Is Paris Experiencing a Museum Renaissance?

Antoine Mercusot

Several of the city’s major cultural institutions are being transformed. What new stories do these venerable buildings have to tell?

When some people refer disparagingly to Paris as a museum city, they mean that Paris is stuck in its glorious historical bubble and fights hard to stay there. You could say much the same thing about the Musée Carnavalet, which tells the story of Paris itself. It is a fitting museum for the museum city. The magnificent hôtel particulier where it is housed had been falling apart for decades. And for just as long, its vast hodgepodge of objects had been untouched by either flair or logic. Neither charge is fair any longer. Paris is updating itself furiously, particularly around its edges. The Musée Carnavalet, for example, will reopen this spring after more than three years spent freshening up its historic home and figuring out how to display its sprawling collection in a stylish, modern way. Its 39,000 square feet of exhibit space has been completely reimagined. Some 85 rooms have been reconstituted. At last, what’s old is new again.


From left: © Artefactory Lab ; Tadao Ando Architect & Associates ; NeM / Niney & Marca Architectes ; Agence Pierre-Antoine Gatier. Courtesy Collection Pinault – Paris; Heloise Blier

It has been a laborious task. The Hôtel Carnavalet was built starting in 1548 for the president of the Paris parliament, which makes it one of the oldest private residences in the Marais. It was finished more than 100 years later by the celebrated architect François Mansart, and was home for a time to the renowned letter writer Madame de Sévigné. The city of Paris turned it into a museum in 1866, and took over a second mansion down the block in 1989.

“The old museum was pretty chaotic,” said Nathalie Crinière, the designer who worked on the planning. “There isn’t a single room that resembles another, and the height of the floors keeps changing.” The need for some stripped-down, un-Baroque thinking is among the reasons the hypermodern Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta was hired to collaborate with François Chatillon Architecte on the project.

The new Carnavalet pulls off a neat balancing act. It manages to enhance its old-world grandeur, but it feels livelier and less stuffy. A painting from 1795 depicting a massive revolutionary rally on the Champs de Mars, one of the collection’s highlights, gets a soundtrack of the music composed for the occasion, which called for 300 wind players and a chorus of thousands. An actor now declaims speeches by the orators Mirabeau and Barnave so visitors can hear how they whipped the sansculottes into a frenzy during the French Revolution. The reconstitution of Proust’s writing room, another Carnavalet favorite, now explores how the eccentric genius might have worked against a background of music by Proust’s pal Reynaldo Hahn. “The works themselves can tell us what to do now,” said Valérie Guillaume, Carnavalet’s director. “When I started, we didn’t have all these multimedia tools.”

Guillaume isn’t the only Parisian museum director to pick some of these new tools and apply them to their monuments. Everywhere, curators are pouring new wine into old bottles. The Musée de la Libération, a triple-header museum devoted simultaneously to the Liberation of Paris, the World War II general Philippe Leclerc, and the Resistance martyr Jean Moulin, opened last August on the Place DenfertRochereau in the 14th Arrondissement. It occupies an old laboratory building that served as the hidden HQ for the Resistance in Paris.

At the heart of the museum is the underground warren, almost 200 feet down, where Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy directed the French Resistance fighters in the days before the city was liberated. There’s not much to see in the bare concrete rooms and corridors—or at least there wasn’t until a guide handed me the headset for a virtual reality tour the museum was still testing. Suddenly, a life-sized Colonel Rol-Tanguy materialized and started explaining Resistance strategy, while his wife, Cécile, tapped away at a typewriter in an adjoining room. There are still kinks to be worked out (I had a little trouble following my virtual guide, a young French trooper who would occasionally evaporate), but the sudden breath of life, even virtual life, into these chilly rooms was enchanting. “I just knew this would be a success when I descended the empty stairs and stepped aside to avoid a bench,” said Sylvie Zaidman, the museum’s director. “Of course, there was no bench.”

Another resourceful new museum opened last summer in the Hôtel Gaillard, in the 17th Arrondissement. The splendid mansion was built in 1878 for the banker Émile Gaillard, who took his design cues from some of the old French châteaux. The Banque de France bought the building in 1919 and turned it into a branch before deciding more recently to make a museum out of it: an economics museum, which makes sense but may strike some as a dull proposition. Far from it. La Cité de l’Économie, or Citéco, has deployed the full interactive tool kit to make the dismal science playful and interesting. It helps that its neo-Renaissance setting, lovingly restored, supplies visual dazzle all on its own.

And so the bloodless subject of global interdependence is enlivened by a photo montage of a French veterinarian
at work, progressively stripping away the images of anything not made in France until the poor doctor is left nearly
naked in a nearly empty room. An entrepreneurial game challenges players to launch a hit sneaker. Meanwhile, the museum makes sure somebody is close at hand to answer any questions. I confess I wasn’t looking forward to my visit, but I was wrong. Citéco is a charming surprise.

The mix of old and new awaited most eagerly in Paris museum circles is the transformation of the 19th-century Bourse de Commerce into a home for billionaire luxury magnate François Pinault’s collection of contemporary art, called the Bourse de Commerce—Pinault Collection. (It is set to open in June.) If you’ve been to Les Halles, you may recall the striking circular building, topped by a flattish glass cupola, at one end of the esplanade. Pinault, the founder of Kering luxury group, selected the Japanese architect Tadao Ando to refashion its interior. Ando has inserted a massive concrete cylinder to serve as the museum’s spinal column.

It’s an interesting choice. Pinault’s archrival in all things, LVMH chief executive Bernard Arnault, chose to build his own legacy museum, the Fondation Louis Vuitton, from scratch in the Bois de Boulogne. He hired Frank Gehry to design the big glass whale that looms over the park today. Pinault opted for the interplay of Paris past and Paris future. The two tenses are no longer enemies. Calling Paris a museum city is starting to mean something altogether different.