Founded in 2019 by the Missions Étrangères de Paris (MEP), the France – Asia Research Institute (IRFA) looks after an exceptional patrimony inherited by this catholic priests society. The Institute aims at protecting and enhancing this patrimony, as well as making it available to all Far East enthusiasts.
The work of the IRFA is aligned with more than 360 years of research on the historical patrimony of the MEP, conducted by an uninterrupted lineage of archivists, historians, and researchers of all fields, which classified, preserved, and studied this patrimony.
Since their formation in 1658, the MEP have gathered a total of 4,300 members established across the whole of Asia. The MEP members first settled in Siam and Tonkin during the seventeenth century, before moving on to South India and West China in the following century. Members were finally deployed in all South-East Asia, Manchuria, Tibet, Korea, and Japan during the nineteenth century.
The collections these MEP members have left to the IRFA are made of documents produced as part of their missionary and scientific works in Asia. Items of the local culture that were given to or purchased by the members also constitute the MEP collections.
As the missionaries were encouraged to distance themselves from their origins and assimilate local cultures, their resources constitute an extraordinary testimony of the exchanges in terms of culture, knowledge, and skills that have linked France and Asia since the seventeenth century. They are a source of knowledge regarding religion, the accommodation of Christianism, and the associated international political issues, but they also inform us about the customs, histories, and languages of the Asian locals.
At the IRFA, the European, Asian, or international researcher will be able to draw original distanced perspectives from the archives, and therefore get a better grasp of the mixed worlds he is presented with.
The IRFA’s first mission is to ensure the durability of the documentary resources it holds. With the experience and expertise required for a proper preservation, the team works in different departments:
Within the funds dedicated to the archives, books, and photographs, we ensure that each document is preserved in the appropriate packaging and in an adapted climatic environment, thereby favouring their durability. Documents are also handled with all the necessary care.
Several documents are in danger of disappearing, either because of their old age or because of frequent manipulations. These documents are frequently digitised using the IRFA’s two specially designed scanners. After that, the pictures generated are preserved following the latest conservation protocols.
In the event of the rapid deterioration of a document, the IRFA hires curators – restorers, some of which are specialised in Asian papers or photographs. Depending on the situation, these professionals either stabilise the condition of a document, allow for its better readability, or accentuate its aesthetic qualities, respecting principles of historical integrity and reversibility. The restoration works are thoroughly documented, allowing us to keep track of the numerous interventions which a document can go through.
The IRFA’s primary objective is to welcome and provide guidance to every user coming to consult our resources for their research, whether in social sciences, theology, genealogy, natural sciences, linguistics, cartography…
In this regard, we offer multiple services:
Our collections are available to consult, by prior appointment, in our reading room in Paris. In the archives, the researcher will be able to find its way thanks to the inventories we elaborate (some of them are available online). The library catalogue is available online to plan your research beforehand.
For temporary requests, a department delivering digitised documents is also available.
Our website offers resources available to everyone for free: bibliographic records, bibliographies, articles, catalogues, maps, and photographs from our collections.
For the year 2022, the IRFA plans to launch research prizes to help young researchers whose work will have allowed for advances in the knowledge of transnational links between Asia and France, from the 17th to the 20th centuries, in the fields of religion, culture and politics.
A jury composed of academics will grant these prizes after studying the applications received.
In the future, IRFA wishes to provide editing facilities to researchers who have exploited its resources. The modalities are yet to be defined.
The IRFA aims to open its patrimony to everyone. A permanent exhibition, in the Salle des Martyrs of the Missions étrangères de Paris, reveals some of the items of our collections. Furthermore, one-time events are organised in Paris.
The IRFA may also lend certain items of its collections to other institutions and museums, as part of temporary exhibitions.
The IRFA promotes research and publication though partnerships with other scientific and cultural institutions.
The IRFA’s patrimony is one of an evolving institution, as the MEP are still established in Asia and in the Indian Ocean, through religious, cultural, and humanitarian activities.
Each year, our collections grow through the acquisition of items produced in missions, whether they are digital documents and photographs, daily life Asian objects, research works elaborated by members of the MEP…
Furthermore, the IRFA has a policy of acquisition:
Some missionaries were also great naturalists. The Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle notably relied on a network of collaborators in China to expand its collections. The archives of the IRFA are a wealth of information to document these exchanges.
Cécile Callou, university lecturer and researcher (Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle, Paris)
Going to the IRFA is a step into the Asian world. My research on the architecture of missionary churches in China greatly benefited from the hidden gems which hold its archives, photographic fund, and Asian library. There I could find letters from missionary builders, photographs of construction sites, and rare editions.
Thomas Coomans, lecturer in history of architecture and heritage preservation (KU Leuven)
When I was preparing my thesis on Paul Claudel and the missionary world, I visited the archives to look for documents relating to missions in Japan during the 1920s. (…) I managed to find multiple documents which shed new lights on Claudel’s thoughts, a catholic poet and ambassador in Japan, regarding the evangelisation of the Far East.
Moi Yoshida-Uesugi, lecturer (Tôyô University, Tokyo)
As well as a rich historical documentation acquired in the last centuries in both European and Asian languages, the IRFA has one of the best organised inventories among all the archival funds. In this regard, it is one of the most pleasant archival funds I have had the opportunity to visit in all my research conducted across three continents.
Pierre-Emmanuel Roux, lecturer (Université de Paris)
The ethnographic descriptions produced by the missionaries, the tales of their expeditions, and the collection of maps preserved at the IRFA allowed me to develop my thinking on geographical knowledge in South-East Asia.
Marie de Rugy , (Sciences Po/Université de Strasbourg)
Working on the history of modern-day Vietnam, the archives preserved at the IRFA are very valuable for me. Beyond the purely missionary perspective, this fund contains much data on Asian societies and their transformations interacting with Europe.
Hoang Phuc NGUYEN, student (EPHE, Paris)
When I was working on my thesis entitled “Thin-skinned China: anglophones and francophones facing Chinese bodies (1839-1914)”, I managed to consult procure archives at the IRFA. I notably investigated procure accounts, overflowing with practical information on the logistics of the missions, the role of Chinese messengers, the dietary and clothing practices of the missionaries.
Clément FABRE, PhD student (Paris I)