First a major Gallo-Roman center of trade, then a financial and industrial powerhouse of the Renaissance Lyon has long been a fertile ground for museums. From fine arts to the history of silk, and from Gallo-Roman civilization to the invention of the cinema, there are over 20 museums in Lyon to satisfy the most diverse interests.
Musée des Beaux Arts
Created in 1803 in a magnificent seventeenth century abbey in the heart of the central Presqu’Ile neighborhood, it is one of the premier regional museums of fine arts in France. Think of it as a human-size version of the Louvre without the crowds. With 70 galleries of exhibit space, it woos visitors with rich collections that offer an outstanding view of the evolution of art, from ancient Egypt to contemporary times. The paintings section alone section occupies 35 galleries where all the great European Schools from the Renaissance to the twentieth century are represented.
While the museum is justifiably proud of its masterpieces by the likes of Tintoretto, Veronese, Rembrandt, Rubens and Poussin, the stairway murals by Lyon native Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, a forbearer of the Symbolism movement, are also well worth a second look. His murals, by the way, also grace the grand staircase of the Boston Public Library as well as the main amphitheatre of the Sorbonne in Paris.
At the heart of the abbey, the former cloister is now a public garden with a central fountain created from an antique sarcophagus. This serene space shaded by ancient trees also serves as a sculpture garden, with works by nineteenth century French masters Rodin, Bourdelle, Maillol and Delhomme.
Musées des Tissus
This unique Museum of Textiles has its genesis in the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, the first in a series Universal Exhibitions of culture and industry that would become popular in the nineteenth century. It inspired the visiting Lyonnais manufacturers to create a museum to showcase the superior technical and artistic capabilities of the city’s silk industry. Opened in 1864, it originally offered an encyclopedic view of samples and drawings, until the 1890’s when its scope broadened to cover the history of textiles.
Today, the museum holds one of the most important collections of textiles in the world, with close to two-and-a-half million pieces covering four millennia of production, housed in the lovely eighteenth century Hôtel de Villeroy, in the center the Presqu’Ile. From rare third century Coptic caftans to magnificent twelfth century Sicilian silk tapestries woven with gold threads made from intestine membranes coated with gold leaf, each unique item has its own fascinating story.
There is a doublet worn by famous historic figure Charles de Blois, Duke of Brittany (1318-1364). Made of rare Persian silk, this ceremonial quilted jacket was intended to fit under a suit of armor, so the Duke could just shed the metal garment and go straight from battle to festivities. Stunning Lyon silks especially created for Marie Antoinette’s gowns are here, along with the rose and green tapestries she left behind in her bedroom during her ill-fated escape attempt from Versailles. Entire rooms of gowns and other ceremonial attire spanning several centuries illustrate the synergy between the development of the silk and French fashion. I could lose myself for days in here!
Musée des Arts Décoratifs
Originally part of the Museum of Textiles, this applied arts institution was spun off as a distinct collection in the adjoining Hôtel de Lacroix-Lavalle in 1925. In addition to its wealth of decorative objects from the late Middle Ages and Renaissance to contemporary times, the museum also offers the opportunity to walk through a number of period rooms, mainly from the eighteenth century, donated with their entire contents, including wall paneling, with the provision that they remain intact. Here, it is possible to appreciate in situ the artistry of furniture and textile craftsmen of the period.
For movie buffs, this is where is all began, the birthplace of le cinématographe, the nineteenth century ancestor of the camcorder invented by two brothers, Auguste and Louis Lumière. Here, on March 19,1895, they recorded a 46 second film of employees leaving their family’s photo-plate business. Next door, the grand Art Nouveau mansion where the family lived is now a museum that features their famous cinématographe, along with a number of early film-making devices, including Edison’s boxy wooden kinetoscope. In the garden, a hangar is all that remains of the factory. It is now a movie theater with a dynamic program of international film classics.
Musée Gallo-Romain de Lyon-Fourvière
Partially buried into the Fourvière hillside next to the Roman Theatre archeological site, the museum offers a journey back into ancient history with its concrete spiral ramp descending and branching out into display galleries. The permanent collections feature Roman, Celtic and pre-Roman artifacts, including fine mosaics, sculptures, jewelry, ceramics and everyday objects as well as an enigmatic Celtic calendar. There is also a relief map of the ancient town as well as scale models of its major monuments, including the Theatre and the Odeon.
Musée des Confluences
Built at the very southern tip of the Presqu’Ile, on a peninsula that was artificially extended a century ago at the confluence of the Saône and the Rhône rivers, the sprawling glass and steel structure brings to mind a spaceship that has just gone through a hard landing. Opened in December 2014 with the ambitious mission to “tell the story of man from its origins to modern days,” this new anthropology and science museum left me a bit dazed. Going from the skeleton of a 155 million year old Camarasaurus from Wyoming to the smart phone, and from the vision of after-life in indigenous cultures around the world to the exploration of Antarctica in a couple of hours can feel a tad disorienting.
Good to Know
- Musée des Beaux Arts – 20 Place des Terreaux, Lyon, 69001. Open Wednesday through Monday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Open until 10:00 on the first Friday of the month except August. Closed on Tuesday and national holidays. Contact: Tel. + 33 (0) 4 72 10 17 40.
- Musée des Tissus et des Arts Décoratifs – 34 Rue de la Charité, Lyon, 69002. Open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 am to 5:30 pm. Closed on Monday and national holidays. Contact: +33 (0) 4 78 38 42 02
- Musee Lumière – 25 rue du Premier-Film, place Ambroise Courtois, Lyon, 69008. Open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 am to 6:30 pm. Closed Monday. Open all holidays except January 1, May 1 and December 25. Contact: Tel. +33 (0) 4 78 78 18 95.
- Musée Gallo-Romain de Lyon-Fourvière – 17 Rue Cléberg, Lyon, 69005. Open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Closed Monday and national holidays. Contact: Tel. + 33(0) 4 72 38 49 30
- Musée des Confluences – 86 quai Perrache 69002 Lyon, 60002. Open every day and most national holidays – schedule varies throughout the week. For exact opening hours, check their website or contact: Tel. +33 (0) 4 28 38 11 90.
Building up quite a list of places to see in Lyon when I get there. Thanks!
My pleasure! Lyon is an underrated destination. This was my first visit, but it won’d be the last.
Wow! Looks like I need to get Lyon on my itinerary! You manage to make these places so enticing.
Lyon is well worth a visit. It’s been working on it for two millennia! And the high speed trains make it so accessible there is no reason to miss it.