Monday, August 02, 2010

Stop 4: Museums of Paris

After Istanbul, my partner and I traveled to Paris.  To be honest, the original plan for our trip to Europe was to rent an apartment in Paris for 2 months, where I could immerse myself in French and become more comfortable in the language.  But after seeing the short-term rents for Parisian  apartments, two months became ten days and immersion in French language morphed into visits to as many museums we could visit during that time.

During those ten days, we visited these museums:

  • Arc de Triomphe  
  • Musee d’Orsay
  • Musee des Arts Decoratifs
  • Musee d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaisme 
  • Musee de Quai Branly
  • Choco-Story—Museum of Chocolate  
  • Musee des Arts et Métiers  
  • Chateau deVersailles

Arc de Triomphe (link to the Wikipedia entry; the Arc does not appear to have its own website:  A 200-year-old-plus structure that honors French soldiers, it’s monumental in every sense of the word—as a tribute to the soldiers, centerpiece in the Paris street plan,  landmark for Paris, work of craftsmanship, and a place that inspires awe and respect.  And the rooftop offers some pretty amazing views of Paris.

Although the Arc itself is 200 years old, its visitor center is brand new.  And in contrast to the majestic and timeless nature of the Arch itself, the Visitor’s Center seems like little more than a multimedia show that will quickly look dated and, before then, frustrate the living daylights out of some of its visitors.  One of these displays deconstructs pieces of the exhibit, another tells about similar local monuments in other cities. But the exhibit tells little about how the Arch was built or why.  (For that information, the tour bus was more informative.)

The system will frustrate visitors because only a few stations are available; none of the information is replicated and only one visitor can control the exhibit at a time.  If this were a low-traffic tourist spot, that might be fine.  But even on a winter’s day, the Arch was teeming with visitors.  Some impatient children are not going to be happy; some of those children might be of adult age.

Whatever the limitations of the Visitor’s Center, the views on the roof more than compensated.

Musee d’Orsay (  This was my third visit to the home of the most important collection of Impressionist art.  The first was 30 years earlier, at the old home of the collection at the Jeu de Paume and was duly impressed by the impressionism on display there, though I can’t say I remember much else.  In the early 1990s, I had heard that the collection moved to a new museum.

But time has passed so quickly that I was surprised that the new  home, the Musee d’Orsay, was undergoing some age-related reconstruction when we visited this February.   The museum still seemed new to me.  That said, the staff expertly handled communication about the renovation and, through explanatory signage, also deftly managed expectations around closures and rearrangements dictated by the renovations. What they failed to explain was exactly why they were undertaking the renovations.  

Besides that reminder of my age—and some problems with my credit card as I tried to purchase tickets—two other issues struck me as I entered the museum.  First, despite the cavernous size of the interior (a sign of its past life as a rail station), the galleries are surprisingly intimate in size and scope, clearly arranged and organized and, on a spatial level, create one of the most satisfying experiences for a museum visitor.

The designers handled traffic patterns particularly effectively; all paths are clearly marked and each room thematically leads into the net.  As significantly, visitor traffic always moves somewhere; no dead ends exist.  As significant, even on a busy Thursday evening, traffic flowed well, without the bunch-ups of visitors that typically occur in popular museums. Although the museum does not fatigue the visitor, for those who felt tired, designers provide plenty of seats.   They’re also great for simply sitting and admiring the amazing art.

Second, although I always think of this museum as a museum of Impressionist paintings its collection goes well beyond paintings, Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, and covers a wide range of art and art movements from the latter half of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth.  One collection that I find particularly memorable is that of Art Deco and Art Nouveau decorative arts.

Although the artists, art movements, and types of art work,  on display vary widely throughout the museum, the quality of the art is consistently superb throughout.

What was less consistent is the labeling.  Some galleries had have gallery descriptions, but most don’t.  Of those galleries that have descriptions, the descriptions are available in three languages: French, English, and Spanish.  Labels on individual pieces of art are only published in French.   Some individual pieces had no label, some had one, and some had two (a repetition, so more visitors could read at the same time).

Perhaps the inconsistency is an intentional and not-so-subtle means of encouraging visitors to rent audioguides (an additional source of revenue to the museum).  Perhaps this inconsistency results from a desire to encourage visitors to keep moving by limiting those occasions when they would need to read labels.

