House Museums French Style

Today I visited two small ‘house’ museums: La Maison de Balzac and Musée de la Vie romantique. The first is the house Balzac retreated to in 1840 and lived for seven years. The second was a centre of intellectual, artistic and literary group that included most interestingly for me, George Sand (Amantine Aurore Lucile Dupin). I was interested to see how these two houses would be presented, given how critical I can be towards house museums generally and especially in Australia. Our house museums are often retained accidentally by virtue of not being demolished (I’m thinking of Smirk’s Cottage here) or saved as the best example of our past (Vacluse House for example) rather than because a famous person lived there (although that can be true of some houses). In France, of course, there are many famous people who lived in houses that could be made into house museums. It is surprising really there aren’t more of them.

Anyway, both houses are just beautiful examples of the kind of Parisian artiste life I imagine. They have tiny rooms with lovely windows and doors leading onto small but idyllic gardens. Musée de la Vie romantique in particular is so peaceful I could have sat in the glasshouse for hours.

Musée de la Vie romantique

La Maison de Balzac

The rooms are wonderful to wander through and still give the feeling of the lives lived within. It is interesting that the story of both houses are told through paintings and other artworks over any other medium – especially everyday artefacts. In fact, the presentation of the rooms as they were lived in was rare – just one in each. Balzac’s study because it remained as it was when he used it, including his desk, and a standard sitting room in Musée de la Vie romantique with a collection of furniture used by the various occupants.

Balzac's study (although I'm sure he didn't have a bust of himself gazing down at his writing table!)

Sitting room in Musée de la Vie romantique

Throughout the two houses there is a obvious attempt to ‘decorate’ in the period style but this is not interpreted at all. Like house museums in Australia, we are supposed to take in the overall ‘feel’ of this idealised ‘past’. This approach has always left me cold and although I loved visiting both these museums I still had this response. These people – Balzac and Sand/Ary Scheffer – are presented as their work, not as the people they were. While I can’t argue that their work wasn’t important – it was revolutionary for its time – if I come to their house I want to find out about them. George Sand in particular had a fascinating life during which she publicly flaunted the social mores for women of the time including smoking in public and dressing in men’s clothes. I only know this thanks to Wikipedia, not the museum. Balzac had many complicated family relationships and was in love with a married woman who he finally married just five months before his death (thanks to Wikipedia again).

Coming away from these museums I was left wanting to know more about these people. I loved the houses and there was a fascinating exhibition at La Maison de Balzac and how can I really complain about visiting museums in Paris, but…coming away from a museum with more questions than I had when I arrived is not, I would suggest, a successful visitor experience.

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