such elements of our relationship to the world through inscribing them at the heart of the tension between the local and the global, characteristic of the digital age.

A theoretic frame of reference
We shall take as our main theoretical frame of reference propositions issuing both from mediologyand the cultural history of techniques. We will borrow from mediology an approach implying a necessary concern with the technical dimensions of symbolic productions and a questioning of the institutions and processes able to ensure the transmission (in time) and the spreading (over space) of any given symbolic object. Besides, we shall refer to the lessons of the cultural history of techniques, considering that cultural transformations contribute to induce technical changes and that symbolic contexts play a part in the shaping of nets. The research will be in keeping with my prior productions devoted - to the relation between technical change and cultural change (La roue et le stylo. Comment nous sommes devenus touristes, 1999), - to the effects of digitalizing in the world of the medias (Histoire des medias, de Diderot à Internet, 1996, reed.) and - to the construction of identities through heritage (“Critique de l’usage social de la notion de région ” Actes de la recherché en sciences sociales, 1980). It will orientate my quest into the new question of the shaping of identities in the digitalized environment of these global times.

The research will associate the elaboration of a systematic bibliography, the making up of a corpus of sources and an analysis of this corpus according to precise problematics.

-a systematic bibliography The bibliography of reference will be established by bringing together two domains usually studied apart. We will consider, on the one hand, works bearing upon the analysis of internet seen as a meta-media, and on the other hand productions devoted to the history of cultural practices, the history of art and the arts, the history of collectors, of museums, libraries, archives, and popular culture. It will be noted that the works devoted to digital art were pioneers in the realm, together with works upon the digital policies of great patrimonial institutions (digital libraries notably). Besides, as concerns the fundamental issue of the production of meaning (sense) through the organizing of knowledge, we shall refer to Michel Foucault’s work Les mots et les choses.

-building a corpus The constitution of the corpus will first call for the constitution of a catalogue of digital collections identified on the web. The net, in this perspective, is not to be seen as flows but as a stock. The “stock” consists primarily in the traces left upon the web by the activities which took place there. This side of things will not directly concern us. Besides, museums, archives, libraries have been building up considerable digital collections for the last two decades or so. The building up and the managing of such collections obey essentially the traditional rules of patrimonial management (constitution of the collection, cataloguing, indexing, rules of access...) We shall not be concerned with these public and patrimonial collections either.

A body of digital or digitalized objects...The analysis will bear upon bodies of digital objects, now present on the web, born from the initiatives of individuals or small groups, which can be listed in with the history of private collections. So, we shall term “a collection” any body of digital objects brought together by an individual or an identifiable community (collectivity) organised according to an aesthetic or intellectual project and offered to virtual visiting. The net has in fact seen the setting of collections coming from individual initiatives, their elements bearing most diverse statutes, but being the components of deliberate ”collecting assumptions”. The creators of such collections have organized them along systematic lines and have offered a type of indexing and/or comments intended to give the collections meaning. Some of these collections may be registered as popular, others, as learned, or even belonging to contemporary art Others again take the form of data bases (as the site which catalogues all the film sequences featuring automobiles), others appear as sites, or blogs, pages in socializing sites. Some are named “collections”, others “museums”, or “libraries” or “archives”, and mimic their services.

Sorting out a coherent corpus...Criteria will be elaborated in order to extract from such a proliferating offer a coherent corpus. Our first task will consist in asserting a clear definition of what is called a “digital object”, setting apart digital objects created specifically on and through the web from digitalized copies of existing objects or images. We shall also make a difference between digital collections and sites which are but the reflection of materially existing collections. These are often linked with the market, or semi -market sector of private trade between individuals. More criteria, yet to be specified, will concern geographic areas. It may be supposed, for instance, that it is relevant to choose sites located in identifiable cultural areas, such as Europe, America or Asia. Quite likely we shall have to examine collections by taking into account the original basis of the works or documents or that of their models. Films, videos, photos, pictures, books, texts all refer to historically different modes of collecting. The type of platform (site, blog, socializing site) must be of some import. A topical approach (from “automobile” to “eroticism” and “ethnology”) may prove fruitful. A typology of collectors will of course be useful.

For each collection thus identified, and following a mediological process, we shall look into the technical basis, the form of the object, its symbolical intent, the processes and institutions ensuring both its transmission (in time) and its diffusion (over space).

This means we shall consider the basis of the collection in order to state whether it is an individual site, a cooperative platform, a blog or a page from a socializing site... We shall then compare the characteristics of such digital collections with the attributes of the traditional private collection by looking into the following points

-the mode of acquisition of the “objects” in the collection -the organisation of the collection (themes, types, durability, renewing...)
-the solutions for exhibiting or concealing the collection -the processes in accessibility, visiting limits, protection against intrusion and theft.
-the modes of classification and indexing put to use by the collector enabling one to understand what representations of the world and what categories in knowledge are mobilised.
-the institutionalizing and strategic processes used to ensure the continuity in time (transmission) and spreading over space (communication of the collection; the forms of donation and legacy in the digital space.
-the modes of socialization of the collection: amateur circles, opening and visiting rituals, visitors’ books.
-the presence

  • or lack of- marketing dimension of the work to be found in the digital collection.

