Museums

Archives Nationales
60 rue des Francs-Bourgeois
www.archivesnationales.culture.gouv.fr
The National Archives are a history buff's fantasy; they hold thousands of historical documents dating from the Merovingian period to the 20th century. The highlights are the Edict of Nantes (1598), the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), the wills of Louis XIV and Napoléon, and the Declaration of Human Rights (1789). Louis XVI's diary is also here, containing his sadly ignorant entry for July 14, 1789, the day the Bastille was stormed and when, for all intents and purposes, the French Revolution began: "Rien" ("Nothing").

Even if you're not into history, the buildings themselves are worth seeing. The Archives are housed in two elegant mansions built in 1705 by trendsetting architect Alexandre Delamair: Hôtel de Soubise, once the grandest house in all of Paris, and the Hôtel de Rohan, built for Soubise's son, Cardinal Rohan. As you enter the main courtyard, check out the medieval turrets to the left: this is the Porte de Clisson, all that remains of a 15th-century mansion. Decorative arts mavens flock to this museum for special exhibits and to see the apartments of the prince and princess de Soubise. Their rooms were among the first examples of the rococo, the light-filled, curving style that followed the heavier Baroque opulence of Louis XIV.

Maison du Victor Hugo
6 place des Vosges
The workaholic French author famed for Les Misérables and the Hunchback of Notre-Dame lived in a corner of beautiful place des Vosges between 1832 and 1848. The memorabilia here include several of his atmospheric, horror-movie-like ink sketches, tribute to Hugo's unsuspected talent as an artist, along with illustrations for his writings by other artists, including Bayard's rendition of Cosette (which has graced countless Les Miz T-shirts). Upstairs, in Hugo's original apartment, you can see the tall desk where he stood to write, along with furniture from several of his homes -- including the Chinese-theme panels and woodwork he created for his mistress.

Musée d'Art et d'Histoire du Judaïsme
71 rue du Temple
www.mahj.org
With its clifflike courtyard ringed by giant pilasters, the Hôtel St-Aignan, completed in 1650 to the design of Pierre le Muet, is one of the most awesome sights in the Marais. It opened as the city's Jewish museum in 1998 after a 20-year restoration. The interior has been renovated to the point of blandness, but the exhibits have good explanatory English texts on Jewish history and practice, and you can ask for a free audioguide in English. Highlights include 13th-century tombstones excavated in Paris; wooden models of destroyed Eastern European synagogues; a roomful of early paintings by Marc Chagall; and Christian Boltanski's stark, two-part tribute to Shoah (Holocaust) victims in the form of plaques on an outer wall naming the (mainly Jewish) inhabitants of the Hôtel St-Aignan in 1939, and canvas hangings with the personal data of the 13 residents who were deported and died in concentration camps. Jewish people settled in France in the Rhône Valley as early as the 1st century BC; there was a synagogue in Paris by 582; and until Philip Augustus temporarily expelled the Jews in the 12th century, the main street of Île de la Cité was a Jewish enclave. Further expulsions occurred through the centuries, though they were only fitfully enforced, and 40,000 French Jews were granted full citizenship in 1791. France's Jewish population sank from 300,000 to 180,000 during World War II, but has since grown to around 700,000, the largest in Europe.

Musée Carnavalet
23, rue de Sévigné
www.paris.fr/musees/musee_carnavalet
If it has to do with Paris, it's here. This collection is a fascinating hodgepodge of Parisian artifacts, from the prehistoric canoes used by Parisii tribes to the furniture of the bedroom where Marcel Proust wrote his evocative, legendarily long novel. The museum fills two adjacent mansions, the Hôtel Le Peletier de St-Fargeau and the Hôtel Carnavalet. The latter is a Renaissance jewel that in the mid-1600s became the home of writer Madame de Sévigné. The long-lived Sévigné wrote hundreds of letters to her daughter, giving an incomparable view of both public and private life during the time of Louis XIV. The museum offers a glimpse into her world, but the collection covers far more than just the 17th century. The exhibits on the Revolution are especially interesting, with scale models of guillotines and a downright weird cast-iron stove in the shape of the Bastille. You can also walk through an amazing assortment of reconstructed interiors from the Middle Ages through rococo and into Art Nouveau -- showstoppers include the Fouquet jewelry shop and the Café de Paris's original furnishings. Information in English is on hand.

Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature
60, rue des Archives
www.chassenature.org

Musée Cognac-Jay
8 rue Elzévir
www.paris.fr/musees/cognacq_jay/
Another rare opportunity to see how cultured rich Parisians once lived, this 16th-century rococo-style mansion contains an outstanding collection of 18th-century artwork in its boiseried (wainscoted) rooms. Ernest Cognacq, founder of the department store La Samaritaine, and his wife, Louise Jay, amassed furniture, porcelain, and paintings -- notably by Fragonard, Watteau, François Boucher, and Tiepolo -- to create one of the world's finest private collections of this period. Some of the best displays are also the smallest, like the tiny enamel portraits showcased on the third floor, or, up in the attic, the glass vitrines filled with exquisite inlaid snuff boxes, sewing cases, pocket watches, perfume bottles, and cigar cutters.

Musée Picasso
5, rue de Thorigny
www.musee-picasso.fr
The Picasso museum opened in 1985 and shows no signs of losing its immense popularity. The building itself, put up between 1656 and 1660 for financier Aubert de Fontenay, quickly became known as the Hôtel Salé -- salé meaning, literally, "salted" -- referring to the enormous profits made by de Fontenay as the sole appointed collector of the salt tax. The mansion was restored by the French government as a permanent home for the pictures, sculptures, drawings, prints, ceramics, and assorted works of art given to the government by Picasso's heirs after the painter's death in 1973 in lieu of death duties. This is the largest Picasso collection in the world -- and these are "Picasso's Picassos," not necessarily his most famous works but rather the paintings and sculptures the artist valued most. Arranged chronologically, the museum gives you a great snapshot (with descriptions in English) of the painter's life. It also covers Picasso's personal collection of work by friends and influences such as Matisse, Braque, Cézanne, and Rousseau. The hôtel particulier is showing some wear and tear from being one of the city's most popular museums; on peak summer afternoons this place is more congested than the Gare du Lyon.

Musée Pompidou
Pl. Georges-Pompidou
www.cnac-gp.fr
Known as Beaubourg (for the neighborhood), this modern art museum and performance center is named for French president Georges Pompidou (1911-74). Designed by then-unknowns Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers, the Centre was unveiled in 1977, three years after Pompidou's death. Its radical purpose-coded colors and spaceship appearance scandalized Parisians, but they've grown to love it.

The Musée National d'Art Moderne (Modern Art Museum, entrance on Level 4) occupies most of the center's top two stories. One level is devoted to modern art, including major works by Matisse, Modigliani, Marcel Duchamp, and Picasso, the other to contemporary art since the '60s, including video installations. The museum's temporary exhibitions are fantastic; recent shows have included retrospectives on Jean Cocteau, Jean Nouvel, and Sophie Calle. In addition, there are a public reference library, a language laboratory, an industrial design center, two cinemas, a theater, dance space, and a rooftop restaurant, Georges, which is noted for its great view of the skyline.

   
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