New French Museums

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I’ve been really impressed with a couple of brand new museums here in Paris - the Musée de l’Orangerie which houses giant paintings by Monet, and the Musée du Quai Branly, President Jacques Chirac’s only cultural monument. They impress not just with their collections, but with the care, spirit and imagination with which the buildings themselves are done. But before talking about these a bit more, I want to touch on a couple of other museums here.

The Musée d’Orsay

This is probably my favorite museum I’ve been to anywhere. It’s been around for quite a few years now, and is a renovated train station. It has just the right mix of graneur and intimate scale, of new and old building materials, of moving you between light and shadow, and an imaginative way of partitioning spaces and creating flow that are characteristic of the newer museums also. This is what sets it above the Tate Modern in London, which is undoubtedly striking in concept (museum in an old brick power station) and in its lobby/atrium, but you soon realize that’s about all the tricks it has. It’s rather a one liner, whereas the Orsay keeps revealing new reads as you spend time in it. If you’re coming to Paris, definitely put this on your list.

The Louvre

OK, everybody knows this one and it’s been around for centuries, but there were a couple of things I appreciated this time that I thought were noteworthy. This was my first visit since the pyramid was built, so it’s been a long time. I quite like the look of the pyramid — particularly from the inside it has an intriguing effect of the old being framed by the new — but it is also used tremendously as an orienting device for the whole museum experience. The Louvre is famously sprawling and confusing, and the pyramid is effectively used throughout the museum to help you figure out where you are. I was also struck by the attention to detail of the exhibit vitrines and numbering, which so often are either bland or clear after-thoughts done as cheaply as possible. At the Louvre they are substantial looking, with just enough form expression that they interesting in themselves without being at all distracting. Lastly, if you go through the 17th/18th century French painting wing, make sure to look UP! They are housed in some of the most spectacularly decorated rooms in the whole place, yet almost no-one noticed the amazing paintings and tapestries and carving on the ceilings.

Musée de l’Orangerie

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This museum recently re-opened after a very extensive, six year long remodel that corrected some problems with earlier remodels. Sighted at the end of the Tuileries Gardens at the tip of the Champs-Elysées, the museum was specifically built to house very large scale water-lily paintings of Monet, who personally directed the conversion of the building from its previous use in the 1920’s. As you can see from the picture, these are panoramic in the extreme, and curve around to create a real sense of looking out onto the Giverny landscape where Monet had his gardens. They make Jackson Pollocks look small in comparison. The daylight pours in from the ceilings, and shifts and dapples depending on the cloud cover, giving a sense of dynamism from the paintings that is true to their creation. The museum limits the flow of people in at the door, so you have relatively empty rooms (certainly compared to the Louvre!) in which you can look at these giant paintings without too much visual interruption.

You can read more about the history of the building and the new renovation here.

The Musée du Quai Branly

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This is the new “statement” of President Jaques Chirac, his only significant cultural building. Jean Nouvel is the architect, who also designed the Institute du Monde Arabe (striking from the outside, mechanically unreliable, and a navigation disaster on the inside). The museum consolidates the anthropology and art collections of several smaller museums in Paris, and presentings a kaleidescopic and overwhelming vision of “non-European” art - arts of Africa, Oceania, Americas, and Asia. From the outside the building is similarly kaleidescopic and hard to grasp - it changes from every angle. Personally I liked it, and it avoids falling into any number of thematic traps that would have doomed it to being judged as paternalistic, symbolic of western colonization, or ignoring its internal subject matter entirely. (The NY Times has a good critique here.)

Inside you follow a roughly looping path that takes you through the different cultures and locations. The pieces are displayed along walls and in freestanding, 8’ high glass cabinets. The walls and ceiling are all in dark tones, and the lighting is superb, probably the most stunning I’ve ever seen in a museum. It manages to give an ambient glow at the same time it is pickout out objects with laser precision. There are also numerous cubbies and side rooms to wander into, making for an every changing experience. However, all these visual impediments do make it very difficult to keep track of even a small group! I also have my doubts about the durabiilty of some of the materials and finishes, some of which were looking worn a mere weeks after opening. Rubbing my hand against a nicely textured column, my palm came off covered in red dust.

While the loop aids in navigation, it also has the effect of blurring your sense of geography. You move seamlessly and without obvious distinction between the different cultures, one moment in Nigeria and the other in Tibet. As improbable as it may seem, the overall effect is one of consistency and commonality of cultures as expressed through colors, patterns and forms.

Is this a recanting of post-modernism? Not long ago the trend in museology was to reinforce the differences between cultures in a contextual manner, avoiding the “up with people” homogonization of classic (and popular) exhibits like the Family of Man. Branly appears to be pushing the pendulum back in the other direction and emphasizing common humanity, if not to the point of sameness. In a country recently rocked by riots by disenfranchised poor from France’s former black and muslim colonies, this is a significant message to be sending, particularly from a museum with the impramateur of the President himself.

But maybe this is what we need in our digital-binary world these days - a bit more sense of our common humanity and less emphasis on our differences, whether they be Democrat/Republican, Israeli or Palestinian.