Perhaps frenetic is the best word to describe architectural and arts activity in Paris during the last two decades. While Mitterand was in office, the French government instituted a series of grands projets, thereby assuring that Paris would become the focus of international attention. A number of new museums were created, in part to relieve the Louvre of its overcrowding, and to establish thematic exhibits, typified by such locales as the Institut du Monde Arabe.
For those who plan to visit many monuments and museums during your séjour à Paris, Discover France offers the "Museums and Monuments Card" (Carte Musées et Monuments), valid for unlimited visits and priority access to approximately 70 locations in – and near – Paris. It can also be purchased at the Paris Tourist Office (127, avenue des Champs-Elysées), at its reception offices in certain Paris train stations, at the Eiffel Tower, in the major Métro stations, or at most of the 70 attractions. Cards are available in denominations valid for either one, three, or five consecutive days.
Since Parisians regard museum-going as a normal cultural pastime, most often indulged in on weekends, you should try to visit most exhibits on weekdays, if possible. Of course, if budgetary constraints are an issue, Sundays are often half-price and sometimes free. Private art galleries usually cost nothing, and the free views of Parisian architecture offer a grandiose experience in themselves, while the many street artists provide itinerant amusement.
The Salon Chopin, situated in the Bibliothèque Polonaise de Paris (6, quai d'Orléans, 75004), is a room dedicated to the memory of the composer, Chopin, containing personal memorabilia, paintings, manuscripts, documents, and music. Public access is limited to four guided tours on Thursdays or by appointment.
Three times the size of the Centre Georges Pompidou, the Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie is a massive monument with walls of glass, which would seem almost unapproachable if not for its Géode, a bubble of reflecting steel that seems like it was dropped from an intergalactic game of boules into a pool of water. Within the Géode, half the sphere consists of the largest projection screen on the planet. The Cité was built in 1986, with a futuristic rooftop lighting system designed to follow the sun across the sky. The permanent Explora show whisks visitors through 323,000 square feet of "space, life, matter and communication" exhibits, featuring scale models of satellites, planes and robots. A number of multimedia shows take place both in the second-floor Planetarium and the hemispherical cinema of the Géode, which are very popular with children. (Admission free with the card.)
Though it originally served as the royal tennis court, built under Napoleon III, the Jeu de Paume was converted into a museum at the beginning of the 20th century. As the Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume, it inherited an important collection of Impressionist paintings in 1947. Alas, this collection was transferred to the Musée d'Orsay in 1986. Recently, it has been converted to a showcase for contemporary art and photographic exhibits.
Drawing on various Parisian museums (including the Louvre) for its permanent collection, the Institut du Monde Arabe (Institute of the Arab World) was opened in 1987, and features 242 south-facing windows equipped with electro-photographic diaphragms, which react to the sun to create an atmosphere reminiscent of Arab musharabia scenes. Since its inception, the museum has struggled financially, waiting for the project funds originally pledged by 20 Arab countries. (Admission free with the card.)
Originally built in the 12th century as a royal fortress and palace for Philip II, the Louvre evolved into an immense complex of buildings erected over a span of four centuries, and is now one the world's great art museums. A full week's tour could not do justice to its daunting collection of masterpieces and antiquities, though the star attractions are fairly well indicated, so that a hurried tourist can manage in an hour's visit to ogle the Venus de Milo or squint at the Mona Lisa (La Joconde), protected behind a thick pane of glass since her unfortunate slashing. Much ado has been made about the museum's controversial new glass pyramid entrance, which was designed by I.M. Pei and railroaded past opposition from (former mayor) Jacques Chirac – and a whole chorus of architectural traditionalists – by then-president François Mitterand during the period of grands projets. (Admission free with the card.)
Founded in 1794 and established in the abbey of St-Martin-des-Champs, the Musée National des Arts et Métiers is a "depot of new and useful inventions". Marvel at the unique collection of 80,000 objects and 15,000 drawings, a testament to the ingenuity of humankind and the pioneering spirit of the industrial revolution. The museum recently underwent restoration work as one of a spate of major State building projects. (Admission free with the card.)
Situated in the Latin Quarter, the Musée de Cluny is a flamoyant Gothic structure built atop the ruins of second century Roman baths. The Hôtel de Cluny is one of the oldest residences in Paris, with stone and brick walls of the Roman frigidarium easily visible from boulevard Saint Michel. An impressive number of statues from Notre Dame cathedral are found inside the museum, in addition to many medieval tapestries, the most famous being the Lady and the Unicorn. (Admission free with the card.)
