With its striking glass pyramid and corridors packed with goodies from antiquity and classical art, the Louvre will – or should – be familiar to anyone who’s been to Paris. So too will the Musée d’Orsay’s mind-blowing collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist works, and the Centre Pompidou, Rogers and Piano’s inside-out mecca of modern art. However, those who are seeking off-the-beaten-track cultural kicks and wish to explore Paris’s hidden past have many smaller but no less riveting museums to enjoy. So grab your Métro pass and join us for a tour of some lesser-visited gems…
Perhaps the most unusual – and it’s certainly one not to miss if you have kids in tow – is the wonderfully flora-covered Musée des Arts Forains. Located in the Bercy area, this fairground museum provides a dazzling step back in time to the age of simpler leisure pleasures, one when children were never happier than riding a carousel or playing fairground games involving races between mechanical horses and their jockeys.
Housed in the beautifully re-invigorated Pavillons de Bercy – the former wine warehouses built by a pupil of Gustave Eiffel near the revamped Bercy shopping village, not far from the huge park and Omnisports centre – it started life back in 1996 under the passionate, watchful eye of actor and antiques dealer Jean-Paul Favand. This fabulous museum houses Favand’s private collection of merry-go-rounds, carousels, old music hall theatre set-pieces and various other glorious artefacts from the 19th-century ‘golden age’ of fairs. In addition to the rides and games on show, many of which can be ridden or played, make sure that you experience the Théâtre du Merveilleux (Theatre of Marvels), which provided hi-octane (for the time) thrills using the latest technological inventions of the newly-born industrial era, such as picture projections, visual effects and lighting.
My personal highlights were somewhat gormlessly riding a white swan on a carousel, looking much slimmer in the old crazy mirror in the Venetian Rooms and watching youngsters joyously playing the slot-ball game which sent their chosen tray-bearing wooden waiter scurrying to victory in La Course des Garçons (The Waiter Race). Such was their unadulterated excitement at this simplest of pleasures that I wondered if we needed computer games to amuse today’s kids…
In short, the Pavillons de Bercy is a haven from the modern world, a place to daydream, to marvel at how enchantment was brought to those who lived in Paris some 200 years ago… And in turn, a place to be enchanted, thanks to the modern-day technological wizardry that complements its vintage attractions.
Eroticism, Romance & Art
For an altogether more grown-up reflection on life, love and the universe, make your way to the foot of Montmartre in the Pigalle district, which was formerly Paris’s hotbed of iniquity and naughtiness. Two small museums here offer similar levels of niche appeal but are polar opposites in terms of their subject matter: the Musée de l’Érotisme (Museum of Eroticism) and the Musée de la Vie Romantique (Museum of Romantic Life).
The Musée de l’Érotisme is sited on the still very much ‘lived-in’ Boulevard de Clichy where, since 1889, the scarlet windmill of the beloved Moulin Rouge cabaret has stood as testament to earthly pleasures. However, this is no cobbled-together collection of rude photos aimed at invoking schoolboy sniggers (well, perhaps one or two), rather a craftily convened paean to the power of imagery in the expression of desire. The museum’s permanent collection, housed over seven floors, places sexuality in a social history context, showcasing everything from the history of the capital’s maisons closes (brothels, for want of a better word) via rare photos, art and documents, to objects and artworks from around the globe which celebrate fecundity and fertility. Temporary exhibitions bring modern photography and installations to complement the old-world sculptures. From the wicked and witty to the admittedly eye-wateringly explicit, it’s eye-opening in every sense, but certainly no place to bring the children.
Upon emerging, back into Clichy, mop your brow and cool your crimson ears as you wander a few hundred metres to the more genteel calm of ‘new Athens’. Hidden from view, in a beautiful, flower-bedecked courtyard off the Rue Chaptal, you’ll find the Musée de la Vie Romantique. There, behind the pale green shutters, is where the Dutch-born painter Ary Scheffer welcomed the cream of Parisian creatives – the likes of Delacroix, Rossini, Sand, Chopin – in the ‘July Monarchy’ years, during the first half of the 19th century.
Today, the museum offers a perfectly dreamy home for the paintings of Scheffer and his contemporaries, plus the furniture, paintings, objets d’art and jewels of that great woman of letters, George Sand. In total contrast to the Musée de l’Érotisme, this is a place for calm reflection and the embracing of all things cerebral.
Make like a real tourist now, climbing aboard the little train (€6.50) which takes you up the hill to the Rue Lepic, the heart of Montmartre. You’ll pootle past the café where Amélie’s lovelorn travails were so romantically dissected in that wonderful film, then jump off at the bustling Place du Tertre. Nearby is one of Paris’s most charming little museums, a place which simply sings of the quartier and its glorious artistic heritage. Housed in the area’s oldest building, the Musée de Montmartre was founded in 1960 and houses a unique collection of paintings, posters and drawings by the likes of Toulouse-Lautrec and Modigliani.
There’s an entire room devoted to the can-can, and you can also enjoy the lovely Jardins Renoir, which were replanted in memory of Auguste, who lived here from 1875 to 1877. I went on a late spring Saturday lunchtime and still had the garden almost to myself!
For more interesting, lesser-spotted takes on the visual arts, head for two museums which don’t get front page headlines they deserve but are certainly worth a visit. If you need inspiration for your Parisian holiday snaps, there’s no better place to head to than the Maison Européenne de la Photographie, just off the Rue de Rivoli. Its temporary exhibitions are ever-changing but you’re guaranteed high-quality images by leading snappers. The building housing it is also a beauty, sure to inspire your creative urges!
Those with a penchant for classic advertising posters created with that unmistakable French élan should make tracks for the thrilling ‘advertising and graphic design’ section of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, next to the Louvre on the Rue de Rivoli. Boasting everything from old Air France artwork to cinema and soap ads, it’s a marvellous collection of some 100,000 posters, 20,000 advertising films and 20,000 press ads. Leaving without buying a couple of prints to adorn your own walls is nigh on impossible.
Once I’d made my way outside, to see thousands of people milling about and queueing near the Louvre’s iconic pyramid, I wondered how many tourists only visit the capital’s ‘big guns’. I guess it’s natural if your time is short there or it’s your first visit. Yet there are many fascinating museums in Paris which take a more sideways view of life, and allow you to ponder in more tranquillity.
Next on my hitlist of hidden gems are the Musée Édith Piaf, the Musée de la Préfecture de Police, Delacroix’s former home on the Place de Furstenberg, and the Musée des Égouts de Paris (the Paris Sewers Museum) – plenty to keep me swerving the usual queues the next time the capital opens her welcoming arms.
Side note…. Musée Grévin: Love the Likeness
If the spooky, skull-lined Catacombes de Paris seem far too scary, you can mix it up with the less terrifying but equally unresponsive waxworks at the Musée Grévin. In addition to rubbing shoulders with stationary likenesses of George Clooney, Brad Pitt and a host of French celebrities, you can enjoy the splendid baroque architecture of the museum, which was built by the architect Rives in 1900, and its amazing hall of mirrors.
From France Today magazine