The Musée Carnavalet has long been one of Paris’ overlooked treasures. Dedicated to recording the city’s history, it opened in 1880 in a grand Renaissance mansion (Hôtel Carnavalet) of the history-steeped Marais district.

Fragment of an early plaque commemorating the medieval defensive wall of Paris.

For over 150 years, as its collections illustrating the development of the city were continuously enriched, the museum expanded with the haphazard addition of exhibit spaces and finally the annexation of the adjoining Le Peletier de Saint-Fargeau mansion in 1989. By the time it finally closed for long overdue renovations in 2016, its collections had grown so large that curators struggled to display it all in a coherent fashion. Its confusing layout gave this most Parisian of museums the nostalgic feel  of a Cabinets of Curiosities of a bygone era.

 

An Elegant Metamorphosis

The visit begins with a collection of ancient shop signs.

The Musée Carnavalet – History of Paris reopened in May 2021 after a four-and-a-half-year, €56 million renovation. Major structural changes, some made imperative by modern accessibility requirements, created an easy-to-follow chronological itinerary. Beginning in the fully renovated vaulted basement with displays from the Mesolithic period (9600  to 6000 BCE) to the Middle Ages, visitors then pass through areas dedicated to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Revolution, and the 19th and 20th centuries, to end in today’s Paris.

The Bastille café sign (painted wood-1800)

In addition to adapting the building to current norms and redesigning the layout of the visit, the work has embellished the monument, highlighting its architecture and adding  soaring stairways for a contemporary flair. To the right of the entrance, a light-filled gallery welcomes visitors with an eclectic collection of old shop signs, from  the 17th to the early 20th centuries.

This head of Medusa decorated a door of the Hôtel de Ville.

Then the visit begins with two introductory rooms presenting the history of Paris, its symbols, key data on the history of the city, and the museum itself. They feature a number of scale models of the evolution of Paris and miscellaneous items ranging from a portrait of Madame de Sévigné, the famous aristocratic letter-writer who occupied the Palais Carnavalet in the 17th century to an early silver film photo of late 19th century rag-pickers and a massive oak door decorated with a head of a Medusa, saved from the destruction of the old Hôtel de Ville by fire in 1871 during the Commune.

 

A Walk Back in Time

A Neolithic oak wood canoe takes pride of place.

Now it’s down into the newly opened  basement. Here Mesolithic stone tools attest to the presence of a hunter-gatherers encampment around 9000 to 5000 BCE. Exceptional Neolithic remains (6500 to 4500 BCE ) follow. Found during excavations carried out in the nearby Bercy district, which uncovered a village on the edge of an old channel of the Seine, they include an oak canoe and a yew wood bow as well as numerous tools, weapons and utensils of domestic life.

Carved stone block from late Roman times city ramparts.

From there we fast-forward to approximately 250 BCE, when a Celtic tribe known as the Parisii settled in what is now the Ile de la Cité. The burgeoning city that grew from this early settlement would, after its conquest by the Romans in 52 BCE become the Gallo-Roman town of Lutetia, an evolution widely documented by imposing carved stone blocks and many decorative elements coming from different public spaces. The domestic sphere  is also well represented with a focus on tableware and everyday objects. Necropolises also contribute a remarkable insight into these times with jewels, weapons, and an exceptional set of surgical instruments dated from the 3rd century.

Into the Middle Ages

Stained glass works from medieval monasteries.

We now reach the medieval heart of Paris, where political and religious powers first came together: the Ile de la Cité. In the center of the room, a model of the island makes it possible to visualize the urban space and its density. A gargoyle from Notre-Dame cathedral dominates the room, and common objects from wooden crockery to leather shoes, all in a remarkable state of conservation, provide a striking testimony of the daily life of the period. Then we cross to the left bank of the Seine to discover the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés and its royal necropolis, the Sorbonne (founded in 1257), and several prominent monasteries that attracted thousands of scholars and students, forming colleges that became the University of Paris.

Stele commemorating the death of Prince Louis of France, heir to the throne, in 1260.

