Musée des lettres et manuscrits

You wouldn’t know it to look at me now, but I was a bit of a flower child. I put this mostly down to the fact that I went to a Steiner primary school. There were certainly some over-the-top things about the school which earned it a reputation as a bit of a hippy commune (the fire drill involved the principal, complete with flowing robes and long grey plait, marching around the grounds and banging on an Arabian drum), but for the most part, I loved my school.

Each year, our lessons revolved around a different culture, including Ancient Egypt, the America of the Native Indians, Gold Rush Australia and Medieval England. Six years of creative plays saw me take on the roles of a Bard, Anubis (the Jackal-headed Egyptian god of the underworld) and an oak tree begging a woodsman not to cut it down. One year we even entertained our parents with an over-zealous Pow Wow, during which we donned ponchos, plaited feathers into our hair and leaped around to the sound of drums and tambourines.

But one of the school’s greatest qualities was its focus on languages; each year we would delve into a different one. Of course, I hardly a remember a word of Hebrew and my foray into French really only began in earnest in late high school, but this early introduction to languages laid the foundation for my love of French, foreign cultures and even (gasp!) the study of grammar.

Since those hippy-child days, I’ve only seriously continued my language studies in French. But the highlight of my primary school linguistic education wasn’t French, or the German I so half-heartedly tried to keep up for a while, or even my beloved English grammar. It was hieroglyphics.

Now, you can’t speak hieroglyphics, or type it, or read a novel in it. It’s not exactly a useful means of communication in the contemporary world, nor a very efficient one. Even in the height of my hieroglyphics period, it was quite the painstaking process to decipher even the simplest of messages. If you showed me some now, I wouldn’t understand a thing. But I’m so grateful for having once been immersed in the world of hieroglyphics, if only for the way it taught me to appreciate the beauty of hand-crafted script. Because, my goodness, hieroglyphics are beautiful.

For those who are also fans of the act of writing, le Musée des lettres et manuscrits is the place for you. From hieroglyphics to Medieval illuminated manuscripts to Matisse’s illustrated poetry books, the museum is dedicated to chronicling the history and practise of the written page. Interestingly, the focus is not so much on the content of the documents on display, but with the letter or manuscript as an objet d’art in itself. As you enter, a decal on the wall sums up the museum’s philosophy in its very first line:

L’écriture de l’Histoire se confond avec l’Histoire de l’écriture, mais sans écriture, pas d’Histoire.

The writing of history blends into the history of writing, yet without writing, there can be no history.

The collection is ambitious, and ranges from the historical room (housing correspondence from periods as diverse as the French Revolution, the Belle Epoque or the Second World War) to the Art and Literature wing (where you’ll find the letters of France’s great writers, artists and even filmmakers) to the Science and Music room. Yet a common thread runs throughout the vast collection: admiration for the act of writing.

We all do so much typing these days. Yes, we live in an exciting age where information is only a click away. Yes, I am typing this on a keyboard and you are reading it on a screen. But, my goodness, how lovely it is to leave the technology era behind for a moment in a place dedicated to the joy –and the art– of putting pen to paper.

xx la muséophile

Le musée des lettres et manuscrits
222 Boulevard St Germain 75007 (métro Rue du Bac)

Museum homepage

Full rate : 7 euros
Reduced rate: 5 euros

Opening hours:
Tuesday to Sunday: 10am to 7pm
Closed Mondays

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