We shall of course examine the figure of the “collector”, confronting to-day’s practices with the ways of the historical collector, who was in turns and at times, all at once, a “man of the enlightenment”, a “bourgeois” speculator or the promoter of an identity in the building. We shall have to isolate the attitude of the mimic who reproduces on the web the classical social figure of the collector from the newer figures of the digital collector, supposing they exist.
We will then endeavour to understand what is conveyed by those proliferating collections, spectacular or absurd, about the rearrangement of borders between the real and the virtual and about the establishing of communities, whether these are exclusively virtual or the mirror of existing ones.

III. Statute of the digital object and virtual socialization Our quest should lead us to other issues having to do with the building up of knowledge, to socialization and the achieving of individual and collective identities in the digital age. When trying to identify, among contemporary phenomena, the fundamental elements of the history of collecting, in western countries, four topics come to the fore.

The curios cabinet come-back The first question is related to the form of the collection: can one see, in the proliferating bizarre digital collections a return of the curios cabinet? The setting, in Europe, of the larger public museums (painting and history) at the end of the XVIIIth century and in the XXth, often issued from princely or personal collections, must be linked, as learned knowledge is concerned, with an exigency in rational order, in type classing. The museum cannot be parted from “reasoned” cataloguing. The fact is, a significant number of digital collections follow the far earlier pattern of the curios cabinet. Characteristic of the Italian and German cultures at the end of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the Wunderkammer had extremely different objects coexisting within one and the same space. The coherence of the collection was to be found in the Prince’s will to bring together in one place, both secret and ostentatious, objects sharing among themselves one unique quality, that of being “precious”.It should be interesting to try and detect how the virtual collection, born to the democratic space of the net and freed from the conceptual model of the museum, may pick up the untrammelled eclecticism of the curios cabinet, the virtual becoming the homogeneous place where heterogeneous objects meet and gather.

Amateur sociabilities and politics We shall also ponder the political value of the sociability evolving from the collection. In the XVIIIth century, private collections played a major part in the building up of individual and collective identities (Pomyan, Collectionneurs, amateurs et curieux. Paris, Venise, XVe XVIIIe siècles) Intellectual concerns and a critical disposition contributed to the making of the modern subject, a man of self-asserted tastes, in whom the aesthetic debate announces the democratic one. The collection, the gallery, the visit and critical expression are the places and means of the constitution of the “bourgeois” identity and of the building of the public space. This established fact incites one to pry into the communities that are in the making, to-day, around virtual collections, in search of symptoms of a possible similitude. National identities and collections One may also wonder whether the utter dispersion of collections might be a mirror of the utter fragmentation of the world. The building up of national identities in Europe, in the XIXth century, relied on the grouping of ensembles of paintings and art productions, together with collections of an ethnologic type (costumes, tools...) which bespoke the creativity of a people at a moment when the latter was rising to the statute of a nation. Such collections, often assembled originally by rich amateurs with a patriotic purpose, were destined to pass into the resources of the public museums created by the emerging nation-states. There was elaborated around such objects a scientific and national discourse anchored in a given land. Can similar phenomena be perceived through the collections scattered on the net? Are there communities in the making (natives, migrants, minorities...) using the net as a lever to duplicate the operation of self-assertion of dominated communities? It is quite possible to imagine that the elaboration of a cyber-space and the general digitalizing of works, combined with the weakening of the national level, within the local-global dialectics, might favour the appearance of collections granting the new communities a chance to assert themselves in a new way. This of course is to be verified.

The collection, money, the artist There also remains the question of money. The collector, the merchant and the artist formed an inseparable trio in the XXth century, a trio through which the work of art was branded as such, and priced in the process. What about digital works? Is it possible to spot on the net, concerning contemporary art products, that same logic bestowing on the art -work both a label and a market-value?
The characteristics of the digital collection mentioned above -the set-back of the reasoned model of the museal collection, the proliferation of amateur communities and the reinvesting of the symbolism of the collection- all point to one obvious fact: the lowering of the entry fee, financial, technical, symbolic, that controls access to the statute of a collector able to open his/her collection to the public. That is why it might not be illegitimate to research here something akin to a “do-it-yourself undertaking,” to borrow Michel Foucaut’s concept, his own word (bricolage) referring to an activity based upon the personalized appropriation and use of masterly handled tools.


"Développement des transports et transformations du tourisme : du bateau à vapeur à l'automobile. Évolution d'un 'système socio-technique'" (XIXe - XXe siècles). In: Verkehr und Verkehrsentwicklung (2008), p. 79-93.
"Le paysage derrière la roue. Le tour de France à la télévision". In: Actes du Colloque Télévision des années 60-70. Paris: CNRS Editions 2007, pp. 267-291.
"XXe siècle: la capitale immatérielle." In: Frédéric Barbier (ed.): Paris capitale des livres. Paris: PUF 2007, S. 321-329.
(ed.): Missions, Cahiers de médiologie 17 (2004).
(ed.): La visite du monument. Clermont Ferrand: Presses Universitaires Blaise-Pascal 2004.
(ed.): La scène terroriste. Cahiers de médiologie 13 (2002).
La démocratie et les médias au XXe siècle. Paris: Armand Colin 2000.
La roue et le stylo. Comment nous sommes devenus touristes. Paris: Odile Jacob 1999.
(ed.): La bicyclette, Cahiers de médiologie 5 (1998).
with Frédéric Barbier: Histoire des médias. De Diderot à Internet. Paris: Armand Colin 1996, 2000, 2004.
Les Télécommunications internationals. Paris: Romain Pages 1991.
Lien vers le compte rendu du coloque pouvoir et societe Paris 7