Where were the dead buried in Paris during the Middle Ages? The question is answered with tombstones and steles from two major cemeteries: the Innocents, in the current district of Les Halles, which was used for nearly seven centuries, and the Jewish cemetery on the Left Bank, testimony of the large Jewish community established in Paris in the 12th and 13th centuries. And how were the living governed? Paris gradually becomes a municipality with powers distributed among many: the landlords, the king’s provost, the provost of bourgeois merchants, the aldermen… The section ends with King François I, who in 1533 orders the construction of a town hall, on its current location.

From the Renaissance to the Enlightenment

Guest Salon of the Hôtel d’Uzes (1768).

Salon Demarteau (1765 to1770) by François Boucher.

The overall narrative of the 16th to 18th centuries exhibits highlights the evolution of the intellectual influence of Paris and the main actors of the Age of Enlightenment. But for Decorative Arts lovers, that is eclipsed by the magnificent “period rooms”, some 20 of them, salvaged from mansions and shops that no longer exist. These are stately interiors, fully reconstructed and decorated with their original furnishings, such as the office of the Hôtel Colbert de Villacerf, the Guests Salon of the Hôtel d’Uzès, designed by Claude-Nicolas Ledoux in a grand neoclassical style, the exquisite Demarteau lobby designed by Boucher and decorated with animals and flowers by Fragonard and Huet, and the ceilings at the Hôtel de la Rivière painted by Charles Le Brun. All lead to the breathtaking flight of stairs of the Hotel de Luynes, with its upper landing gallery murals by Paolo Antonio Brunetti. Here, in a majestic colonnaded decor, figures in various poses seem to watch visitors climbing up the stairs.

 

Beyond the Revolution

Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (1789).

A painting of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, the era’s key civil rights document, marks the entrance the next gallery. We are reaching the 19th century, an especially tormented period of Paris history, when the storming of La Bastille on July 14, 1789, ushered in successive revolutions leading to imperial regimes, attempts at democracy and even the brief, ill-fated utopian socialist government of the Paris Commune, some 150 years ago.  And I am reaching cultural overload.

The ballroom of the Hôtel de Wendel (1925).

This is clearly a two-visits museum. But for now, I hasten my pace, determined to give at least a passing glance to the 19th and 20th centuries. For my reward, I come across the exquisite de Wendel ballroom, commissioned in 1925 by the de Wendel couple for the ballroom of their Parisian mansion.This decorative composition representing the Queen of Sheba atop a white elephant, preparing to leave her kingdom to meet King Solomon, is the work of Catalan artist José Maria Sert, recognized as the greatest muralist his time.

Jewelry Fouquet (1901) by Art Nouveau icon Alfons Mucha.

The final highlight of my visit is the Bijouterie Fouquet, designed by Czech Art Nouveau icon Alfons Mucha for society jeweler Georges Fouquet, himself best known for his Art Nouveau creations. Mucha conceived every elements of the shop – both exterior and interior, including the furniture, light fittings and display cases, as a complete work of art, to provide a harmonious environment for Fouquet. Drawing inspiration from the natural world, he gave pride of place to two spectacular peacocks set against glowing designs in stained glass. In 1941 Fouquet donated all the pieces of Mucha’s revolutionary design to the Musée Carnavalet for safekeeping. In 1989 the museum completed the painstaking job of reconstructing the boutique, which remains one of the finest examples of Art Nouveau decorative design anywhere.

Good to Know

  • Getting there — The Musee Carnavalet, 16 rue des Francs-Bourgeois, Paris 75004, France, is a five-minute walk from the Saint Paul metro station.
  • Visiting — The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 am to 6 pm. It is closed on Monday and public holidays. It is one of the 14 museums run by the City of Paris, and like all other city-run museums, entrance to the permanent collection is free of charge (Visitors are only charged for temporary exhibitions).  
  • Health Guidelines — Due to health restrictions in order at the time of this writing advanced reservation through the museum official site  for a specific day and time was necessary, as was presentation of a valid European Health Pass or the usual proof of negative RT-PCR or antigénic négatif test within the past 48 hours. Mask were mandatory throughout the museum.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Musée Carnavalet

Musee Carnavalet