One of the first cities in Europe to award itself a museum devoted to its own history, Paris will soon have one of the continent’s most modern as the Musée Carnavalet reopens this month following a spectacular five-year, €58m (£50m) renovation.
Opened in 1880 at the suggestion of Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, who realised 20 years earlier that the mammoth programme of urban renewal he was carrying out would obliterate much of the city’s past, the museum had not been overhauled since.
For a century and a half it grew, spilling out of its original home in an elegant 16th-century hôtel particulier in the Marais district and expanding into an equally imposing mansion next door as its collection swelled to more than 615,000 artefacts.
“It has always been a favourite museum of Parisians,” said Valérie Guillaume, the museum’s director, “because it was authentic, it reflected daily life. But it had become a bit confusing, a bit chaotic. The renovation has allowed us a complete rethink.”
The museum’s mile-long circuit is now in chronological order, displaying 3,800 exhibits – about 60% of them previously in storage – from 8,000 years of history from prehistoric times to the present day, up to and including the 2015 terrorist attacks and the April 2019 fire that nearly destroyed Notre Dame.
Dictated by the need to bring the decaying fabric of the two ancient hôtels up to present-day norms, the makeover, financed mostly by Paris city hall and overseen by François Châtillon, a state-appointed architect who advises on historic monuments, has been seized on to create a light, airy, fluid and thoroughly modern museum.
“It’s actually more of a renaissance than a renovation,” said Carine Rolland, the city’s deputy mayor for culture. “The beauty of the buildings and the richness of the collections merited it. It’s all become clearer, more coherent, more accessible.”
Interactive displays feature filmed interviews, documentaries, audio recordings and games, while more than 10% of the exhibits – ranging from paintings, sculptures, posters and photos through furniture and historical objects to medals, coins and archeological artefacts – are presented at child’s height.
A magnificent collection of eclectic old shop signs, from 17th-century eateries, watering holes and herboristeries to 20th-century pharmacies and cafes (“Coffee and free croissant, 20 centimes”), opens the permanent collection in a bright gallery.
Downstairs, a basement not previously open to the public houses collections dating from the Mesolithic to the Renaissance periods: the pre-Neolithic jawbone of what could be the first Parisian, dugout prehistoric canoes, worn medieval shoes, wooden bowls, carved 14th-century heads with startling stares.
Heading upstairs up one of three new curved staircases leads visitors to the 17th and 18th centuries, and particularly to the spaces devoted to the Revolution – including a display devoted to one Pierre-François Palley, who for a while made a good living flogging souvenirs made from the stones of the Bastille prison.
There is a slipper and a shift belonging to Marie-Antoinette, and the last order signed by Louis XVI, telling his Swiss Guard, as the Tuileries were stormed by the sans-culottes, to “lay down their arms instantly, and retire to their barracks”.
Joseph-Ignace Guillotin – of eponymous decapitation machine fame – has his portrait on display, while a stone street sign from the rue St Hyppolyte has had its “St” neatly chiselled off by de-Christianising revolutionaries. Later revolutions, including the insurrection of 1832 recalled by Victor Hugo in Les Misérables, the 1848 uprising and the Paris Commune of 1871, are similarly honoured.
The Carnavalet’s 30-plus “period rooms”, transplanted wholesale from assorted grand buildings around the capital, are another highlight, including the fabulously opulent ballroom created for the private mansion of the Wendel family on the Quai de New York by the Catalan artist Josep Maria Sert using sepia-glazed sheets of silver.
Marcel Proust’s bedroom is faithfully recreated, assembled from three of the writer’s addresses but mostly from his final home at 44, rue de l’Amiral-Hamelin and featuring, besides his fur overcoat, walking cane and brush, the brass bed on which he wrote most of A la recherche du temps perdu. (Visitors can sit and listen to extracts).
City hall hopes the renovation of the oldest of Paris’s museums, which reopens on 29 May, should help boost visitor numbers, which hovered around the 400,000 a year mark before its closure in 2016 in part because its dusty collections and confusing layout deterred foreign visitors who prefer the capital’s better-known museums.
Like all the 14 museums run by the city, entrance to the Musée Carnavalet’s permanent collection is free, with visitors charged only for temporary exhibitions – the first, Revisiting Paris, devoted to the work of photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, opens on 15 June. A Proust exhibition is scheduled for December.
“We have really aimed for excellence,” said Guillaume, adding that while nationwide museum closures during France’s successive coronavirus lockdowns may have taken pressure off the team in some ways, in others it made the renovation project harder, with restorers and conservators coming from abroad forced to quarantine.
“This makeover is truly intended to serve Parisians, and all who love Paris. We’ve tried to preserve the Carnavalet’s authenticity, magic and charm, while presenting its exhibits in an altogether more modern and accessible way. I trust we’ve succeeded.”
• This article was amended on 24 May 2021. François Châtillon is not the architect in charge of France’s historic monuments, as stated in an earlier version, but one of several architects appointed by the state to advise on such monuments.