At the end of April/beginning of May 2014, a group of staff and students went to Paris for the annual Field Trip module. Unlike many university field trips which are either purely for interest/pleasure or a small part of an existing semester-long module, this trip effectively was the module and all of the students’ assessment was based around the themes of the trip and their experience of the journey.
Paris is an amazing city and indeed opens up any number of potential historical themes to investigate. In this case, we were exploring the royal heritage of the French capital and investigating the how France presents its royal past given the violent end of the Ancien Regime and the twists and turns of the monarchy, empire and republic in the 19th century. This allowed the students to explore the history of the French monarchy, from its early medieval foundations until the 18th century, the Bourbon restoration(s) and the First and Second Empires as well as the Revolution itself. A key element to consider was the interesting connection between the violence of the Revolution and the birth of the concept of patrimoine, or preservation of the nation’s heritage-including sites connected to their royal past.
The students were given a couple of pre-trip lectures to give them a foundation in French royal history and an understanding of both the concept of patrimoine and the French heritage industry and how this compares with its English equivalents. The students all really engaged with the key themes of the trip-several who had been to Paris before said that it changed their perception of the city to consider its urban fabric and royal sites in this new light.
On the trip we made formal visits to several key sites: Versailles, Fontainebleau, Saint Denis and the Louvre. Other sites were not required but visited my several staff and students including Vincennes, the Conciergerie and Notre Dame. On 1st May, a national holiday, many sites were closed to visitors so the students were sent on a ‘treasure hunt’. Armed with a map and a list of royal sites across central Paris that they had to find such as the Palais-Royal, Jardin des Tuileries, Pantheon, etc., they went out in teams to complete their quest. All of the teams had to take photographs to prove that they had found all of the sites on their list and prizes were given out for the most sites visited, best photographs and a special prize for creativity. The students excelled at the hunt-navigating the Métro, clocking up miles in the often wet weather, finding all of the sites on their list (and a few more besides!) and taking wonderfully creative photographs to document their visits.
Conversations with the students on the trip and the contents of their assessments demonstrated that they engaged deeply with the key themes of the trip. This trip in many ways was a continuation of their first year compulsory module, Creating and Consuming History, which was similarly focused on the preservation, interpretation and presentation of the past. The students made excellent observations of good practice and things which could be improved in the management of visitor numbers and issues of accessibility and informing the visitor of the sites’ features and history. Excellent comparisons were made between the sites and between royal sites in the UK and France, showing an understanding of issues of interpretation and presentation, such as the extent of the site which is made available to visitors, how the site is changed, adapted or even completely repurposed in the case of the Louvre.
Several interesting results emerged. Regarding the direct comparison we had between two important royal palaces and UNESCO sites on the first two days of the trip, the students (and staff I think it has to be said) seemed to universally prefer Fontainebleau to Versailles. In a large part, this was to do with the excessive visitor numbers at Versailles, which led to a real crush and a sense of being herded through the crowded rooms in such a way that you could not fully engage with or enjoy the visit. In contrast with the short circuit of rooms accessible at Versailles, the students were exhausted by the number of rooms that we visited at Fontainebleau-and we hardly saw all of the ones which could be potentially viewed on a visit, nor did we get to see the extensive gardens as we ran out of time. They noted the emphasis on Napoleon at Fontainebleau over the other royal inhabitants and the contrast between the well preserved royal furnishings and artefacts at Fontainebleau versus the generally bare rooms at Versailles-a legacy of Revolutionary damage and the conscious decision of Napoleon and Bourbon restoration monarchs to reside at Fontainebleau, not Versailles.
Another interesting result was that many students who had little expectations of their visit to the royal necropolis at Saint Denis found it intriguing and interesting-a real contrast to the palaces which formed the bulk of our visits. The Louvre, like Versailles, was also teeming with visitors, which made it difficult to find the plaques which noted the history of the building as a royal palace or enjoy the architectural features of the stuffy,
overcrowded rooms. Finally, in addition to the intellectual side of the trip, I was really proud of the students for getting to grips with Parisian public transport and learning how to navigate themselves around the city in their free time and on the treasure hunt. Like any journey, we had some challenging moments with inclement weather, strikes and protests, petty crime, illness and losing our bearings occasionally. However, overall we had a fantastic time in Paris, enjoying all the wonderful history, heritage and delights that the city has to offer!