Every tourist has heard of le Louvre, le Musée d’Orsay or le centre Georges Pompidou. Though they are among the top world museums, you might wish during your stay in Paris to discover less famous and less crowded places. Here is our selection of four of the best museums in Paris that you might not know about yet.
It is based in the Palais de Chaillot and looks out over one of the most extensive panoramic views in Paris, opposite the Champ de Mars. It is one of the largest maritime museums in the world, due to the age and range of its collections which include models from every era, warships built in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, models of the last sail ships, explorers, tradesmen, fishermen, soldiers and freebooters to have sailed the seas, weapons, uniforms, maritime instruments and more. And of course there are the museum’s two star exhibits: Napoleon’s imperial barge built in 1810 and the ornate stern of Louis XIV’s Réale galley which was launched in 1694. Finally, magnificent paintings of the major naval battles recall the Homeric clashes which have been played out on the seas. I would recommend visiting this quite remarkable museum. But avoid taking along young children, even if it may seem like a good idea, as they are likely to become bored easily. And despite the fact that the seas create links to the outside world, don’t expect to find any signs, captions or descriptions in any language other than French.
Paris is bursting with mysterious spots, and there are infinite architectural exploits and places imbued with history to discover amidst its streets. The Palais Galliera is one such place. We already know the capital’s renown as a global influence on fashion; now the museum is contributing to making it sacred. It was on the initiative of the painter, historian and collector Maurice Leloir that the Société de l’Histoire du Costume was created in 1907. In the 1920s, the society made a donation to the City of Paris in the hope of obtaining a museum where it could display its creations. The Musée Carnavalet housed part of the 2,000 costumes in the society’s possession and dedicated some of its exhibition rooms to the collection. But they had to wait until the 1950s and, most importantly, the precious help of the Taylor Foundation before a decision was taken to transform part of the Cercle Volney’s historic salons into a costume museum. After successful lobbying by all involved, the museum took up quarters on the ground floor of Paris’ Musée d’Art Moderne.
In 1977, the museum spread its wings and moved into the Palais Galliera, thereby joining the select group of the 14 museums of Paris. This museum’s distinguishing feature, apart from its various exhibitions, was its restoration workshop, where identical copies of unique fashion items were made. The museum’s curators understood the importance of this element and gave priority to restoration, introducing a veritable laboratory for garments and accessories in a room spanning 4,800m2. In 2009, the prefecture ordained that the museum be closed for embellishment work on the courtyard, sculptures and offices and for the refurbishment of the exhibition rooms. When the brand new museum opened its doors again in September 2013, it underwent a third name change to become the Palais Galliera once again
The Petit Palais was built on the eve of the Exposition Universelle of 1900 along with its big brother, the Grand Palais, and made its name as a renowned museum from 1902 onwards. Located on Avenue Winston Churchill, which links the Champs Elysées to the Esplanade des Invalides, this major architectural structure is the work of Charles Girault, whose aim of embellishing Paris by creating a building in the style of an official palace resulted in this sparkling gem. The chief architect wished to make the building an ideal venue for housing the world’s most beautiful works of art. Two decades of thorough planning and meticulous work later, the magnificent décor, which remains the palace’s pride and joy today, was complete.
From 2001 to 2005, the palace was refreshed by way of renovation work aiming to restore the building’s original beauty and modernity. As well as using the latest technology to allow as much light as possible into the Petit Palais, the curators took advantage of the renovations to create new spaces within the building, such as the auditorium underneath the inside garden and the two basement floors that are used for control rooms and storage. Beyond all this pomp, the Petit Palais is crammed full of curiosities and unexpected spots just waiting to be discovered. The Palais café is just one of these spots. Before you can enter this tropical garden sanctuary, you must procure a « free entry » ticket that grants access to the permanent collection and cross the first wing of the building. There, you will discover a beautiful garden with a pond surrounded by wild plants. With little tables that are perfect for reading or pondering and a menu offering organic smoothies and teas, the café is an ideal for spot for relaxation. There’s nothing quite like a springtime stroll to get away from the hustle and bustle of the capital.
I really like the Carnavalet, managed by the City of Paris and the setting for the museum dedicated to its own history. This mansion dating back to the Renaissance era is famous for the three great names associated with it: the sculptor Jean Goujon, the architect François Mansart and the Marquise de Sévigné. But, first of all, where does the curious name ‘Carnavalet’ come from? The explanation is that, in 1578, the mansion was bought by the widow of François Kernevenoy, a gentleman from Brittany. The Parisians transformed this name, which was hard to pronounce, into ‘Carnavalet’. Now let’s go slightly further back in history. The mansion, situated 23, rue de Sévigné in the 4th arrondissement of the capital, was built as of 1548. The façade of the main building (opposite the entrance porch for those interested in visiting it) is decorated with famous bas-reliefs representing the Seasons sculpted by Jean Goujon. In 1660, François Mansart renovated the mansion.
In 1677, the building was rented to the Marquise de Sévigné and the famous letter-writer lived there until her death. When the City of Paris bought the mansion to establish ‘its’ museum there, it restored the entire building. I think that it was a good municipal decision to integrate elements taken from the demolition of Vieux Paris, such as the Nazareth arch and the façade of the Bureau des Marchands-Drapiers. But enough with architecture, let’s move on to the plants and flowers that grace the gardens. Although very little is known about the original gardens of the Carnavalet, three of the courtyards of the museum today are taken up by French style ‘parterres’ or knot gardens. These gardens were created in the 20th century and depict stylised patterns surrounded by flowers and dotted with yew trees. Two of these gardens are open to the public and I adore coming here occasionally to appreciate the peacefulness of the setting, worlds away from the frenzy of cars not so far away.
Finally, in the entrance courtyard a bronze statue of Louis XIV welcomes the visitors. Such royal bronze statues were symbols of the Ancien Régime and many were melted down during the Revolution but this one was one of the rare few that were forgotten by the revolutionaries and are still standing today. It just goes to show, even statues must be ‘forgotten’ sometimes to have a chance of survival. A lesson in humility to meditate upon in this beautiful setting…
Didier Moinel Delalande is a Director at Hotel Mathurin.