Rennes’ small but impressive collection of museums reflects the city’s unique cultural identity — both proud of its traditional Breton heritage and fueled by the creativity and innovation of its large student population. From cutting-edge contemporary art to a rural eco-museum; here are six of Rennes’ best museums to add to your itinerary.
Behind the futuristic glass-paneled façade of the Champs Libres cultural center, the Brittany Museum takes visitors on a walk through the region’s fascinating history. Effectively capturing both the region’s traditional charm and the enduring spirit of the Breton people, the museum’s permanent collection includes over 3,000 artefacts, among them traditional costumes, ancient artworks, gold coins, and prehistoric objects. Additional highlights include a multi-media presentation depicting Brittany through the ages and a special exhibition on the notorious ‘Dreyfus Affair’, a political scandal that made the headlines in the late 19th century. Temporary exhibitions are also hosted regularly, with previous themes as varied as train travel, drinking culture, magic and sorcery, migration, and French advertising.
Opening its doors back in 1794, Rennes’ Fine Arts Museum — the ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ — was built to house masterpieces seized during the French Revolution and its collection remains among the most impressive outside of Paris. Inside, art enthusiasts can admire works by masters such as Rubens, Véronèse, Chardin, and Picasso in the elegant setting of an 18th-century palace. Notable works include ‘The Newborn’ by Georges de La Tour, Rubens’ ‘La Chasse au Tigre’, sketches by Rembrandt and Leonardo Da Vinci, a number of surrealist paintings by Yves Tanguy, and a collection of Ancient Egyptian antiquities.
The FRAC (Regional Contemporary Art Fund) is the central hub of Brittany’s contemporary art scene and home to one of the most varied collections of contemporary art in France. Situated in a space-age building — the design of acclaimed French architect Odile Decq — it’s brimming with inspiring pieces from paintings and sculptures, to video displays and dramatic installations. The center hosts five or six temporary exhibitions each year, as well as numerous events and workshops.
For fans of contemporary art, a visit to La Criée Center of Contemporary Art should be at the top of the to-do list. Located inside the Halles Centrales, Rennes central market hall, the center presents an ever-changing series of temporary exhibitions and a roster of artistic events, talks, and workshops held throughout the year. It’s free to enter and showcases the talents of homegrown artists as well as others from around the world, with the focus always on pushing the boundaries of creativity. Past exhibitions have included sculpture, installation art, digital art, photography, and multi-media with subjects, including local artists such as Yvan Salomone, Laurent Duthion, and Francis Lord, as well as international artists like Jan Kopp, Gianni Motti, Olga Kisseleva, and Boris Mikhailov. Speaking French will help you get the most out of the experience, but many exhibitions offer translations and you’ll still be able to enjoy the exhibitions.
Escape the city and get a taste of rural life in the Ille-et-Vilaine countryside with a visit to the Rennes Eco Museum (Ecomusée du Pays de Rennes). Set around an innovatively restored farmhouse on a plot of 19 hectares, the Ecomuseum is both a working farm and an exhibition space. Visitors can explore the crop fields and orchards, meet the farm animals (including Breton breeds such as Ouessant sheep, black Janzé chicken, Chèvre des Fossés goats, and Breton horses), and learn about farm life in Brittany from the 16th century to the modern day. Most of the signages are in French.
Also located in the Champs Libres cultural center alongside the Brittany Museum, the Rennes Science Centre (‘Espace Science’) has innovative exhibitions, interactive displays, and multi-media presentations to engage any age. Kids can put their knowledge to the test at the Merlin Laboratory, where they can create a ‘tornado’, experiment with the laws of physics, and play with animated images. Other highlights include an exhibition devoted to the world’s biodiversity and a planetarium, which hosts spectacular shows throughout the day.