In spring 2003, Thomas Hirschhorn wrote to me about his desire to build a Precarious Museum in collaboration with the Laboratoires d’Aubervilliers, a public cultural organisation based in the Paris suburb where he lives and works. He explained that the viability of his project hinged upon the availability of certain loans from the Pompidou collection. Yet, as this was an artistic proposition and not an institutional exhibition, his request could not be treated as a conventional loan.

Like any art historian or essayist, Hirschhorn asserted his own criterion – artists who he believed wanted to change the world through their work – in order to select the eight artists that made up the Musée Précaire’s exhibition programme: Marcel Duchamp, Piet Mondrian, Kasimir Malevich, Andy Warhol, Salvador Dalí, Le Corbusier, Joseph Beuys and Fernand Léger. It was crucial, in his view, to show major works such as Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel, or important paintings by Mondrian and Dalí – no second-rate pieces.

It was an unusual proposal, as was the context in which the works were to be shown. Our first reaction was rather sceptical: can we, and should we, follow this request? However, we had a great deal of confidence in Hirschhorn because of his strong personal engagement in similar projects in the past, so we decided to enlarge the scope of our collaboration in order to find a way to make these loans possible.

Bruno Racine, our president at Centre Georges Pompidou, was keen to work with the local community to develop the project, and the idea emerged that the Centre Pompidou could participate with Thomas and the Laboratoires in organising an intensive, practical job training programme for the young people who would be involved in running it.

After doing several short internships – such as working on the installation of the Biennale de Lyon – a group of twelve young people had a two-month full immersion in the different departments of the Centre Pompidou, including security, art handling, framing, installing and public information and education. Since they were well prepared before the opening, there was a strong sense that this Musée Précaire belonged to them. The hands-on involvement of the residents of Aubervilliers was always at the heart of the plan, so we approached the training programme as we would any other professional internship. We made no special exceptions because of the size or the ‘precariousness’ of their future museum.

The result was a quite extraordinary atmosphere. On the one hand there was this incredibly relaxed environment. Under usual circumstances, people tend to act differently in a museum – such as lowering their voices as they walk around the space. Yet in Aubervilliers, the residents did not change their everyday behaviour. There was music playing. There were kids hanging out in the Musée Précaire’s café, playing and running around in front of the exhibition space. In stark contrast though, there was an air of utter dedication when it came to the young people employed by the museum. It was obvious that they took their jobs extremely seriously. One could sense that they felt the responsibility and trust confided in them by the Pompidou in lending them these artworks.

Centre Pompidou’s ambition is continually to develop new audiences and to take modern art and culture to a wider public. Contemporary art cannot always compete with more popular forms of mass culture, such as cinema or pop music, and we are not always successful in reaching all sectors of the public. Yet, as this particular project was initiated by an artist who took on the task of involving people who would not usually come to us, the Musée Précaire provided a powerful lesson and experience for our staff.