If you’re a muséophile like I am, you’ve surely encountered the challenge of crowds. The world’s finest museums, from the Tate to the Met to the d’Orsay and beyond, will always attract huge numbers. Some, like the Louvre with its subterranean glass pyramid entrance hall, are well-equipped to deal with crowds. Others, like the Pompidou, are so ill-designed for large numbers you may be standing outside in the winter chill for forty-five minutes or more.
This can be frustrating, but I love that museums draw huge crowds and visitors of all kinds. Museums educate, entertain, enrich and inspire, and by their very nature, they are meant for everybody. I’m even supportive of the Instagram-happy tourists who pay the ten Euros and brave the line at the Louvre, just to see the Mona Lisa and then leave. Da Vinci’s masterpiece, known in France as La Joconde, is seen as shorthand for fake art appreciation; for uninspired, shallow tourism. And of course, I wish all visitors would discover the never-ending wonders the world’s largest museum has to offer. But the Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in the world, and I would much rather tourists go to see it – even if they see nothing else – than not spend any of their Paris trip admiring art at all.
All this is to say that I think crowds at museums are a good thing, because they show how museums and the culture they make accessible still hold value in the contemporary age.
Nonetheless, I completely understand why people hate them.
Admiring art is a personal and contemplative act that doesn’t pair well with elbowing strangers for a view. Learning about history from texts or artefacts takes time and space, and loud chatter or jostling groups interfere with that experience. If you are visiting a museum that houses one of your favourite artworks for the first time, there is a magical element to having that artwork all to yourself, if only for a few moments, and being able to appreciate it in peace. Fortunately, there are many museums tucked away in Paris’ quiet spots, and scattered around the nearby region, that can offer this peaceful experience almost all of the time.
Around an hour’s train ride from Montparnasse train station, Chartres is a beautifully-preserved town filled with cobblestone streets, meandering canals, medieval architecture and even a little moat. Pretty, calm and walkable, Chartres is best-known for its stunning, world-class cathedral, which seems far too large for the tiny city it is located in. Unsurprisingly, most visitors head straight to the monumental structure to admire its Gothic spires, arches, gargoyles and stained glass windows.
But fewer visit the nearby Musée des Beaux-Arts de Chartres, a charming Fine Arts museum housed in a stunning, historic building. Stroll through the museum’s halls and take in its seventeenth and eighteenth-century art and sculpture collection. As you peer through the windows with their tessellated, diamond-shaped panes, take in the lush surrounding gardens, the quaint flower beds and the view of the cathedral’s spires rising over the town. The Musée des Beaux-Arts de Chartres may not be a central Paris museum, but it’s an ideal day trip away from the capital- and its infamous crowds.