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Musée Carnavalet | ©Francisco Anzola/WikiCommons
Musée Carnavalet | ©Francisco Anzola/WikiCommons
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Carnavalet Museum: A Historic Hidden Gem

Picture of Clare McVay
Updated: 24 May 2016
The only reason the Carnavalet Museum is not as well known as the Louvre, Pompidou, and Orsay is because it undersells itself. When you hear that all its permanent collections are free, you naturally feel suspicious – either there must be some catch, or the exhibits don’t merit an admission price. Neither is the case. Hidden in the heart of the Marais, the museum has a wide collection of artifacts and artworks which pay homage to Paris throughout the ages.

There’s photography by Doisneau, posters from the 1900 World’s Fair, the chair in which Voltaire died (they removed him last week), and Zola‘s watch. It’s this variety and the volume of eclectic pieces which make Carnavalet such a unique and inspiring visit. That, and the impressive building itself.

©Shadowgate|Flickr
©Shadowgate | Flickr

History

The main body of Carnavalet is formed from one of the oldest townhouses in the Marais. You can tell its age from the Renaissance style, rarely found in Paris, and like one of the capital’s best-known Renaissance buildings, the Louvre Palace, it has an impressive courtyard. It was lucky to survive the Revolution when anything seen as opulent was destroyed. The building was commissioned for the use of Jacques des Ligneris, then-president of the Parliament of Paris, who unfortunately died waiting for it to be completed, in 1556. Construction began in 1548 and lasted 12 years.

Big names of the French art scene and aristocracy have been continuously drawn to this attractive building from its earliest days, beginning with the powerful sculptures by Jean Goujon gracing its doorways. The first owner to actually live in this former hotel is to thank for the unusual name, which unfortunately has nothing to do with a carnival (though the idea of acrobats and fire-throwers lounging in its hallways will always appeal). The moniker ‘Carnaval’ stems from a distortion of the surname of a one Madame de Kernevenoy of Brittany, who took up residence in 1578. The next owner, Claude Boislève, arrived in the 16th century along with the famous architect Francois Mansart, altering the building considerably. Later, the Marquise de Sévigné would also make it her home.

It was not until the late 19th century that the museum we know today started to take shape. At the start of the Revolution, anyone with riches fled Paris or faced the guillotine (of which there’s a cute model in the museum). This meant that the building’s use as a private residence was over. At the beginning of the 19th century, it was occupied by several educational institutions before the city of Paris bought it back in 1866 with the intention of turning it into a museum to celebrate the capital’s history.

Baron Haussman, the man behind the complete redesign of Paris’ cityscape in the 1860s, commissioned the young architect Victor Parmentier to oversee the building’s renovation. All was going swimmingly until 1871 when the fires of the Paris Commune destroyed all that was to be displayed in the museum. For this reason, it was not until 1880 that its doors finally opened to the public.

Because the museum also had to house the historical library, which was being developed to replace the collections that had been burnt at City Hall (the Commune really liked fire), an expansion was needed, and new wings were built from the remnants of other city buildings due for demolition. In 1896, the Hôtel Le Peletier was drawn into the expansion when the library was moved to its quarters, and the collections were able to expand a little. But still more room was needed, and in 1907, construction work began, doubling the surface area of the museum. This construction was somewhat delayed by WWI and was not completed until 1920. Later, more buildings were raised around two of the courtyards, and the garden beds were redesigned in 1950. And that is where most of the monumental changes ceased. Phew.

Let’s take a stroll around these now impressive grounds to unwind.

Highlights

Like all living things, Carnavalet continues to grow and change. In addition to the eclectic permanent collections, the museum also welcomes temporary exhibits, of course, for which you have to pay. Normally of high quality, you may well be enticed to spend a little extra to check one out after your free visit of the permanent exhibitions (maybe that’s the catch).

For a brief glimpse into the permanent collections, however, here are a few of our favorite things:

The Gardens: The gardens are home to some thousand different thriving plant species, so make sure you don’t just pass them by when visiting the museum. In contrast to the English garden style, which is wild and yields to nature, the French garden’s goal is to display man’s control over nature – or so the story goes. Carnavalet’s gardens are most definitely constructed in the formal French style, made popular by Louis XIV (if you visit his gardens at Versailles, you’ll understand why). Everything is symmetrical and sculpted, with strategically placed statues and water features all working together to create near-optical illusions. Even the vegetables are treated as artwork. Despite this rigidity, it’s a calming and tranquil setting in the heart of the bustling Marais.

Carnavalet | Courtesy of Katherine Almeira
Carnavalet | Courtesy of Katherine Almeira

The Sign Room: Perhaps the most popular collection – a huge range of Parisian shop signs spanning from the 16th to 20th centuries. The ornate nature of many of these was meant to engage and help the many customers who couldn’t read. Although adult literacy rates have much improved in recent times, a little more of these above shop doorways would not go amiss.

Models and Miniatures: Want to see the Bastille before it was overrun? Wonder what a pre-Haussmann Paris looked like? Tempted to get up close and personal with a guillotine? The museum has a collection of roughly one hundred models of buildings, monuments and landscapes that were destroyed or forgotten. They are displayed on a rotating basis, with normally around 30 on display at any given time.

Interior Design: For something to truly take your breath away, be sure to find the section with shop interiors from different ages. Our favorite has to be Georges Fouquet’s Jewellery Boutique. He commissioned Czech artist Alphonse Mucha to design his shop’s interior to reignite interest in the artistry of jewelry. Alphonse believed in the sensuality of nature and subscribed heavily to art nouveau trends. Entering his creation, one can see why: a more beautiful, luxurious and yet fragile room does not exist. Just bring us some diamonds and champagne and leave us here, thank you.

Louis XV's room | ©Ernest McGray /Flickr
Louis XV’s room | ©Ernest McGray /Flickr

Musée du Carnavalet, 16 rue des Francs-Bourgeois, 75003 Paris, France, +33 1 44 59 58 58

(From April 2016, intensive renovations are taking place, so be sure to check in on their website to make sure the collections you wish to see are available.)