Most likely, it’s an unintentional inconsistency.  That’s sad, because that inconsistency detracts from the important task of educating visitors.  As one of the most high-traffic museums in Paris—indeed, in the world—this museum plays a pivotal educational role.

But that’s just a trifle.  This museum also provides a great entertainment experience; a night amidst beautiful paintings, sculptures, tableware, jewelry, and reconstructed rooms from some of the artistically productive and creative periods in recent history.

Musee des Arts Decoratifs (  I’ll start with the complaints about this tiny museum that’s dwarfed physically and in the conscious of most visitors by its next door neighbor, the Louvre.  Although the museum claims to cover decorative arts, publicity, and textiles, my experience has been that visitors can only see two of the three.  Although I’ve only visited twice, at least one of the three collections has been closed each visit.

Which sucks, because this is a gem of a museum (but the good news is that, on this visit, the gem collection was open).

The other complaint is that the layout of the building is weird.  Visitors enter in a central hallway, with a security station, ticket counter, and entries to the gift shop (great books and design merchandise, though no bargains to be found) and hallways to the two sides of the museum.  The hallway to the left leads to the textile, jewelry, and publicity galleries.

Most of the action was on the right side, the decorative arts galleries (none of which are accessible from the left side).  The galleries featuring work from the 1950s and later are on the upper floors, which are not directly accessible from the ground floor, or from the third floor, where the exhibits begin.  They’re only accessible from an elevator at the end of the fourth or fifth floor.  It seems as if the building was developed in stages and the major renovations that occurred in the past decade did nothing to unify the building.

Enough complaining.

Whatever frustrations the closures and the layout posed were more than compensated by the superb collection and displays.  If one wants to get a sense of the development of Western European-inspired decorative arts from the Middle Ages onward, this is the place to go.  In the process, the exhibitions tell the story of changing lifestyles (primarily of the rich and famous), tastes, and preferences through the ages.  The story starts with re-constructed rooms from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, including a fifteenth century bedroom, parlors from various eras, and an exquisite art deco apartment and sample office.  In addition, individual pieces of furniture, especially chests and chairs, and decorative objects are displayed on their own.

As noted earlier, objects from the 1950s through the 2000s are displayed in a 4-story wing accessible from the end of the Art Deco display.  Although easily missed, this wing shouldn’t be.  Even if the objects weren’t amazing, the views are.  The upper levels from the ninth floor provide dramatic views of the Louvre, the Tuileries and even the Arch de la Defense.

But the displays are even more impressive.  The highlight is a three-story atrium whose focal point is a mountain of chairs.  Nearly every modern chair imaginable is displayed in this mountain, and the views from each level provide a different perspective on them—focused on the whole at the upper levels and the parts at the lower levels. The whole shows how the chair has been one of the most popular subjects for designers in the modern era.  The parts show the diversity of their responses, from designs that build on earlier traditions to designs that try to create new ones.

This attention getting centerpiece could distract visitors from the equally impressive collection of furniture and tableware on each floor.  But, in my case, it had the opposite effect.  By drawing attention upward and outward, plus providing glimpses of other objects from this atrium, this centerpiece drew me to the other parts of the collection.

The jewelry collection mentioned earlier was equally impressive for its display, as well as its objects.  In fact, it’s a textbook example of how to display tiny objects, using dramatic lighting to draw attention to individual pieces, then accentuating that attention with a presentation of some pieces so they seem to literally fly out in your face.  This display would have made even mediocre jewels seem impressive, but the jewels on display here were definitely not mediocre.

Most parts of the museum featured limited labeling, and all of that was in French. Most rooms have a room description and each case also had a description.  Some objects were also described in detail, but many were not.

The strongest labels were in the jewelry exhibition.  Truly instructional, these labels provided  definitions of key terminology for jewelry, and linked the terms with the pieces that demonstrate them.

For me, the French-only labels were great, because one of the reasons I visited Paris was to develop my skills and confidence in French.  But if you don’t speak or read French, note that the museum provides free audio guides in the language of your choice, and provides orientations to each major gallery, as well as key objects within them.

Musee de Quai Branly (  A popular newcomer to the Parisian museum scene houses collections from the native peoples of Oceania, Asia, Africa, and America.

