Where I come from, more often than not, museums are located in specially-built spaces; dedicated public buildings, often in the ‘white cube’ style. But in Paris, many museums are housed in places not originally intended for exhibition purposes.
For example, the Musée du Jeu de Paume, the city’s finest photography museum, sits in a 19th-century ‘royal tennis’ hall (it’s not your average tennis court; look it up). The Musée Zadkine, dedicated to the remarkable Belarusian sculptor of the same name, counts among its rooms the very space in which Zadkine crafted many of his works. And of course, the monolithic Louvre, inarguably one of the finest buildings in the world, was once the French Royal Palace.
But perhaps more thrilling than any of these are the select few museums set in adapted homes. One of the greatest is the Musée Clémenceau, which is located in the former Prime Minister’s original chambers, and is barely ‘adapted’ at all.
There are signs leading to the museum, set off the chic 16th-arrondissement village of Passy, but once inside the pretty building, you’d barely know you were in a public place. Ascending in a rickety iron lift, surrounded by a plush spiral staircase, you could very well be on your way to visit Clémenceau in his own home. Which you sort of are.
Pushing open the heavy wooden door to the apartment, you are met by one or two unassuming staff members, whose knowledge and admiration of the man known as Le Tigre, a man who led the French nation through WWI, is immediately clear. There are no ticket booths or gift shops here; you are directed straight into a wood-panelled salon where a wide range of photographs, medals, newspaper articles and letters are displayed, detailing Clémenceau’s life and career. Having known comparatively little about this well-liked French figure before visiting, I came away from these rooms with a far greater understanding of his role in wartime politics and his impact on French society.
Yet the highlight of the Musée Clémenceau lies on the apartment’s ground floor, where the Prime Minister’s bedchamber and office remain wonderfully well-preserved, down to his slippers and fountain pens. Clémenceau slept little and often worked well into the night, allowing himself very little time away from his duties, and these two connected rooms truly give you a sense of his process.
Soak up these living spaces and imagine Georges bent over his desk in the wee hours of the morning, a cup of tea by his nearby bedside table. Then step out the adjacent door into the modest garden, drink in the Paris atmosphere, and imagine being one of the people running it all. Would you want the responsibility? Especially during a war? I think I’ll stick to writing about museums, thank you very much.