When multimedia journalist and illustrator Emma Jacobs moved to Paris in 2005, she was charmed by the city’s abundance of cultural riches, especially its more than 200 museums, both big and small.
Her passion to visit as many of the smaller ones as she could, was the genesis of her new book, The Little(r) Museums of Paris: An Illustrated Guide to the City’s Hidden Gems (Running Press, June 2019).
This informative and carefully researched guide, enhanced by Jacobs’ engaging watercolor illustrations, will inspire travelers to skip the lines at the Louvre and Musée d’Orsay and instead, seek out the not-so-famous little-r museums that are truly “hidden gems” worth seeing.
The author has graciously shared her picks of the Top 5 Little Museums in Paris, ones that visitors (and residents) should simply not miss. Her publisher, Running Press, agreed to sponsor a giveaway of the new title (see details below).
The Top 5 Not-To-Miss Little Museums of Paris
Adapted with permission from the book by Emma Jacobs, Running Press
1 – Institut Suédois (SWEDISH INSTITUTE)
Sweden’s only cultural center abroad owes its existence to Gunnar Lundberg, Sweden’s cultural ambassador to France in the 1960s. Planning to donate his extensive art collection to his country, he thought the sixteenth-century Hôtel de Marle would provide a suitable showcase. He convinced the Swedish government to purchase the then-dilapidated mansion in the Marais in 1965 and carry out extensive restorations.
Lundberg’s and the institute’s permanent collection highlight the artistic exchange between France and Sweden, including five Swedish artists inducted into the Académie Française in the eighteenth century. Look up in the gallery to see a rare, preserved Renaissance-era painted ceiling, rediscovered during the Swedish government’s renovation of the building.
Temporary shows of contemporary Swedish artists take place on the lower floors. Another highlight of the institute is its popular, light-filled coffee shop offering tasty Swedish pastries.
*The lead illustration of Institut Suédois is by Emma Jacobs.
2 – Musée Guimet (GUIMET MUSEUM)
Émile Guimet inherited a family business making a blue pigment that colored everything from paints to laundry detergent and used his fortune to travel extensively. In 1876, he convinced the French government to give him a diplomatic passport and a letter attesting that he was on an official mission to study Asian religions, then left on a two-year trip across the continent.
For Guimet, collecting Asian art and studying Asian religions and cultures went together.
“The work of art,” Guimet believed, “does not reveal the secret of its form and the full enjoyment of its beauty without prior knowledge of the myths and symbols.”
Guimet created a museum and library on Asian religions in Lyon. He later concluded it deserved the larger public it could reach in Paris and split construction costs of a new building with the French state.
The nineteenth century saw a boom in global archaeological missions. Guimet subsidized some himself, but a number of other expeditions would send their finds to the museum over decades. Eventually, the Guimet Museum also received the Louvre’s Asian collections.
The layout of the galleries still emphasizes historical context, following religious and aesthetic movements as they crossed the continent.
3 – Phono Museum
For many years, Jalal Aro and his wife Charlotte packed their apartment with vintage phonographs and gramophones.
“What was fun,” Aro said, “was that our kids would play with the things when they were very young. We would explain to them how they worked.”
Run by volunteers since 2014, the Phono Museum created from their collection has displayed sound recording technology dating back to a cabinet-size mechanical music box from Switzerland, completed in 1880.
Unlike many more traditional museums, the Phono Museum still regularly turns the machines in its collection on for visitors. Some play records, while others play wax cylinders that do degrade with use, making this a no-no for most conservators.
But, said Aro, “an instrument that makes music, if you don’t use it, it’s like you’ve let it die.”
4 – Musée Marmottan Monet (MARMOTTAN MONET MUSEUM)
It’s a fair bet that Paul Marmottan would not have liked when the name Monet was eventually added beside his own to this museum. He would not have cared for the Impressionist paintings that now hang in his Empire-style dining room—think lots of gold and sphinxes.
In 1932, Marmottan left his mansion, with his collection of Empire art and furniture and his father’s fifteenth- and sixteenth-century paintings, to the Académie des Beaux-Arts.
The Académie hadn’t cared for the Impressionists either early on. It organized the Paris Salon, the artistic gathering of the year. The show’s exclusion of these renegades in 1870 led them to stage their independent exhibition in 1874. Claude Monet showed his painting Impression, Soleil Levant (sunrise), leading art critic Louis Leroy to derisively dub the group Impressionistes. The name, of course, stuck.
Today Impression, Soleil Levant hangs in an entire gallery dedicated to Monet—it was stolen in 1985 but recovered in Corsica in 1990. That iconic work was part of a number of bequests that gradually transformed this museum into something of a collection of collections. Two of the most significant came from Michel Monet, the painter’s son, and the descendants of another of the Impressionists, Berthe Morisot.
5 – Musée Clemenceau (CLEMENCEAU MUSEUM)
A writer and adamantly leftist politician, Georges Clemenceau fought twelve duels—and won all of them. Nicknamed Le Tigre (The Tiger) for his combativeness, the apartment he lived in for thirty-five years is nevertheless positively cozy.
Maintained as if monsieur le ministre has just stepped out for a minute, it still has a carafe of water on his bedside table, underneath the telephone installed during WWI so he could take late-night calls from the front lines. His rooms contain mementos from his extensive world travels and around 5,000 books.
The apartment upstairs presents a biography of Clemenceau’s life as a journalist and politician with papers, photographs, and artifacts, including Le Tigre’s dueling pistols and the giant coat he wore on the frontline visits that made him popular with French soldiers.
The Little(r) Museums of Paris: An Illustrated Guide to the City’s Hidden Gems goes on sale on June 4, 2019; it is available now for pre-order wherever books are sold and can also be ordered directly from the publisher. It also makes a great little gift for friends or family traveling to Paris!
Disclosure: We receive a small commission for sales linked to Amazon products.
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- Read Emma Jacobs’ interview with Josette Souza of the American Alliance of Museums.