Because the artwork comes from areas in and near French colonies, these collections were once called “primitive” (referring to their presumed level of human development) and “ethnographic”  (referring to curiosity about these peoples in Western civilization).  Modern views see the objects as decorative and religious art that provides insights into the lives and values of the civilizations that produced them.

Given this contemporary perspective; a general interest in these subjects as a result of short stints living in Africa and East Asia, and in former French colonies in North America; and enthusiastic coverage of the opening of the museum in the New York Times   in 2006, I had high expectations for this museum.  Anticipation only rose as we waited in line outside in near freezing weather for a half hour merely to purchase tickets.

In retrospect, I can certainly say that this was an interesting experience and I learned a lot about the indigenous cultures whose objects the museum displayed.  So on a basic level—that is, in terms of approaching the museum as an institution of free choice learning, this museum works.  Given the large numbers of visitors on the day we visited, others probably share this sentiment.

But does the museum deserve the hype, a place as one of the leading museums of Paris, which also has museums like the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay?

To be honest, I’m not sure.

Architecturally, the rich blue building with an unusual shape is definitely eye-catching.  But I’m not convinced it will age well.  Only four years after its opening, the building looks dingy and dirty in places.

In terms of collections, the museum brings together vast holdings about cultures across the world under one roof and displays the objectives clearly and engagingly.  Off of the African and Asian galleries are small intimate rooms which are as most notable for the dramatic ways in which they display objects.

But the actual objects on display seemed to my only modestly trained eye to be unimpressive.  Except for the Oceania collection (the first on the preferred route through the museum and probably the largest), most of the objects are of just ordinary quality and the objects on display are of limited breadth, suggesting that the collections are not as extensive as might be expected.  What’s on display at the Quai Branly hardly rivals either the quality, much less the breadth, of single-purpose collections like those of the African Art Museum of the Smithsonian Institution and Smithsonian’s Museum of  African Art in Washington, DC and the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.

Similarly, by primarily focusing on displaying the work as art, the cultural context is lost.  The Field Museum of Natural History provides particularly enlightening displays of objects in their everday contexts.  On the one hand, the focus on art is intentional; the museum claims to be a museum that celebrates the arts of the cultures on display. But the labels suggest a mixed understanding of that mission; they are chockablock with explanations about history and culture, often to the exclusion of discussions of the art.

Indeed, the Quai Branly seems to be a traditional ethnography museum, with everyday objects (some admittedly with strong artistic qualities) and arranged both geographically and, in many cases, chronologically.

And a primarily etic (outsider’s) interpretation of the objects; the  vantage point throughout the museum primarily seems Western.  It’s most noticeable in the Americas section of the museum is primarily explained by an interpretation of their culture by noted French philosopher, Strauss-Levi interpretation.  Indeed, it was an interesting one, but certainly not an emic one.  In fact, the voices of the peoples who created these objects seemed be absent throughout the museum.  (I’m not a fan of just an emic view, either, as will be discussed in a few moments.  My preference is for balance.)  

Nor do the labels explain (or, for that matter, even hint at) that many of the objects have their roots in colonial rule.  In some instances, the objects do not come from former colonies.  For example, he Americas section has more objects from the Pacific Northwest and Alaska (former British and Russian colonies) which admittedly have strong artistic traditions, than from Quebec. The direct French connection to the few objects likely from its former colony, Quebec, is not even mentioned.  Similarly, the Americas collection only contains 1 or 2 objects from Haiti.

In terms of designing the visitor experience, the administrators of the Quai Branley could learn a few lessons from its sister museum, the Musee d’Orsay.  The 30-minute wait in the cold for tickets was unnecessary; but that’s what happens when most of the ticket booths are closed on the busiest day of the week.   When visitors do enter the museum, they entered into a construction zone for a new temporary exhibition.  Rather than hiding the mess behind curtains and promotional signage, the administrators merely left it all on display—complete with pieces of drywall missing.

Once visitors complete the walkup the ramp to the second floor with the permanent collection, the design is intended as a scatter system,  in which visitors can, technically, enter any of the four major sections of the exhibition.  But signage and implicit traffic patterns actually force the traffic into the Oceania collection.

