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Roles of accounting practice in a public setting: the case of the Parisian Great Exhibitions (1855-1900).

By Céline Michaïlesco and Karine Fabre


The five Universal Exhibitions held in Paris between 1855 and 1900 share the particularity of having been, unlike their British counterparts, financed first wholly, then in part, by the Government. Public financing led to public finance principles (budgetary and public accounting) being applied to the organisation of the Exhibitions. Along with these, the organisation in charge of running these events imported a set of well-formatted techniques. However, these techniques (budgeting and accounting technique) were part of a highly specific type of organisation that bore all the hallmarks of a project:  an Exhibition is characterised by strong notions of vision, intentionality and voluntarist action: it seeks to achieve objectives (of presentation/democratisation and dissemination) which require a certain number of specific activities to be set up, the results of which, subject to uncertainty or exogenous variables, must be measured both as preparations advance, and then again retrospectively, after the event.  an Exhibition is an event limited in time and space (it opens on a given date and for a length of time decided by the law (or decree) and its organisation is traditionally divided into four well-defined phases: preparation, realisation, exploitation and liquidation. The principles of public finance must therefore be adapted to a specific organisational environment and in particular, to the managerial constraints of the event. The system of accounting information is very much part of a process of organisational perception, governance and strategic mobilisation. The Universal Exhibitions provide an original field of investigation for examining the roles attributed to accounting within the framework of the organisation of such events. The originality here derives as much from the context (a project to be managed over a period of time and where no tool or project management model existed (Michaïlesco, 2007)) as from the public nature of the accounting technique used. Indeed, since knowledge of public accounting practice is incomplete, the study of organisation by the state would seem extremely interesting for the history of public finance (Thuillier, 1999). From this point of view, the Universal Exhibitions organised in Paris during the second half of the 19th century were organised under two different political regimes and within two distinct public finance frameworks. Changes in the regulations governing public finances had an impact on the powers bestowed on the organisations in charge putting on the Exhibitions. The accounting systems which were set up therefore had to be adapted to fit within the time limit. Moreover, public accounting was designed with the aim of controlling the collection of taxes and their use (Lemarchand, 1999), which is different from running an Exhibition, in particular if the event is seen in terms of project management. This change of objective modified the use of accounting systems and led to the emergence of specific roles that had to evolve as a result of both the accumulation of knowledge and the political context. The aim of this article is therefore to analyse the role of public accounting within the framework of the five Universal Exhibitions organised in Paris during the second half of the 19th century. The analysis was carried out using Burchell & al.âs classification system (1980). The latter distinguishes between four types of role assumed by accounting systems with reference to the characteristics of decision-making within an organisation. Indeed, decision-making is affected by adhesion to an objective and the uncertainty surrounding the consequences of the action taken. Depending on the degree of adhesion and uncertainty, decision-taking is described as âdecision by computationâ, âdecision by judgementâ, âdecision by compromiseâ, or âdecision by inspirationâ. The roles of accounting ascribed to these are as follows: âanswer machinesâ, âlearning machinesâ, âammunition machinesâ and ârationalization machinesâ. Two groups of Universal Exhibitions have been identified: those held under the Second Empire (the 1855 and 1867 Exhibitions) and those held under the 3rd Republic (the 1878, 1889 and 1900 Exhibitions). This division into two main periods allows us to take two important factors into account: on the one hand, the change of political regime that influenced the rules of public finance and on the other, the constitution of fairly general principles for the running of these events. The comparative study of these two groups of Exhibitions reveals that two distinct roles can be allotted to the accounting systems: a learning role during the Exhibitions of the first period, then a rationalization role in the case of the Exhibitions held during the second period. Under the Second Empire, the Universal Exhibitions financed exclusively by the Government were supported by strong political, economic and social aims. The importance given to holding such an event dispensed these projects from control by Parliament, whose influence had already been weakened considerably under Napoleon III. Although the decision to organise an Exhibition was unanimous, lack of knowledge on how to run such a project meant there was great uncertainty as to the consequences of decisions since the concept was new. Experience of running such a wide-ranging project therefore had to be acquired. An accounting system based on the rules and principles of public accounting and adapted to the events in question therefore met these needs. Within the framework of the Universal Exhibitions organised under the Second Empire, accounting may therefore be analysed as a learning instrument and aid to decision-making (learning machine). The arrival of the 3rd Republic and with it the return of strict parliamentary control, saw great controversy emerge as to the economic usefulness of Universal Exhibitions and the financial implication of the Government in their organisation. The difficulty in obtaining a consensus on how they should be run led to a process of retrospective justification in which accounting acquired considerable importance. Despite the financial disengagement of the Government, the principles of public finance were still applicable but had evolved as a result of changes in the political and economic environment. Experience acquired in the organisation of the preceding Exhibitions reduced the uncertainty inherent in evaluating the consequences of decisions taken. However, the need then arose to rationalize the existence of these events and the use of the private finances obtained. Budgetary procedures were strengthened and there was an overproduction of information in the shape of financial reporting and statistics. In this context, the accounting system, which had been adapted many times after the first Exhibitions as a result of changes in the environment, was then used to rationalize the action taken (rationalization machine). The documents used to carry out this study are of two different kinds. On the one hand, there are the various documents generated by the organization of the Exhibitions (correspondence, plans of the exhibition palaces, photographs, administrative and accounting documents etc.) that were presented to the national archives by the Ministry for Commerce between 1877 and 1910 (de Maurepas, 1998). In addition to these documents there are the official reports written by the general commissioners of the successive Exhibitions assessing the organisation of the events and the results (these reports are available in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and the Bibliothèque des Arts Décoratifs).finance publique; système d'information comptable; Rôles de la comptabilité;

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