Musée Carnavalet Got a Gorgeous Facelift

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Musée Carnavalet Got a Gorgeous Facelift

More than four years of work were necessary to revamp the Musée Carnavalet, dedicated to the history of Paris. The result proves that it was worth waiting, since what used to be a slightly faded, very traditional museum has now become a welcoming institution, fully adapted to the less-abled visitors, while still offering the most complete overview on how Paris has evolved across the centuries.

Roman Ruins from Lutetia on display at the Carnavalet Museum. (C) Sarah Bartesaghi Truong

The museum was born out of one of the greatest urban destruction programs ever planned. Baron Haussmann, at the time prefect of the Seine (a position equivalent to today’s title of mayor), feeling guilty about razing entire areas of the city to transform it into the beacon of modernity Napoleon III wanted, decided to grant the use of the Hôtel des Ligneris, a 16th-century mansion recently acquired by the municipality, to house a museum celebrating the history of the Ville Lumière.

French Revolution Memento at the Carnavalet Museum. (C) Sarah Bartesaghi Truong

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The mansion had a storied past. Together with parts of the Louvre, it was the only example of a Renaissance palace still intact, plus it had also housed illustrious residents like Madame de Sévigné, one of the most wittily acerbic writers of the 17th century.

17th-century interior from the Hotel Colbert De Villacerf, displayed at the Carnavalet Museum.(C) Sarah Bartesaghi Truong

Madame de Sévigné’s desk at the Carnavalet Museum. (C) Sarah Bartesaghi Truong

The brief for the new museum was simple: to illustrate how the city had evolved and grown over time, thanks to the display of objects and works of art associated with its history. No reproductions here, but real vestiges of the past, saved from destruction by scholars and ordinary people alike, sharing a common passion for Paris. It was a labor of love that mushroomed into a collection so large that, in 1989, the institution annexed a neighboring building, the Hôtel Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau, a 17th-century mansion famed for its orangery.

The museum’s back courtyard with the Henri IV bas relief. (C) Sarah Bartesaghi Truong

Today the new displays are articulated chronologically. Starting from the basement, where the pre-historic origins of the city are traced, the visitor discovers how the Romans shaped the development of Lutetia after defeating the Gaulish tribe of the Parisiis. Making one’s way upstairs, traveling through the Middle Ages, and all the way to the 16th century, the museum comes to life.

Art Deco ballroom interiors by by Jose-Maria Sert for the Hotel de Wendel, reinstalled at the Carnavalet Museum. (C) Sarah Bartesaghi Truong

Because it is from this period onwards that we are afforded a glimpse of how people really lived, with period room after period room. Certainly, the view is slightly biased: most of what was salvaged belonged to the wealthy and the famous (like Madame de Sévigné’s writing desk or Marcel Proust’s bedroom), but there are also mementos of the life of commoners, like the collection of shop signs that greets the visitors as they enter. It is a priceless heritage and one that can inspire not only foreign visitors but also the locals.

Historic shop signs displayed in the entrance of the Carnavalet Museum. (C) Sarah Bartesaghi Truong

The renovation has involved not only the architecture but also all of the 3,800 objects, works of art and decor on display. Gone are the dark, dusty vitrines, so reminiscent of the 19th century; in are white walls and LED lights. Much has been written in the French press about swapping Roman numerals in the exhibition labels, to make them more accessible to a general public unfamiliar with them (think of the Sun King as Louis 14 instead of Louis XIV). In reality, these simplified explanations sit side by side with traditional in-depth descriptions (in French, English and Spanish), preserving the sensitivities of the more assured museum-goers.

Front courtyard with the restaurant Les Jardins d’Olympe. (C) Sarah Bartesaghi Truong

The overall experience is positive if slightly tiring. To explore the whole museum in detail, one needs to have at least three hours to spare, because the information on offer is plethoric. But keep in mind that Carnavalet is part of the Paris Museums network, where access to the permanent collections is free of charge, so it would be very easy to pop in and out for a shorter tour, and go back for the rest some other time. On the day of my visit, with so few tourists around, the only language I hear is French, but I am sure that, when travel fully resumes, Carnavalet will draw large foreign crowds too, because it is the best place to learn how Paris came to be the City of Light that we know and love.

Musée Carnavalet
23, rue de Sévigné, 3rd
Tel: +33 (0)1 44 59 58 58
Open from Tuesday to Sunday from 10 am to 6 pm.
Closed January 1, May 1 and December 25
Free access to the permanent collections.

Lead photo credit : 18th Century Interior (C) Sarah Bartesaghi Truong

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Sarah Bartesaghi Truong has lived, studied and worked in Milan, Paris and London. Her lifelong passion for art in all its forms and her entrepreneurial dreams were the catalyst for a career change: she left the world of investment banking to go back to school, at the Sotheby’s Institute of London. Ten years ago, she moved back to Paris, the ideal location for an art-lover. As an Italian in Paris, she decided she would keep playing the tourist in her adoptive home town, always on the lookout for the many wonders the French capital has to offer to the curious explorer. VeniVidiParis, the company she founded, plans curated itineraries in the French capital and its vicinity for travellers wishing to discover the city’s vibrant art scene, but not only. Take a look at her recent discoveries on her Instagram feed, @venividiparis, or contact her at [email protected] for help planning your next Parisian vacation.

Comments

  • Judith Hendershot
    2021-07-08 01:53:37
    Judith Hendershot
    A lovely article, on a wonderful museum. But I was horrified to see that Louis XIV is now Louis 14???? How sad. I thought more of Paris!! America is well known for its need to "dumb down" for its increasingly ignorant, uncaring citizens. I never thought that the French would stoop to the same sorry level.

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  • Judith Goldstein
    2021-07-01 09:12:01
    Judith Goldstein
    Your newsletter is most inspiring and I have recommended it to many friends. As a Francophile, I cannot think of a better publication to keep you abreast with the new and exciting events in Paris. This is definitely the destination I am aiming for on my next trip.

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