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Museums & Monuments

Musings on Museums

Musée Carnavalet

This week the Sun has come out, and it’s actually warm enough to skip the gloves and hat. This, of course, means everyone has abandoned the indoors and the terraces and park benches have once again become hot property on a Saturday afternoon. Bound by my desert-raised idea that warm is anything over 90 degrees, and inspired by my recent visitors’ 3-day museum marathon, I decided that it was a good time to check out the nearly empty museums!

How many museums are there? And how many different exhibits do they have going each month? Could you guess the number of free art exhibits there are all over Paris in lots of unexpected places? The answer to all of these questions: beaucoup! We all know the familiar ones like the Louvre, the Musée Rodin, d’Orsay, Carnavalet, Picasso, Dali, Pompidou, and Cluny. These are the classics, and you can save yourself a lot of wandering time by purchasing the CD-Rom’s in advance, deciding which pieces you really need to see in person, and then move on to some truly unique exhibits.

Mr. Hall and I went to see two photography exhibits from the Patrimoine Photographique at the Hôtel de Sully (it’s not a hotel) on rue Saint-Antoine. Both were a bit off the wall. The first is Joel-Peter Witkin in a collection titled Discipline and Master, where twenty-six works are placed next to the historical photos that inspired them, with small descriptions. If you know Witkin, it’s classic stuff; if not, check out the web page first, and don’t count on bringing the kiddies along unless their names are Wednesday and Pugsley Adams. The second, and strangely complementary, exhibit is titled Criminal Photography: The Corpse and the Seen [sic] of the Crime, 1860-1930. Real bullet holes in heads look nothing like they do on TV, folks. This runs until March 26th and costs 25ff. A bit morbid, perhaps, but you could check out the Catacombs and Père LaChaise Cemetery and make a day of it!

Where does one find out about these little hidden treasures? There are usually quite a few current exhibits listed in the Time Out Paris, and every last one is included in the weekly Pariscope (you’ll have to sift through a lot of French, but all the info is there). If you go to the Paris Pages and check Museums, you’ll get a very nice bilingual description of many museums that won’t be listed in your mini guide books. For example, just under the letter ‘P’ (they’re listed alphabetically), we find 16 museum listings. There are the old faithfuls like the Musée Picasso, Musée du Petit Palais, and Musée Pasteur, but maybe you’re an Edith Piaf fan (Musée Edith Piaf), or a collector of antique Bru dolls (Musée de la Poupée). I like the Pavillion de l’Arsenal at Metro Sully-Morland (just across from the best discount plant shop in Paris, Monceau Fleurs), because I can always wander in and check out the free exhibits about Parisian architecture and urbanism (I know there are a few architecture buffs out there). Until April there is an exhibit titled Les premières fois qui ont inventé Paris, which is about how objects in our environment affect our attitudes about the city (from Abattoir to Zoo).

The official City of Paris website lists a bunch of places of interest (under the Visitors section, as if to ward off the residents), and there is the monthly featured exposition with a nice write-up in English. Today when I checked, I see there is Zoran Music’s Venice paintings from the mid-1900’s at the Musée Cognacq-Jay, Paris’ 18th century museum in the Marais. It looks very enticing, especially since I’ve never heard of this museum and it’s right up the street from Chez Moi.

You can have wonderful little moments in quiet off-the-beaten-cobblestone museum or gallery if you just wander around your own neighborhood or the area where you’re staying. Ask the locals like the concierge if there are any hidden places, or check some of the internet listings above for anything happening in your area that week. Whenever you go on a blind date with a museum, try to read up on the collection ahead of time if possible, or at least know a thing or two about the medium, time period, or artist you’ll see. It helps a lot when you find yourself in a tiny exposition that’s entirely in French (it happens). Otherwise, just enjoy your little foray into the unknown, and consider it to be a breather until your trip to the Louvre!

This article is one of the 78 original “Secrets of Paris” articles published between September 1999 and July 2004. After disappearing into the internet graveyard for almost 15 years, I’ve republished them in autumn 2019 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Secrets of Paris: “1999-2019: Twenty Years of the Secrets of Paris” Broken and dead links have been updated or deactivated, but otherwise the article remains unchanged. 

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