The history of the “Saint-Jean property” really begins with Voltaire’s acquisition of the estate in 1755. The philosopher named his new residence “Les Délices,” or “The Delights,” and was to entertain numerous visitors there. He would even hold on to this property for a few years after he settled in Ferney, selling it only in 1765. The history of Les Délices, however, doesn’t end with Voltaire’s departure. Generally people are unaware that other well-known figures passed through this residence. Such is the case of Hector Berlioz, for example. Today Les Délices is a documentation center devoted to Voltaire and the 18th century, a museum, and a center of research in the Enlightenment.
Purchased in 1929 by the City of Geneva, the property housed an initial museum starting in 1945. The current museum was founded in 1952 and officially inaugurated on 2 October 1954, with Theodore Besterman at the head of the new institution.
It is Theodore Besterman, moreover, to whom we owe the creation of the first important collection of the Institut and Musée Voltaire. This Polish-born billionaire put part of his private collection of paintings and works of art at the disposal of the City of Geneva. He also left to the city a significant number of manuscripts (autograph letters, various archives) relating to Voltaire and the 18th century. A great connoisseur of Voltaire’s oeuvre and a tireless worker, Besterman managed to establish two successive editions of this prolific writer’s correspondence. After more than fifteen years spent living at Les Délices, Besterman retired to England, where the Voltaire Foundation of Oxford soon opened its doors, its mission to publish the massive Œuvres complètes, the definitive edition of the great man’s complete works.
In the 1970s the Institut et Musée Voltaire, now simply the Musée Voltaire, was placed under the direction of the Bibliothèque publique et universitaire, today’s Bibliothèque de Genève, and became a matchless tool for researchers the world over. We owe this to Charles Wirz, whose work is well known. Besides a number of publications on Voltaire, it is worth recalling that he also edited, among other texts, Rousseau’s Émile for the prestigious Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. The most notable event in recent years, however, is the renovation of the property in its entirety. Work began on 1989 and was only completed in 1994, in other words, for the celebrations surrounding the tricentennial of Voltaire’s birth. Jacqueline Burnand, the former administrative councilor in charge of development, construction, and highways, had laid out at the time the principles guiding the work being done, “Restoration of the building is less a return to an original state than a contemporary homage to the philosopher’s memory. To be sure, the authentic parts of this registered 18th-century building have indeed been conserved. The layout of certain rooms has been reestablished, and the structures of the walls, floors, and frame have been cleaned up and reinforced. But mainly the restoration is an invention in fact. That is, putting the woodwork back in place, organizing the exhibition rooms, and replanting the garden share in the creation of an evocative setting capable of supporting the in-depth work of the Institut et Musée Voltaire.”
In 2002 Charles-Ferdinand Wirz retired from his post and passed the torch to François Jacob, the senior lecturer at the University of Franche-Comté. It was at this time that the Institut et Musée Voltaire adopted a more active policy of cultural outreach with a proposed series of temporary exhibitions and a cycle of lectures and talks. The Enlightenment was now out to win over a new, contemporary audience.
In 2013 the Institut et Musée Voltaire became the Musée Voltaire de la Bibliothèque de Genève and redefined its mission, focusing more on research and increasing its presence in the panorama of research being done on the Enlightenment.
Today the Musée Voltaire is quite proud to house the largest collection of rare books and manuscripts on François Marie Arouet, known as Voltaire.