Monday, November 06, 2006

Paris - If you Need a Reason, Go for the New Museums

When I was a student in Paris, I loved to spend lost afternoons in the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in the Marsan Wing of the Louvre Palace on the rue du Rivoli looking at dusty cabinets full of ceramics and fraying tapestries. It was a quiet oasis in a bustling part of Paris which had masses of beautiful objects but little popular appeal. Those days are long gone.

Following a 10 year, €35 million refurbishment, the recently reopened decorative arts museum is a stunner, and if ever there was a case to be made that France has “owned the luxury goods space” for the last 500 years, the case is made brilliantly in the Musee des Arts Decoratifs. Each one of the 6,000 objects on display literally screams at you, “Look at me! I am beautiful”. This may be the stuff of everyday life, furniture, fabric, porcelain, wallpaper and toys, but it is definitely not life as we know it. From the “over-the-top” bed of the courtesan who was the inspiration for Emile Zola’s scandalous novel “Nana” (just imagine what went on there) to the re-creation of Jeanne Lanvin’s 1920s apartment, this is all fabulous stuff fabulously displayed.

The excellent English language audio guide tells the story of 500 years of French savoir faire and style with just the right combination of detail and narrative. There is now a restaurant in the museum that serves lunch and dinner daily and a huge and very good gift shop. If you are of the persuasion that “knick knacks” could never be as interesting as paintings, this museum will change your mind. Interest has soared since the museum reopened on September 15 and if you do not want to wait in line, be sure to either purchase a museum card or pre-book a ticket on the website or through FNAC .

But such is the richness of Paris’s cultural offering that the Musee des Arts Decoratifs is only one of three superstar museums to open or reopen its doors to the public this year. Jeff, Eloise and I made half-assed attempts to get in to see both the new Musee du quai Branly, Jacque Chirac’s €200 million monument to ethnic and primitive art on the Left Bank and the recently reopened L’Orangerie where, after long delays, a completely new space has been built for Monet’s mesmerising water lilies, but in both cases, with no museum passes and no pre-booked tickets, we took one look at the lines and went elsewhere. We also did not go during the late nights which both museums offer. The bottom line is that these places are too popular for spontaneity.

Just standing outside the enormous and radical Musee du quai Branly sitting outrageously in the 7th District, one of the grandest of grand Paris neighborhoods, is enough to signal that something completely different and exciting is going on here. Everyone says, as they have with the Tate Modern in London, that the building, not the collection, is the experience. In a way, who cares? I just want to get in and see the thing. Ditto for the Water Lilies.

It may seem counter-intuitive to the NoCrowds ethos to recommend going to precisely the museums everyone else is trying to see and yes, sooner or later, the crowds will lessen as the opening of some other celebrity monument steals their thunder, but I can’t help believing that if the Branly and the rebuilt L’Orangerie are half as fun and exciting as the Musee des Arts Decoratifs, then it is worth fighting to get in to see them while the paint is still fresh and they still have their mojo.

Musee des Arts Decoratifs
Tuesday – Friday, 11 am – 6 pm; Saturday and Sunday 10am – 6 pm
107, rue de Rivoli
Metro to Palais-Royal, Pyramides or Tuileries
Admission - €8 - €6.50 for students and seniors
Phone – 01 44 55 57 50

Musee du quai Branly
Tuesday – Sunday, 10 am – 6:30 pm
Late opening on Thursday until 9:30 pm
37, quai Branly
Metro: lena, Alma-Maceau
Admission - €10
Tel: 01 56 61 70 00
Fax: 01 56 61 70 01

Musee de L’Orangerie
Open everyday except Tuesday, 12:30 – 7:00 pm and 9:00pm on Friday
Jardin des Tuileries
Metro: Concorde
Admission: €6.50 - €4.50 for students and seniors
Tel: 01 44 77 80 07

Photo of "Nana's Bed" by Philippe Chanoel from the Musee Les Arts Decoratifs' website

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