by Dorty Nowak
Since I have lived in Paris, on and off, for ten years, friends planning a trip to the City of Lights for the first time often ask what museums they should visit. I inquire if they already have a list, and usually they do; the Louvre of course is number one, followed by the Musée d’Orsay, the Picasso Museum, and a few others that usually make guidebook “must see” lists. However, my number one choice for visitors, the Carnavalet, is rarely mentioned.
The Carnavalet, located in the once swampy and now trendy Marais, was built as a private residence that was occupied at one time by Madame de Sévigné, a 17th century aristocrat. As I wander through the well-preserved rooms, I easily imagine her sitting at her writing desk penning one of the letters to her daughter for which she is famous and which gives us an intimate description of daily life in her time. Her mansion was later converted to a hotel, and in 1866 the City bought the building to create a museum of the history of Paris. Currently undergoing a much-needed renovation, the Carnavalet is scheduled to reopen in 2019.
The collections in the Carnavelet include furniture, portraits, objects d’art and miscellaneous items from everyday life. On the ground floor visitors encounter a long gallery of shop signs dating from the 16th to the 20th century. Some of the signs were designed to tell passersby, many of them illiterate, the nature of the stores. I particularly like a giant pair of scissors advertising a tailor shop. Another favorite, a black cat perched on a half moon and looking like it has used up about 8 of its lives, made a fitting advertisement for the notorious Black Cat Cabaret, founded in 1881.
Most of the galleries are arranged in chronological, albeit somewhat chaotic order, beginning with a prehistoric collection that includes well-preserved Neolithic dugout canoes. I’m always amazed by a surgeon’s set of finely crafted scalpels and tweezers dating from 3rd century Lutecia, as Paris was known when it was a Roman provincial town.
The upper floors highlight important historical events and people throughout the centuries. Among my favorite exhibits are the re-creation of a cork-walled bedroom where Marcel Proust wrote À La Recherche du Temps Perdu and a bedchamber where Louis XVI may have spent the last night prior to his execution. I have been to the Carnavalet many times, and always find something that speaks to me in a very personal way. Who was the 8th century woman who first clasped the beautiful gold and silver embossed belt around her waist? What was Marie Antoinette thinking when she clipped a last lock of her young son’s hair?
I generally go to the Carnavalet alone, as my slow wanderings through the past exhaust the patience of my friends. However one time I did take an acquaintance with me, mainly because he was a former history professor and I knew he would be engaged. The entire day I spent with him was like an extended French history class. As we looked at exhibits about the French Directory, First and Second Empires and First and Second Republics, his stories of France’s struggle to create a working democracy came vividly to life.
If viewing museum collections is heavy fare, shopping in the gift shops afterwards is my dessert. I love to select postcards as mementos of favorite paintings from the exhibitions I’ve just seen. I keep them in albums and when I look at Monet’s Water Lilies or Van Gogh’s The Church at Auvers, I have the double pleasure of enjoying the painting and remembering the exhibition. I also like to browse through the displays of art and guidebooks. I’ve found guides in museum gift shops that remind me of how many different ways there are to tour Paris and become familiar with her neighborhoods. How about a walking tour of Literary Paris? Or a fountain and hidden garden tour? Or a food-centric one? One of my personal favorites, Ou Faire Pipi à Paris, describes in 184 pages over 200 public toilets and includes both practical information, such as hours of operation, and also descriptions of their history and artistry.
One time while browsing in the Carnavalet’s gift shop I discovered an intriguing book called Musées Insolites de Paris. “Insolite” translates as “strange or unusual” and the book tips off the reader to museums dedicated to found objects, smoking, taxis, or fittingly, to “La Vie Romantique.” Because they are often small and tucked away in less-traveled places, visiting one or two of these museums is a novel way to organize a day of sightseeing. I checked the Index and counted the number I’d been to: only eleven out of ninety. Once again, I was reminded of the seemingly inexhaustible capacity of Paris, itself a museum, to inform and entertain.
Dorty Nowak is a writer and artist living in Paris and Berkeley who writes frequently about the challenges and delights of multi-cultural living.