None of these issues is so serious that I would recommend against visiting the museum.  Rather, these are issues that the museum staff might consider when the time comes to refresh the galleries it in about 7 to 15 years.

Musee d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaisme (  Hidden on a narrow side street off of another narrow street with just enough nooks and crannies (like an English muffin) to easily get lost, merely finding this museum was an accomplishment.  But well worth the effort.  From a rather modest entry way, visitors enter into a grand, though barren, courtyard surrounded by a building that looks like it once housed a wealthy family.

The welcome became even warmer inside—not just because of the heat in the building. This museum offers complimentary admission to teachers, regardless of the subject or level taught, much less the country of the school.

My partner and I had a particularly strong interest in the temporary exhibition about the   Camondo Family—Sephardic Jews from Istanbul who brought their finance business to Paris in the mid-nineteenth century and quickly rose to the heights of Parisian society.  The exhibit primarily focused on their social rise and their acquisitions: homes (with some valued objects on display), and artwork that they donated to the French people, and form core parts of the French national collections.

From there, we visited the two-story permanent collection, which was bookmarked by small galleries on the history of the French Jewish community—opening with one about the origins of the community in medieval and Enlightenment times, and closing with a couple of galleries  exploring the modern French community, from emancipation during Napoleonic times to the influx of immigrants from North Africa and Eastern Europe after World War II.

But the bulk of the exhibition presents  Judaica (ceremonial pieces, usually characterized  by craft work of museum quality) most of it decidedly not French in origin.  One of the most impressive and imaginative displays of Judaica was a display of hanukiot (Hanukah menorahs or candleabras) in a special side gallery.

Being Jewish, I naturally felt a connection to the museum and sensed that the selection of objects, as well their description, reflected an almost exclusively emic (insider’s) view.  And as I had issues with the nearly exclusively etic (outsider’s) perspective in the Musee de Quai Branly, I had similar issues with the nearly exclusively emic perspective in this museum.

In both cases, a central perspective is missing and important themes go unexplored.  Certainly, key issues went unexplored in this museum.  Consider the exhibition about the Camondo family.  Although the exhibition highlighted the Judaica purchased by the second generation and their donations to the Jewish community, it merely hinted at a significant, though more troubling, theme:  the draft of that generation away from the practice of Judaism as the family tried to move further and further into the heart of Parisian society.  That, in turn, begs the question: what was the actual response of French society to these Turkish Jews?  Was acceptance easy, hard-won,  well-bought, or some combination thereof?

The third generation seems somewhat tragic; one family member had  two illegitimate sons he did not acknowledge; another had two children who tragically died, one by accident, the other as a result of the Holocaust—and after converting to Catholicism.  

Rather than merely celebrate the wealthy, the exhibition could have critically assessed their struggles and provided insights that might have more significance for the contemporary visitor.

Similarly, the permanent exhibition seemed to be a generic display of center-of-the-road European Judaism, rather than a specific re-telling of the French Judaism, whose history is continually interrupted by expulsions of one sort or another, followed by influxes of immigrants from various parts of Europe and, more recently, Africa.  A photo exhibit towards the end of the exhibit attempts something of this sort, but this perspective would be beneficial throughout the exhibition.

An etic perspective might be useful here, because rather than focusing on “How do we want to present ourselves to the world?” an eti-ly inspired exhibition would ask, “What makes this story unique? How do the objects tell that story?   How do French Jewish customs differ from elsewhere?  How did being the first country to “emancipate” the Jews affect the experience of being Jewish?”

One other concern:  inconsistency in labeling.  In some galleries, the gallery labels were bi-lingual; in others, they were not, as was the case with object labels.

But all in all, we enjoyed the museum and I wish we had a comparable institution to celebrate and share Jewish culture in Montreal.

Choco-Story—Museum of Chocolate (  When my partner learned that Paris had a museum of chocolate, it shot to the top of his list of must-see places.  And he didn’t even know that they give free samples.

This new museum is one of a “chain” of chocolate museums opened by a Belgian chocolate wholesaler (I think it’s called Belchocolate, but not sure that’s the right name).  Based on descriptions, the company seems to operate similar ones in Brugges and Prague.   The Parisian museum was brand new when we visited; it had opened about week before we visited.

