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The history of Paris brought up to date at the Carnavalet museum

The main building of the Carnavalet museum is a 16th century mansion in the Marais district © Cyrille Weiner

There will be no lack of curiosities when the Carnavalet museum, dedicated to the history of Paris, reopens on May 29 after five years of renovation. One of them is particularly significant: when the visitor arrives in the rooms dedicated to the French Revolution, he will no longer be greeted by a portrait of Louis XVI. The King of France was replaced by a painting from the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789, the key civil rights document of the time.

The change in perspective was made possible by a complete overhaul of the museum, carried out with accessibility and consistency in mind after a century and a half of haphazard expansion. The City of Paris bought the main building, a 16th century building mansion in the chic Marais district, in 1866. The objective was to house its collections as well as archaeological finds and objects donated by the public, but they have grown to such an extent that the global space has quadrupled over time . In the 1960s, a second, adjacent Hotel has been attached to the Carnavalet to accommodate everything.

This made the visits somewhat chaotic: before the museum closed in 2016, prehistoric finds were located a short walk from the ornaments of the Napoleonic era. “The renovation allowed us to rethink the route from start to finish, in chronological order,” explains Valérie Guillaume, director of Carnavalet since 2013. The scale of the project was such that she says she has hardly had time to miss the visitors: “There was just too much to do.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 now welcomes visitors © CC0 Paris Musées / Musée Carnavalet

The result is elegant rather than flashy. The stunning collection of Carnavalet store and building signs, spanning four centuries, still welcome visitors to the same airy gallery, but one of three new curved staircases, all in warm black wood tones, leads up to now discreetly on the upper floors.

The major structural changes, some made necessary by modern accessibility requirements, are the result of three architecture and design agencies, headed by François Châtillon, the architect in charge of historic monuments in France. Snøhetta, the Norwegian agency in charge of major international projects including the Oslo Opera House, also played a key role.

The 17th century study by Édouard Colbert, Marquis de Villacerf © Pierre Antoine

The improved exhibition spaces should breathe new life into Carnavalet, often neglected by tourists in favor of the great renowned Parisian museums. It’s a shame because, unlike the Louvre or the Musée d’Orsay, the Carnavalet – once Italo Calvino’s favorite museum, according to his autobiography Hermit in Paris – is free, like all the other museums managed by the city. Visitors are only charged for temporary exhibitions (the first will be devoted to photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, from June 15 to October 31).

The Carnavalet is one of the 14 museums managed by the City of Paris, and the renovation was generously funded by the French capital, to the tune of 55 million euros (94.5% of the total cost). “It’s the history of Parisians,” explains Carine Rolland, Deputy Mayor of Paris in charge of culture. “We really wanted to bring him into the present.”

Sign for the cabaret Le Chat Noir (1881) by Adolphe-Léon Willette © Eric Emo / Musée Carnavalet / Roger-Viollet

This is exactly what the new permanent exhibition does: whereas previously the Carnavalet collections only took visitors in the 1910s, additional rooms now cover the 20th and 21st centuries. They remain quite modest, especially when it comes to the last two decades (memorized mainly through photographs of events including the terrorist attacks of November 2015), but Guillaume intends to continue to acquire works of art and recent memories. .

More impressive is the newly opened basement, devoted mainly to the prehistoric, ancient and medieval history of the city. A lost gargoyle of Notre-Dame de Paris has managed to get out of the 615,000 reserves of the Carnavalet; the collections also include the first known stone inscription mentioning the “Parisii”, the Gallic tribe which gave its name to modern Paris, previously known by its Roman name, Lutèce.

Reconstruction of Marcel Proust’s bedroom, with the author’s original furniture © Pierre Antoine

Elsewhere, major attractions have a little more room to impress. A reconstruction of Marcel Proust’s bedroom, made possible by the donation of the author’s original furniture, is no longer stuck in a small alcove. Context was added, including audio recordings of In Search of Lost Time.

The many other period rooms of the Carnavalet have retained their splendor. Among them, the vast ballroom decor designed by Josep Maria Sert i Badia in the 1920s for the Wendel hotel in Paris, raised in 1989 to be exhibited at the Carnavalet, is enough to make you want to waltz in the otherwise empty room. Red-painted draperies give the character-laden murals, inspired by the Queen of Sheba, a sense of theatrical movement, even meandering through puffy clouds on the ceiling.

The 1920s ballroom designed by Josep Maria Sert i Badia for the Hotel Wendel © Pierre Antoine

The history of Paris is so rich in twists and turns that it remains a sensitive subject in France. This is especially true in the 19th century, when successive revolutions led to imperial regimes, attempts at democracy, and even the short-lived, utopian socialist government of the Paris Commune, exactly 150 years ago. When the Carnavalet opened, less than a decade later, it displayed what scholar Felicity Bodenstein called “age-old relics”, Including Napoleon’s toothbrush, in an attempt to arouse the emotion of visitors and to build a story around the“ great men ”of France.

Today, the Carnavalet strives to change that narrative and learn from recent studies, as the rooms of the French Revolution indicate: in addition to the modified displays, Guillaume is installing new audio recordings of speeches and stories. individual, highlighting different facets of events. “We wanted to bring additional elements and perspectives,” explains the director.

‘Ragmen at the Porte d’Asnières, Cité Valmy, zone of fortifications’ (1913) by Eugène Atget

Renewed attention was also paid to the religious diversity of the city, with rediscovered medieval Jewish tombstones, and to the history of Parisian women – starting with the 17th century writer Madame de Sévigné, who lived in the main district of Carnavalet. mansion and called it his “Carnavalette”.

If the pandemic has postponed the reopening, initially scheduled for 2020, it has not had as much impact on the closed Carnavalet as on other French museums – even if it has created some difficulties. “The manufacturer of the new showcases is German, so with the mandatory quarantine, we had a very long wait whenever he needed to be here during the winter,” explains Guillaume.

The Carnavalet has a superb collection of store and building signs spanning four centuries © Cyrille Weiner

At the end of May, the new Carnavalet will compete with the many cultural institutions that are reopening their doors after six months of restrictions linked to Covid. However, between the anniversary of the Commune and the recent bicentenary of Napoleon’s death, it has a lot to contribute to French cultural life – and, for foreign visitors, it is perhaps the right introduction to the many controversies of Paris.