Every so often I find myself wondering how far the definition of ‘museum’ can be extended. With white cubes like the Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris or palaces filled with antiquities like the Louvre, the label ‘museum’ is easy to apply. When stepping into a narrow Paris apartment transformed into a treasure trove of information, like the Musée Clemenceau, it’s still easy to view the former residence as a museum space. Sites built as museums in the first place, like the Orangerie or the Centre Pompidou, are automatically deserving of the term. But France is home to so much more than traditional museum buildings. For artistic, historic and cultural merit lie in unexpected places, and some French museums are not even buildings at all.
One hour’s train ride from the city centre (why not stretch the definition of ‘Paris’ and ‘museum’ while we’re at it?) lies a place I read about hundreds of times as a child before I visited as an adult. A part of the collective cultural consciousness, Giverny is the former home of Impressionist master Claude Monet, and the location that inspired many of his most accomplished paintings. Though Claude’s wife Camille was his most frequent muse, his garden, with its vibrant blooms, waxy lily pads, crystal ponds and iconic Japanese bridge, was his obsession.
Outside the Normandy town of Giverny, La Fondation Claude Monet is a unique museum. Visitors may be disappointed to discover how few original Monet works are housed at Giverny, and how many copies are displayed around the house’s workshop. Those wishing to learn details about Monet’s life may not find the house very informative. However the focus of Giverny is not the house, the man or even the paintings, but the garden.
Though the garden at Giverny is not overly large, it is lush and rambling. There are quaint pathways lined with brightly coloured pansies and cool, calm corners of soft green grass. There are pockets of willows that hang over the glittering pond and open fields dotted with red poppies. The green bridge is a highlight, of course, but it is the fact of immersing oneself in the very same space that gave rise to so many formative artworks that is most striking. Paris has no shortage of Monet museums, and both the Marmottan and the Orangerie will give you a better understanding Monet’s art. But the garden, this historic site whose flowers are planted in the same configurations as they were 130 years ago, is a museum with its own value, albeit of a more intangible kind.
What is a museum? The home of precious items? The site in which artworks or artefacts are gathered? A building, an archive, a curated collection or an exhibition space? If so, then La Fondation Monet in Giverny is not a museum. But if a museum is a culturally-significant space, a well-preserved site which can educate visitors about history, where masterpieces were produced and a new artistic movement was explored, then Giverny is a prime museum indeed. I suppose it depends on how you look at it. Which is fitting, really, for an Impressionist’s home.