I found the three-story museum to be fun, probably more so than my partner.  It tells the story of chocolate rather chronologically.  The first floor tells the story of the origins of chocolate—its biological origins (where it’s from, how it’s grown and harvested) and as a drink (and a somewhat spicy one at that) of Aztec and Mayan royalty.  The history is well documented and explained,  though many of the objects are not labeled (probably in response to complaints that the original in Brugges is a bit heavy on documentation).  They even include recipes, ending the story with the conquest of Mexico by the Spanish.

The next floor-sized gallery, tells the next phase in the story of chocolate—its life in Europe.  The gallery tells the story of its introduction  to Spain, how the Spanish royalty transferred the drink to royalty in other countries through the  marriage to Spanish princesses to royalty in other European courts, and from royal quarters to the general public.  The exhibit also tells the story of how the Europeans sweetened the original recipe and how, in the 1800s, chocolate morphed once again, from a drink to a solid candy.  The story continues with developments in the manufacture of chocolate.  The centerpiece of this gallery is a massive collection of pots and cups for serving the chocolate drink, with implements of every size, shape, and quality—from the finest porcelain to metal.

Some interesting tidbits learned in this section of the exhibit was that the Portguguese Jews who had escaped to Bayonne after the Inquisition played a significant role in the choloclate industry, and were responsible for introducing it there.

I also liked the great saying: Madame de Sevigne:

“Take chocolate in order that even the most tiresome company seems acceptable to you.”

And I learned that the term “praline” came from someone’s name:  M Choiseuil Comte Deplessis-Praslin.  In the seventeenth century, his cook wanted to prepare something for him, and cooked an almond and dipped it in sugar (maybe caramel).  The resulting concoction was a huge success.

The exhibition concludes on the bottom floor of the museum, which has three parts:  the health benefits of chocolate (it’s not bad for heart patients, it might have aphrodisiac qualities, and even diabetics can sort of eat it, with some restrictions—so they say), a second part describing contemporary practices in sustainable growth of cacao and chocolate connoisseurship (like wine connoisseurship), as well as modern manufacture, and the highlight of the museum, demonstration of chocolate making, complete with free samples.

Unlike the public museums, this private museum provide all labels in French, English, and Spanish.  To help visitors find the right language, they color coded the section of the labels with the translations in a particular language.

The museum closes with a small gift shop, which seemed all the smaller considering that this is a private museum and probably seeks every possible source of revenue.

Visitors to the Choco-Story in Brugges complained that it was a book on a wall and the displays were unimaginative.  On one level, that’s probably true.  But perhaps the museum went overboard in trying to present an academically sound story because it is privately owned and its ownership by a chocolate manufacturer seems quietly obvious to visitors.  For a nerd like me who wants the facts, that was actually an asset.

Musee des Arts et Métiers ( This museum elegantly displays the extensive and superbly maintained collection of historical scientific and technical equipment of France’s 215-plus year-old Conservatoire des Arts  et Métiers in a former church priory.  Our decision to visit was last minute; we had some free time on our hand and my partner suggested we visit another museum.  We saw a street sign pointing in the direction of this one and followed it.

And I’m glad we did.

In addition to being housed in historic, once-religious surroundings, this museum  distinguishes itself from other science museums by its focus on the equipment itself, rather than its operation.  The elegant, spacious displays emphasize the beauty and craftsmanship of the equipment on display, and some of the displays generate as much attention from the imaginative way they present the equipment  as they do from the equipment on display.

This is no hands-on science museum with off-the-rack displays available in scores of similar institutions like it throughout the world; this museum displays and honors one-of-a-kind pieces, many of them “originals” that played pivotal role in the advancement of science and technology.

Among the many highlights:

  • The first segment of the permanent exhibition, which featured scientific instruments.  
  • A series of model rooms, commissioned as teaching aids in the late 1700s by a teacher who was particularly devoted to technical education and believed in experiential education, long before it became fashionable (thought that last fact was not noted) 
  • The energy and communications exhibits, whose strength is in the older equipment (admittedly, the more recent digital equipment is almost invisible there)
  • The eye-catching vehicles collection, which features a cross section of a car, and a display of  various bicycles during the formative years of its development (although the documentation was stronger at a special exhibit at Montreal’s Chateau Ramezay). 
  • My favorite part, the last gallery, a chapel whose exterior walls are in excellent restored condition (with the original stained glass) and displays an eclectic mix of scientific instrumentation, one of the original Foucault pendulums, and three stories worth of cars—accessed by walking past a model of the Statue of Liberty.  

