Last month, my favorite Paris museum revealed that it is reducing its use of Roman numerals on exhibit plaques. The Musée Carnavalet, housed in a stunning Renaissance-period mansion, offers visitors the fascinating history of Paris for free. Its doors have been closed for the last 4 years—first for remodeling and second due to the pandemic. As part of their grand re-opening announcement, they slipped in the fact that some of the signage has been simplified in an effort to inform a wider audience. This seemingly minor detail is creating quite a stir.
Note: I’ve quoted the French press several times below. If you hover your cursor above the text, an English translation appears.
Kings, Queens, and Centuries
When the Musée Carnavalet announced that they would be replacing Roman numbers with Arabic numbers, critics ranging from historians to journalists to linguists threw up their hands in despair. They weren’t buying the museum’s explanation that “les chiffres romains seraient un obstacle à la compréhension.“ Some of the descriptors I came across to characterize the museum’s decision are: “catastrophe culturelle“, “stupide“, and “fléau du politiquement correct“.
In addition to simplifying placards that name kings or queens, signs designating centuries have also been altered. In English, we typically use Arabic numerals for this—”the 19th century” rather than “the XIXth century”. However, in France, it has traditionally been more common to see Roman numerals—le XIXe siècle.
Four years ago, the Louvre came under attack after switching to Arabic numbers for naming the centuries. However, the Louvre still uses Roman numerals for the kings and queens.
I personally think “Louis 14” just looks bad. Yet, I imagine a fair number of people can’t tell the difference between “Louis XIV” and “Louis XVI”. To be fair, however, using Arabic numbers might not clear things up much. Those same people may still remain ignorant of the characteristics that define the two famous Louies—other than knowing which one came first.
A Critical Press
The European headlines are taking a rather extreme view of the situation. Le Monde writes, “Must We Put An End to Roman Numbers?” and La Dépèche prints, “Many French Museums are Giving Up on the Use of Roman Numbers”.
Unsurprisingly, the Italians seem to be the most scandalized by the whole affair. Three major Italian papers have denounced the decision. The front page of Rome’s most popular daily, Il Messaggero leads off with, “Roman numbers are forbidden in Paris museums, historians rebel.”
Italian editorialist, Massimo Gramellini, writes, “First we stop teaching things, then we eliminate them to avoid making those that aren’t familiar with them uncomfortable.”
The museums argue that they’re simply making their collections more accessible to a public that has increasing difficulty deciphering the Roman notation. They point to children as well as parents who are too often overheard misreading the signs to their kids. They also claim that Asian tourists, as well as people with learning disabilities, are more likely to consume the Arabic numbers than the Roman ones.
François Martin, president of the Organization of Teachers of Ancient Languages estimates that “moins les gens verront les chiffres romains, moins ils sauront les lire”.
Adversaries of the new policy point out that in the United States we just witnessed Super Bowl LV and American citizens (who tend to know very little about European history) have flocked to theaters to watch Star Wars Episodes I thru IX. Is it possible that Roman culture is embraced more in America than in the streets of Paris?
Some worry that changes such as this are leading to the slow death of “l’enseignement de la culture classique” in France. Meanwhile, the British publisher, Bloomsbury, offers a Latin translation of Harry Potter. In Spain, replacing Fernando II (King Ferdinand II) with Fernando 2 is considered a spelling error. Mon Dieu!
Hardly a Revolution
Noémie Giard, in charge of the Musée Carnavalet’s public service department, reassures the public that only a small portion of the museum’s signs have been modified.
“Je confirme que tous les visiteurs qui viendront au musée Carnavalet au moment de la réouverture, pourront bien lire Louis XIV, XV, ou Henri IV en chiffres romains, sur tous les cartels et même pour les enfants, et c’est uniquement, sur 170 textes, sur un ensemble de 3 000 contenus, qui ont été produits pour le nouveau parcours dans le musée, que nous avons choisi d’appliquer cette mesure d’accessibilité universelle.”
“I’m confirming that when we reopen, all of the visitors that come to the Carnavalet Museum will be able to read Louis XIV, XV, or Henri IV in Roman numbers, on all of the information plates, even those for children. And, that [the new Arabic numbers] only appear in 170 texts out of a total of 3000 new labels that have been produced for new routes through the museum that are handicap accessible.”
For now, most museums in France are steadfastly sticking to the Roman system. The director of the Musée des beaux-arts in Rouen stated that a “museum is without a doubt one of the places where we continue to encourage [Roman numbers] and explain them.”
From where I sit, on the other side of the Atlantic, the reaction of the European press seems overly distraught. I’m hoping that the Arabic numbers are either short-lived or continue to persist as a minuscule minority. I tend to agree with Le Figaro, however, which described the modernized annotation as ce qui pique aux yeux.
Vive le roi Louis XIV!
What do you think? Is this much ado about nothing or one step down a slippery slope to ignorance?
- France inter, Non, les chiffres romains ne sont pas bannis au musée Carnavalet à Paris
- France Inter, Louis XIV ou Louis 14 ? L’Italie défend ses chiffres romains
- LaDepeche.fr, Plusieurs musées français renoncent à l’utilisation des chiffres romains
- l’Obs, Des musées français abandonnent les chiffres romains
- Courrier international, Vu d’Italie. Louis XIV devient Louis 14
- Le Figaro, Louvre, Carnavalet… Quand les musées renoncent aux chiffres romains
- Europe 1, Le Louvre et le musée Carnavalet revoient l’usage des chiffres romains
- Wikimedia Commons