De l’Amour at the Palais de la Découverte: Love Viewed through a Cultural Lens

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De l’Amour at the Palais de la Découverte: Love Viewed through a Cultural Lens
A stack of stuffed animals welcomes visitors to a blockbuster exhibit at Palais de la Découverte, the science museum in the center of Paris, originally part of the Grand Palais.  In 1937 the elaborate structure– built in the surge of construction that also included the Eiffel Tower, the Grand Palais, Pont Alexandre III and the Petit Palais— was designated as an exhibition space for “Art and Techniques in Modern Life”, an international collaboration. It was then converted to serve the nation as a center for science display, exploration and education. In 1986, the enormous Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie was built on the edge of Parc de la Villette to offer a broader range of permanent and temporary exhibits, a larger planetarium, a 360-degree theater, and more open spaces for programming. The Palais de la Découverte continued to thrive and 10 years ago the two science museums officially merged. With its central and easily accessible location, the Palais de la Découverte has remained a destination for curious visitors of all ages as well as for researchers. In the past 20 years, in addition to more permanent installations, we have enjoyed exhibitions ranging from the social lives of ants to the anatomy of hair to the experience of heat and cold. During more than 100 years, however, the infrastructure of the beautiful building has been aging.  On August 30, 2020, the Palais de la Découverte will close for four years, moving some of its resources temporarily to a 770 square meter construction by the garden Caroline-Aigle in Parc André Citroën. In 2024 the renovations will reveal increased accessibility, improved security, and expanded modern programming that can accommodate 21st century technology, enhancing pursuit of the museum’s mission of welcoming students, researchers, and visitors who are interested in scientific inquiries that illuminate the historical, the current day, and future possibility. Currently, two temporary exhibitions, one on love (“de l’amour”) and the other on magnetism, are gifts to the public before this cultural gem begins its transformation. “de l’amour” explores the topic of love from two perspectives – that of experience, as captured through the humanities –  in philosophy, poetry, film, sounds, and art, and that of research, viewed through science –  biology, sociology, anthropology, psychology, psychiatry, chemistry, and neuroscience. The humanities section comes first, a decision which felt to me, as a research psychologist, just right. After all, the first task of science is to describe a phenomenon. What better way than to explore the meanings of “love” across the range of human expression?  And metaphor has always expanded meaning. Collections of poems and prose, written in French, English and Spanish, are sprinkled throughout displays on the kinds of love defined by ancient Greek philosophers: eros, or passion; agape, or selfless love (as in altruism); storge, love for family; and philia, abiding friendship. Attachment, empathy, yearning and sharing can characterize them all.  At the entrance to the exhibit, a tower of stuffed animals, eternally embraced by children of all ages in Western cultures, greets the visitor. They symbolize the centrality of attachment,  first to a caregiver and then to what D. W. Winnicott, the famous British developmental psychiatrist, labeled a “transitional object”. Soft playthings are often our first emotional attachments outside of our caregivers. To the credit of the designers of the exhibit, ambivalence speaks subtly through playthings that have been the target of violence as well as affection. Nor have they ignored the conflicts of parenthood: mixed feelings are expressed in many writings and in a sound booth filled with written and spoken words that capture the full range of human emotion. As a research psychologist, whose investigations focused on love relationships, I believe that the more two people can permit depth and nuance in experience, the more honest and enduring their bonds can be. Following “Attachment”, the first section of the exhibit winds through observations of and commentaries on physical passion, complete with a label at the entrance to a video that is clearly inappropriate for certain sensibilities, even, or especially, for children living in a culture that openly embraces sexuality. More writings, displays, illustrations and interactive opportunities appear and then the story continues as the visitor steps into the second part of the exhibition, the world of scientific studies of love. An introductory film, “Parlez-moi d’amour” (Speak to me of love) features eight experts describing their research programs on topics as diverse as the “real” reason Japanese men are buying lifesize sex dolls to the importance of “exchange”, whether of material goods, information, acts or other means in the management of a love relationship, and the biochemistry of love. Researchers in anthropology, sociology, philosophy, psychiatry, and chemistry offer descriptions of their work accompanied by charming animations. Subtitles appear in English or Spanish translations beneath the original French text in two alternating versions of the engaging 25-minute large-format film. One thesis of the exhibition stresses how digital technology has transformed the ways in which people are now forming and maintaining personal connections. The impact of electronics is especially strong on those in younger generations and for people who hold less traditional sexual preferences. Three-dimensional models show where and how people are now meeting their eventual sexual partners and the trajectories the relationships take after initial connections are made. Nearby, a texted conversations appear on a giant screen, as flirting takes place in virtual reality. In an adjacent area, an interactive game allows two people to imagine what they might exchange with one another depending on the goals of the relationship – from a casual “one-night stand” to a lifelong commitment. An underlying model of economics seems to drive…

Lead photo credit : Image credit: N Breton-EPPDCSI-87

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Roni Beth Tower, author of the award-winning memoir "Miracle at Midlife: A Transatlantic Romance", is a retired clinical, research and academic psychologist and a dedicated Francophile.


  • Diana Y. Paul, author of Things Unsaid
    2020-01-23 16:36:32
    Diana Y. Paul, author of Things Unsaid
    Thank you for this wonderful coverage of an exhibit about love, that we will unfortunately miss on our trip to France in September. Very informative--feel like I glimpsed a bit of the experience we'll miss.