Some of the sections seemed kind of “what?” to me, but they were often the most surprisingly wonderful, like the galleries on mechanics, which explore the mechanical components in all machinery and then showed some phenomenal applications of them, like a room of fully automated curiosities.

Although the visual display of the objects focuses on their beauty, the arrangement of the objects is both thematic, both in terms of their purpose and their chronology.  In terms of the purpose, different groups of galleries focused on particular classes of equipment, such as testing, weights and measurements, communications, and transportation.

Within each category of objects, the material was grouped into one of three chronological periods:    before 1750, 1750-1850, 1850-1950, and after 1950.

In addition to the consistent chronological classification of objects across galleries, the museum followed a similarly consistent approach to labels within each group of galleries.  Each segment of the museum had a label, as did each room, each section within a room, each case, and each object.  The primary variation in labels was at the object level; some objects had limited descriptive information, others had expanded material, including integrated videos (something I had not seen at other museums).

Although many museums are able to provide a level of consistency within a group of galleries, this one achieves a unique level of consistency across galleries and throughout its entire permanent collection.  This provides a remarkable level of consistency to the story told by this museum.  In fact, the only area of inconsistency was in translation; all of the labels were in French, some would also include English.

In addition, the museum featured stations throughout the complex for demonstrations, learning corners with reading material and computers, and seats for visitors who needed a brief break.

Two issues could further improve this charming museum, one easily achieved, one not.  The layout of the museum is linear, and visitors must visit the exhibits in a predetermined order.  The design does not provide easy access to galleries in the middle of the museum.  Because doing so might require remodeling or reconstruction of the building, that one’s not likely to happen, although the museum could be set up to let visitors enter from either end of the exhibition, instead of just one of the two.

The other issue is more easily addressed: The museum could add an orientation gallery, which introduces the collections and their significance, and helps visitors distinguish this from other science and technology museums.

Chateau de Versailles (  What can one say about one of the largest, most lavishly furnished and extensively landscaped palaces in the world?  Visiting is almost the next best thing to living there.  And the place looks mighty spiffy, even on a cold Tuesday in February.

I expected the facilities to wow me, but I did not expect some of the pleasant and interesting surprises that I encountered.  One surprise was a temporary exhibition of photography.

Another was learning that the original intention of formally opening of the palace to the public  (not to be confused with some of those spontaneous visits from the public during the 1790s) was to forge a reconciliation following all of the political turmoil launched by the French revolution.

Visitors receive a free audio guide.  This guide was helpful, as few of the rooms had any documentation.   The audio guide provided a quick introduction to each major room in the palace, as well as signature objects—such as furniture and paintings—in the rooms.   The audio guides to the Dauphin’s apartments provided far more detail than those of the King’s apartments.  In fact, sometimes I would have moved two rooms before the audio tape for an earlier room in the Dauphin’s apartments finished.

According to the narration in the Queen’s apartments, the French had a royal tradition of public childbirths, thus ensuring that the child declared an heir was actually born to the queen.

The food worker in one of the snack shops in the gardens was, without doubt, one of the happiest workers I have seen in 20 years (since my visit to the Marriott Riverwalk in San Antonio, which seemed to have the happiest housekeeping staff).  This guy flirted with every customer—and was still able to provide great service.

We attempted to visit Marie Antoinette’s apartments.  But no matter how beautiful the grounds, a 40-minute walk on a 3 degree (Celsius) day in February is no picnic.  And I was too cheap to pay the 5 or so euros for the tram.  They already wanted  6.50 for admission to the apartments.

As we left the grounds, I realized that Versailles is more than an historical site, it’s more like a historical theme park.  

Summing Up: Future posts on this blog will explore some of the themes in this posting, themes that have particular interest to information, instructional, and experience designers:

  • Museum admission fees 
  • Confronting troubling realities of history, like colonial rule and defeat in wars
  • Structuring access to exhibits

Next post:  The Museums of Berlin.

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