In the frenzy of openings and reopenings of this late spring 2021, there is one particularly dear to the heart of Parisians, the reopening of the Carnavalet Museum. Closed since 2016 for renovation, the museum dedicated to the history of the city of Paris welcomes the public again since the end of May and offers a new course highlighting the events that have marked the capital since its creation and its most emblematic personalities.
With 3,800 works on display and 625,000 in reserve, the museum that traces the history of the capital has not finished taking us on a journey through the centuries.
Two private mansions from the 16th and 17th centuries for a unique museum
At 23 rue de Sévigné, the Carnavalet hotel is one of the most beautiful and oldest private mansions in the Marais and takes its name from one of its owners at the end of the 16th century, Françoise de la Baume, widow of a Breton gentleman named François de Kernevenoy, also known as de Carnavalet.
Built between 1548 and 1560 for Jacques des Ligneries, president of the Parliament of Paris, the building is one of the rare witnesses of Renaissance architecture in Paris. Its construction is attributed to Pierre Lescot who also renovated the Louvre at the same time. It was enlarged in the middle of the 17th century by François Mansart, initiator of French classical architecture (to whom we owe in particular the Château de Maisons).
The Marquise de Sevigne was its most illustrious tenant. The famous letter writer and keen observer of life at the court of the Sun King grew up a few streets away, on the Place des Vosges: she moved to Carnavalet in 1677 and lived there until her death in 1694. Today the Carnavalet museum holds many objects related to Madame de Sevigne, her family and her time: portraits, autographs or furniture.
After the Revolution, the Hôtel Carnavalet was occupied by various institutions before being bought by the City of Paris in 1866 on the advice of Baron Haussmann to become the capital's historical museum. Inaugurated in 1880, the Hôtel de Canavalet became the Carnavalet Museum and underwent several waves of extension as the collections grew.
In 1989, the surface area of the Carnavalet Museum was significantly enlarged by the addition of the Hôtel Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau, a sober and majestic neighboring residence built in 1690 by Pierre Bullet.
A museum that tells the story of Paris
The Carnavalet museum has an eclectic collection of six hundred and twenty-five thousand works covering all periods, from prehistory to the present day: archaeology, painting, sculpture, furniture, art objects, architectural models, coins, drawings, prints, photographs, posters ... with a link to the city or the personalities who lived there is its place. Authentic objects with a strong emotional charge, we find for example the campaign kit of Napoleon I, the memories of the royal family but also those of the revolutionaries, the watch of Zola ....
From 1871, the expansion work that preceded the opening of the museum gradually integrated into the wings built around the garden, elements of Parisian buildings demolished during the Haussmann works, such as the Arc de Nazareth dating from the 16th century, the Pavillon des Drapiers from the 17th century or the Pavillon de Choiseul from the 18th century. The Hôtel de Carnavalet became a sort of open-air museum of architecture; several sculptures also left their place of origin to join Carnavalet, such as the statue of Louis XIV that welcomes visitors in the courtyard of the museum and that was previously in the Hôtel de Ville.
On the same principle, one finds inside the museum many wood decorations coming from Parisian interiors and which constitute today a remarkable specificity of Carnavalet. These decorations were reassembled in as many rooms and completed with furniture, objets d'art and paintings of the same style: they form a rare testimony of the evolution of interior decoration in Paris from the 17th to the 19th century. Later, other ensembles were added, such as the store of the jeweler Georges Fouquet by Alphonse Mucha (1900) or the ballroom of the Hôtel de Wendel, painted by José Maria Sert (1924).
A redesigned route, a magnified museum
Four years of work and a budget of 58 million euros will have been necessary for the renovation of the Carnavalet Museum with the objective of highlighting the buildings, revealing their architecture and improving the visitor experience...
In addition to bringing the building up to technical standards, the facades have been renovated and are now resplendent. The views of the courtyard and garden from the interior have been cleared, bringing in light and revealing the beauty of the original architecture. The vaulted basement of the Hôtel Carnavalet, one of the oldest parts of the building, is now open to the public. Endally, the museum has regained its original entrance, located at 23 rue de Sévigné, as well as a new reception area in the former 17th-century stables.
Before it was closed, the museum had become a real maze that disoriented visitors who sometimes had the impression of being in front of a huge cabinet of curiosities. The museum has been completely redesigned and now follows a chronological logic, inviting visitors to take a journey through time in the 34 exhibition rooms, a familiar and exotic odyssey that begins with the 6,000-year-old Pirogue de Bercy and ends with the fire at Notre Dame. Even the pandemic is evoked through a striking photo of Gerard Della Santa, rue de Belleville during the confinement, all curtains down.
Beyond the building, the renovation also concerns the works: the 3800 works on display (among the 625,000 held by the museum) have undergone a thorough restoration. The new display also proposes a rediscovery of the collections ... 60% of the works that can be admired today were previously kept in the reserves.
Endally, the mediation has been completely modernized, including the creation of presentation rooms and various digital devices, which contextualize the works and provide keys to reading.
A unique reception venue in the heart of Paris
Let's talk to Jérome Tréca, in charge of patronage at the Carnavalet Museum
If you had to summarize the Carnavalet Museum in one sentence? An invitation to travel through the centuries in the City of Light.
As far as events are concerned, what are the assets of the Carnavalet Museum? How have the reception areas been redesigned? The main reception areas have very different atmospheres. The Galeries des Enseignes, and their garden, offer a picturesque journey into the Paris of yesteryear. The Orangery, a vast white space, offers multiple possibilities for staging and decoration.
Do you offer specific experiences for companies? We welcome companies for breakfasts, meetings, cocktails, and dinners and systematically offer private tours of our collections or temporary exhibitions. What better way to combine business with pleasure!
How would you describe the atmosphere of the Carnavalet Museum? Unparalleled! Its collections cover several millennia, from prehistoric times to the present day. They tell the great and small history of Parisians, famous or unknown.
An anecdote you would like to share? The reinstallation of the museum's collections was a magical moment. So many people and trades worked for weeks in a common effort. It was moving to perceive the professionalism, the rigor and the passion of all.
Can you tell us your three favorite works? Madame de Sevigne's desk from her château des Rochers, made in southern China for the Compagnie des Indes at the end of the 17th century. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, after Jacques-François Le Barbier. A painting offered to the Carnavalet museum by Georges Clémenceau. The ballroom of the Hôtel de Wendel, decorated in 1924 by the Catalan artist José Maria Sert. It represents the Queen of Sheba and her court who are going to meet King Solomon. It is an overflow of picturesque characters, animals, palaces, perspectives and movement. But three favorite works are not enough...
In your opinion, what makes the Carnavalet Museum unique? It is a museum that is accessible to all, so rich and varied are its collections. Its location in the heart of the Marais, therefore in the heart of Paris, in private mansions of the 16th and 17th centuries, its gardens, the variety of its decorations offer unique moments in Paris.