The COMPA – Conservatory of Agriculture – was born following a national collection campaign of agricultural machinery begun in 1977. Choice of the future site of the museum was the Eure-et-Loir, an agricultural département [ed. note: administrative area similar to a county], the “granary of France”, located 100 km southwest of Paris.
When it was opened in 1990, the museum displayed 19th and 20th-century machines, essentially associated with the important grain-growing areas of France and the mechanization of agriculture. The vast plot the COMPA occupies also enabled demonstrations of tractors, ploughing and other implements that would bring to life farming for its visitors.
The COMPA is nonetheless a cultural site anchored in an urban landscape, a cityscape, close to the national rail station and the highway network. The museum is housed in a former metal-frame train station roundhouse. The site itself is at the junction of Chartres city centre and the suburban developments characteristic of the Mainvilliers neighborhood.
In spite of the origin of its collections, The Conservatory of Agriculture does not primarily welcome a rural population. In fact, its visitors mirror the image of museum visitors more generally: essentially an urban population, mainly young and family-oriented. A promotional poster from the 1990s that said “The COMPA, your museum of the countryside”, attempted to propose a window onto country life to a public seeking its roots as much as an outing in the country.
The museum, located in a farming area but in the heart of a town, and its public – more urban in spite of many visitors familiar with an agricultural heritage – bear witness to the continual relations the museum maintains, in accord with its initial project, between country and town, producer and consumer. The museum’s Scientific and Cultural Project recalled in 2012 that at a time when “one French person out of three lives in a city of over 200,000 inhabitants, when 90% of the population is urbanized and 70% of its farms are less than half an hour from a city centre, rural society can no longer be envisioned as an insular world.” Hence, based on a fundamental policy of temporary exhibits, the COMPA develops accordingly, for example, by representing the phenomenon of agricultural mechanization within a broader context and identifying new stakes involved with the world of farming and rural life. In a nutshell, moving from a technical museum to a museum of society.
In 2016, the museum brought a new visitors’ “pathway” into its presentations and, through its collections, endeavors to show how the borderlines between town and country have changed: after the rural exodus and urban sprawl, now we also speak of spotty development [ed. note: amusingly, termed mitage, “mite-holing” in French] and urban-rural intertwining [called rurbanisation].
Our collections are being enriched gradually with contemporary art works, approaches sensitive to agriculture and the countryside and new ways of looking at things, often, citified. But today, the elected officials of the Département are considering possible relocation of the museum. Might not a move to a rural area accentuate the gap between the museum and its diverse public?
Author: Justine Glemarec
Editor’s Note: Article originally published in AIMA Newsletter N°17, reproduced here with permission of the author.