Bones and Liberty

Although I’ve been in Paris a week now, I’ve only managed to get to a few museums. Yesterday was by far the best I’ve seen. My brother and I headed off to the Catacomb, knowing it would be spooky, but not really what to expect. I was impressed by the interpretation in the tunnels about the mining and quarrying that happened at the site and the presentation of the story of how the bones ended up there and open to the public. What I wasn’t prepared for was a shiver of uncharacteristic squeemishness that came over me as I walked into the catacomb. I can’t really describe how many bones there were there – millions and millions seems too few. We walked for at least 45mins past bones piled neck high on either side of a narrow tunnel. It wasn’t until half way through that I really started thinking about what I was seeing. All these bones – the skulls in particular – were the people of history. They lived, loved, did good and bad things, tried and failed, had children and lost loved ones, worked hard, had fun, were excited, sad, nervous, happy. Then they died. Although I went to le cimetière du Père-Lachaise last week (the cemetery where famous people, from Jim Morrison to Héloïse and Abélard, are buried) and that was crowded with incredible tombs, it just isn’t the same as seeing the actual bones of people.

The catacomb was used by the Resistance during WWII so I was keen to also visit Mémorial du Maréchal Leclerc de Hauteclocque et de la Libération de Paris and Musée Jean Moulin not too far away. I was really impressed with this museum. It is clearly for a domestic audience – it is so tucked away and assumes a degree of visitor knowledge that, even as a 20th century historian I didn’t really have. There were English translations of text but not of the evocative speeches, posters, documents and other written material that litters the space. None of this mattered however. The feel of the museum is so effective that without being able to understand the detail, I still got the message. In fact, for a foreign visitor the message is also perhaps that this is a French story for the French people, that to understand it one needs to be French, possibly even Parisian and that’s just the way it is. I love this attitude France has to its history.

I was also very impressed with the design of the museum. The documents layered upon one another around the walls gives the sense of urgency and desperation felt at the time as well as looking beautiful and being easy to view – no bending, no straining. It was just as effective to stroll slowly past the documents as it was to stop and read about every single one. In the middle of the room were cabinets with artefacts that rounded out the collection. The documents were held onto a metal surface with really unobtrusive magnets (see the spirals in the corners of the close up below). Very clever!


The room that separated the two sections of the museum was a large theatre with a very spiffy 180+degree screen around the walls. A really interesting, evocative, well made film of the story of the occupation and liberation of Paris using some incredible archival footage runs continuously. Watching it was an interesting experience as we were continually turning our heads to see it all, but again, I think that was deliberate and again, effective.

My first two highly recommended Paris museums! I’m off to see more today…Oh, and, it is cold but so beautiful here 🙂


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