Approximately 2.5 million visitors throng to the Musée National d'Histoire Naturelle each year. On a par with the British Museum in London and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, the museum maintains vast collections, spanning botany, geology, mineralogy, paleontology and zoology. The children's favorites, naturally, are the dinosaurs.
Around 1873, at the end of the Second Empire, the Impressionist style was adopted by a number of Parisian artists, who banned the somber grey from their palettes and, instead, utilized the bright, clear colors that were to characterize this "new school" of painting. Works by painters such as Cézanne, Derain, Monet, Renoir, Rousseau and Soutine may be viewed at the Musée de l'Orangerie des Tuileries, located on the south side of the Tuileries terrace and overlooking Place de la Concorde. The Walter-Guillaume collection of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century masters also contains numerous paintings by Matisse, Modigliani and Picasso. It is a private collection, inherited by the state with the stipulation that it should always stay together, which is why none of these pieces were moved to the Musée d'Orsay. (Re-opened to the public on 17 May 2006, following six years of construction work.)
After falling into a state of disuse as a railroad station, the Beaux-Arts style Gare d'Orsay was renovated to become the spanking new Musée d'Orsay, marking a major reorganization of Paris' art collections. The sumptuous museum houses paintings and sculpture from the 1848-1914 period, bridging the gap between works at the Louvre and the Centre Beaubourg (Pompidou Center). Pivotal canvases by Manet and Impressionist masterpieces from Degas, van Gogh, Monet, Pisarro and Renoir may be viewed here, as well as Rodin sculptures, lots of Toulouse-Lautrec at his caricatural night-clubbing best, photography, architecture and literature of the nineteenth century. (Admission free with the card.)
Opened in 1985 in a renovated seventeenth century Marais mansion (Hôtel Salé) lushly decorated with stone carvings and wrought iron fixtures, the Musée National Picasso contains an unparalleled collection of paintings from all periods of Picasso's career. Acquired by the State as part of a deal with Picasso's heirs in lieu of inheritance taxes, the collection spans six decades of creativity, including the unabashedly ribald pictures the artist produced in his later years, as well as some fine sculpture. (Admission free with the card.)
Perhaps best known for his rendition of "The Thinker", Auguste Rodin was one of France's foremost sculptors during the latter 19th and early 20th centuries. One of Paris' most pleasant museums, the Musée Rodin now occupies the stately Hôtel Biron's house and gardens in the Faubourg St-Germain, where the sculptor once lived. Since Rodin left all his works to the State, visitors will find all their favorites there, such as the famous Kiss, the moving Cathedral, the elaborate Gates of Hell, the final proud portrait of Balzac, and the eternally absorbed Thinker. (Admission free with the card.)
Situated in the center of Paris, close to the Champs-Elysées, the Palais de la Découverte is Paris' original science museum, housing works and designs from Leonardo da Vinci's extraordinary inventions onwards. Replicas, models, audio-visual material and real apparatus are used to bring the displays to life. A permanent display covers man and his biology, light, and the principles of thermo-dynamism. Also offered are scientific experiments for budding genetic engineers, lectures, planetarium shows, scientific films, as well as a number of temporary exhibitions and children's activities.
A post-modern architectural showcase which some find fascinating and others abhorrent, the Centre Georges Pompidou serves as a heavily frequented cultural hypermarket. Nicknamed Beaubourg for the ancient neighborhood it now occupies, it attracts an average of 26,000 visitors daily, some of whom come solely for the ride in its glass-enclosed elevators or its breathtaking view of Paris. Housed within this complex you will find temporary exhibitions in the Grandes Galeries, or the superb collections of the Musée National d'Art Moderne. Treat yourself to art from all the "ism" periods: fauvism, cubism, dadaism, surrealism, nouveau realism, as well as abstract and Pop Art. On the ground floor, the cinémathèque offers up an excellent film programme daily, while dance performances and concerts take place in the basement.
Author: Ian C. Mills © 1998- – All Rights Reserved.
Bibliography: Fodor's Exploring Paris, Fodor's Travel Publications, New York. The Real Guide - Paris (Revised), Kate Baillie & Tim Salmon, 1992, Prentice Hall, division of Simon & Schuster Inc., New York (out-of-print). The TimeOut Paris Guide (2nd Edition), Penguin Books USA Inc., New York (out-of-print). Pariscope.
Image sources: Institut du Monde Arabe (exterior view), from Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Watt's Steam Engine, ca. 1781, from Musée National des Arts et Métiers. Hôtel Salé, © Musée National Picasso.
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