The musee Carnavalet or the historical legacy of Paris
Behind this somewhat mysterious name is hidden one of the capital’s most genuinely Parisian museums. The oldest of the municipal museums tells the story of Paris from a bygone era (a prehistoric dugout canoe dating from 4600 BC) to the present day, in all its immense variety.
Although it is essentially a history museum, the musée Carnavalet is nevertheless an art gallery exhibiting mostly original works in keeping with the spirit of the genius of Paris.
The story of Paris
In a remarkable architectural setting (twotown houses in the Marais district) the story of Paris unfolds in one hundred or so rooms and colourful gardens, which are home to some thousand thriving plant species.
As visitors wander through recreations of rooms in styles ranging from the 17th to the 20th century, they can follow developments in Parisian interior design, immerse themselves in revolutionary history from the French Revolution to the Paris Commune, and also enter into the private lives of famous Parisians, imagining for example, the Marquise de Sévigné at her Chinese laquerwork desk penning her famous missives, or even Marcel Proust in his bedroom, dividing his time between his brass bed and his little table covered in pens, ink and notebooks…
The presence of works of art, the bond created with famous people from varied intellectual, political and artistic backgrounds in the capital and also the emotional impact of the historical scenes are what make this history museum so original and contribute to the unique atmosphere which it conveys of the City of Light down the centuries.
A wealth of collections
With around 600,000 exhibits spread over more than one hundred rooms, the musée Carnavalet houses the largest overall number of collections in the city of Paris. There is a wide variety of exhibits, and archaeological remains sit cheek by jowl with views of Paris in bygone days, scale models of ancient monuments, signs, decorative elements from buildings which have vanished, historical or anecdotal scenes, portraits of prominent Parisians, mementos of famous men or depictions of everyday life, as well as a unique collection devoted to the revolutionary era.
Aside from the permanent exhibits, the museum also houses a collection of graphic art forming a major archive of drawings, etchings, photographs and posters, as well as a remarkable coin collection, both of which can be visited by appointment.
One museum in two town houses
The idea of a museum devoted to the history of Paris came about under the Second Empire, when a large part of the historic heart of Paris was being demolished.
In 1866, at the instigation of Baron Haussmann, the city council bought the hôtel Carnavalet to house the new institution. The building, which was constructed in 1548 and altered by François Mansart in the seventeenth century, was home to Madame de Sévigné from 1677 to 1696.
The museum opened in 1880. It has been extended several times and since 1989 it has also occupied the adjoining hôtel Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau, built in 1688 by Pierre Bullet. Its orangery, one of the last two remaining in the Marais, was restored in 2000 and houses prehistoric and Gallo-Roman collections.
Carnavalet, custodian of great Parisian interior design schemes
Whereas the museum buildings conjure up five centuries of Parisian architecture, a series of complete interior design schemes salvaged from destroyed or renovated buildings bears witness to the development of the capital’s interiors from the seventeenth to the twentieth century. Dating from the seventeenth century, the La Rivière rooms are symbolic by virtue of being the first interior design scheme to be moved and reinstalled in the museum as early as 1878, long before the invention of the so-called “period room”, making the musée Carnavalet a pioneer in this field.
The wooden panelling and painted ceilings came from the town house in the place Royale (now the place des Vosges) which the abbot La Rivière had renovated by the architect François Le Vau and the painter Charles Le Brun, when he purchased it in 1652.
The last major interior design scheme to be installed, in 1989, was the lavish Art Deco ballroom from the hôtel de Wendel, which was painted in 1925 by José-Maria Sert, thus perpetuating the musée Carnavalet’s reputation for tradition and originality.
In the late nineteenth century, architectural elements salvaged during demolition work in the old quarters of Paris were used to extend the museum around the gardens: the Pavillon des Marchands Drapiers (Merchant Drapers’ house, 1660), the central block of Hôtel de Choiseul, and the Arc de Nazareth, a Renaissance structure from the Île de la Cité, which provides a doorway into the garden.
The Victory statue is the original version of the statue which tops the Châtelet column.
Crédit photographique: Le salon d'angle © DAC - Antoine Dumont