Musée de la Marine on place du Trocadéro, is one of the most popular museums in Paris given the number of passionates who live on the 3 000 kms of French sea coast and own sailboats. And since its closing for renovation in 2017, it had been very much missed. I was excited to enter (after booking a time slot and a short wait), its beautiful new hall conceived by two teams of architects, h2o and Snøhetta and wander around its collections of one thousand objects (picked among 35 000) and paintings in the new galleries. The royal paintings by Joseph Vernet lent by the Louvre, are there of course, and numerous impressive figureheads are prominently shown. The scenography by the British agency Casson Mann transforms the historical collections into a fascinating treasure hunt punctuated by multiple screens and interactive games for children. It is both elegant and contemporary, very well light and with inspiring films and sounds of the sea. A beautiful experience.
At the time when French sailor Florence Arthaud is celebrated in a new film “Flo” , it is fun to realize that there were already women racing in 1910. The painting by Alexandre Brun, a traveling companion of Prince Albert I of Monaco, shows them wearing a pretty little hat. Maybe a little exaggerated. But this work is part of the many fun depictions of sea life and harbors, religious processions in Brittany and shipwrecks, which suddenly seem very alive in the renovated scenography. When Louis XV commissioned Joseph Vernet to paint the major ports in France, he probably never thought how lovely and fascinating they would seem to us, two hundred and fifty years later. The artist managed to include enough characters, sailors, soldiers, tradesmen and watching aristocrats to give life to these sceneries. And the painting of the harbor of Bordeaux is described in an audiophone.
Another part of the show devoted to figureheads, is totally riveting. The amount of money and art put into these sculptures on the prey of each ship, is impressive when you know how many of them were destroyed at sea. Whether representing Henri VI, Napoléon, Mahé de la Bourdonnais, Charlemagne or Abraham Duquesne, these wooden sculptures are powerful and engaging. The royal galley of Réale, built in 1688 in Marseille, had an ornate and gilded decoration, a tribute to the Sun King. All its elements are displayed here.
The section on storms, shipwrecks and rescue at sea is also interesting with a historical section on the Lapérouse expedition, lost in 1788 in the Pacific ocean near the island of Vanikoro. Navigational instruments like the sextant are available for the visitor to use. Since the GPS has replaced some of them, very few young sailors know how to use them. Fishermen explain their trade in a video, so does a docker Maixent Bitan, a skipper Clarisse Cramer and a lifeguard Cécile Poujol. These non intrusive little films nicely punctuate the visit.
The last section of this large exhibition is devoted to naval medicine, taught in Rochefort from 1722, technical tools and ropes and the new steam engines of the 1830’s, which will enable ships to replace their sails entirely after 1848 on the “Napoléon”. Decors of 20 th century cabins are also recreated. A small space, on a mezzanine, is devoted to cruise ships and their dining rooms or menus and a film shows immigrants arriving at Ellis Island at the beginning of the 20 th century.
All in all, I loved the mix of modern and old representations of the sea, the well designed gallereis and the history of French maritime adventures. Much is missing of course on the heroes of the navy, war battles, sports events… But I am sure that they will be the topic of special exhibitions. The first one, starting on December 13, will be devoted to films of the Ocean.
Musée de la Marine, closed on Tuesday. Place du Trocadéro.
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