Five Lesser-Known Paris Museums

 Photo by Milena Glicenstein

Photo by Milena Glicenstein

When it comes to Parisian museums, I love the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay as much as anyone. I havespent countless hours wandering the two and I’ve enjoyed every step that I’ve taken on their marble floors. I’m currently trying (studying?) to become a national curator in France, and was fortunate enough to do an internship at the Musée d’Orsay. One of the many perks of this internship was that I could enjoy the museum after hours. The first day, I found myself alone, facing the gigantic Dance by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux and felt overwhelmed by the crushing energy emerging from the sculpture – it’s a feeling I’ll always remember as a great aesthetic shock.

However, Paris has many other museums to offer, covering almost every period and type of art. So, if you’re planning a trip to the city anytime soon and would like to get away from the crowds for a few hours, or if you would simply like to browse their collections online, this is a subjective list of my five favorite lesser known museums in Paris:

 

The Cluny Museum, the National Museum of Middle Ages

Victor Hugo said about the Middle Ages that “in those days, they saw everything thus, without metaphysics, without exaggeration, without a magnifying glass, with the naked eye” and that may be why medieval art holds such a mysterious attraction to some of us today. If that is the case for you, then you’re in luck as the Cluny Museum curates one of the most beautiful medieval collections in Europe.

 If you had to see just one piece: The great masterpiece of the museum is indubitably the gorgeous set of six tapestries entitled The Lady and the Unicorn. Each tapestry represents one of the five senses: taste, sight, touch, smell, and sound, illustrated by a scene between a fair lady and an adoring unicorn at her feet. The last tapestry mysteriously reads “to my sole desire”, an obscure declaration that has produced considerable critical literature.

However, I have an even more pronounced fondness for this golden rose from the fourteenth century, a diplomatic gift from the Pope to a pious personality, that will satisfy all your Beauty and the Beast feels. 

 

The Museum of Decorative Arts

If you are an admirer of Decorative Arts as well as Fine Arts – and if you’re a reader of the Attic, you probably are — you need to visit the Musée des Arts Décoratifs (MAD), located just next to the Louvre.The Museum was created at the end of the nineteenth century, in the wake of the Universal Exhibitions, when applied art was beginning to gain recognition, and links between industry and culture were multiplying to result in what we now call ‘design.’ The Museum gathered an impressive crowd last year, when it presented a spectacular Dior exhibit — however, you will never have problems getting in to admire their permanent collection. 

If you had to see just one piece: The MAD recreated the Salon du Bois from the Exposition Universelle of 1900, the world’s fair that consecrated Art Nouveau – and it is a rare pleasure to dive, if only for an afternoon, into the refined taste of the turn of the century.

The Museum of the Quai Branly, the museum of extra-occidental art

Although the Museum of the Quai Branly is a delightful harbor in Paris where you can appreciate the novelty of amazing exhibitions, the freshness of a beautiful garden, and the appeal of the elegant restaurant Les Ombres (the Shadows), I was not sure about whether I should add it to this list. Some have argued that the curatorial project at the heart of the institution fetishizes extra-occidental culture,  and it makes us wonder if it can really be labeled a ‘post-colonial’ museum. 

The Quai Branly is also currently at the heart of a complex political and ethical matter in the French curatorial world. Like every colonial empire, France has gathered an extraordinary collection of extra-occidental art throughout its history, sometimes legally but often through theft, dispossession, and exploitation. Today, foreign countries, especially African countries, are rightfully claiming back what is theirs. Problematically, French public collections are inalienable, which makes it legally impossible to sell them, dismember them, or simply give them back. European jurists are currently working on this issue, and the result of their work will certainly be a landmark in post-colonial history. 

I would strongly advise that you visit the Museum of the Quai Branly, if only to reflect upon what can, and cannot be a museum in a post-colonial age.

If you had to see just one piece: Although I’m not a specialist of Indonesian art, I have a special fondness for this gorgeous Hudoq spirit mask — Hudoq being a thanksgiving festival of the Dayak ethnic group of the East Kalimantan province. These masks represent bush spirits, called upon to purify the village.

 

The Gustave Moreau Museum

Have you ever visited an artist’s studio? If you have, you probably remember the disconcerting feeling of, on the one hand, experiencing awe and respect, as you’re standing right there in the alchemist’s den, the place where matter magically became art — and on the other, of a slight boredom, as the most interesting works usually are long gone in various museums. Fortunately, some studios have succeeded in maintaining the intimate atmosphere of the artist’s space and of simultaneously displaying the quality of their works. Gustave Moreau’s former atelier, now a national museum, is one such place. 

Moreau was an unusual artistic figure in nineteenth century France, who infused his pieces with delicacy and symbolism, leaving his barely sketched mythological figures — princesses, warriors, foreign kings — to fade into his richly decorated backgrounds. Yet he was also the master of the most prominent artistic figures of the fauve movement at the turn of the century, including Henri Matisse, a group known for their clashing colors and vibrant personalities.  

If you had to see just one piece: I personally love The Apparition, a canvas depicting the biblical episode of the beheading of Saint John the Baptist. Moreau chooses to focus on the gracious silhouette of Salome, pointing her finger towards the supernatural apparition of the head of Saint John the Baptist floating in the air, bloody and luminous at the same time.

 

Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature (The Museum of Hunting and Nature)

This one is rather counter-intuitive. I’m not at all fond of hunting and I’ve never found much interest in taxidermy museums, and yet, I find an odd pleasure in wandering through this unusual museum, which juxtaposes hunting trophies and contemporary art in the very distinguished decor of an eighteenth century private mansion. 

The Museum of Hunting and Nature is, to put it colloquially, basically a hipster joint-turned-museum, and I mean that in the best possible sense. There are countless events, imaginative displays, and unique works of art to admire amongst a young crowd of frequent visitors that make this tour worthwhile. 

The museum also takes its social responsibility at heart and advocates for wildlife preservation and ecological consciousness in a pedagogical yet aesthetically pleasing way. 

If you had to see just one piece: The Japanese contemporary artist Kohei Nawa is currently displaying his PixCell-Deer, a piece that mixes elements from traditional Japanese culture and contemporary technology. His work challenges our perception in an enchanting way, not unlike Hayao Miyazaki, in order to renew the sacred imagery of Nature. It may be what art is all about: cracks at the surface of the vision, letting a mysterious light shine through. 


Milena Glicenstein has taken on the dantesque task of trying to pursue the career of a national curator in France, a path close to academia, fascinating, exhilarating, and yet distilling its very own fragrance of hell. In the meantime, she tries to find comfort in softness, good books, and the beauty that surrounds her.