“Popular culture took hold in the Middle Ages.” Interview with the director

The Latin Quarter finally sees its Cluny museum regain its splendor. The institution, which has been under construction for several years, is preparing to reopen its doors to the public on May 12. Enough to encourage the most curious to discover new wonders of the medieval world.

Located in the heart of the Latin Quarter of Paris, the Cluny Museum embodies the memory of medieval history. After five years of renovation work and the construction of a new building, the Museum of the Middle Ages presents a thousand years of medieval art and culture in a completely new museography. The modernized and enlarged building will welcome visitors on a new chronological and thematic route. As a press release from the institution points out, a renewed selection of 1,600 works, among the main pieces of a collection that represents the richness and diversity of the Middle Ages will be offered to the public. Guided tour with Séverine Lepape, director of the museum.


After five years of construction and two years of closure to the public, what has become of the Cluny Museum?

Since the early 1980s, the question of the museum’s renovation had been raised, but had been stumbled several times by the complexity of this historical monument. We took advantage of the desire of the Ministry of Culture to bring the museum up to accessibility standards to launch a major reform because for our tour to be completely fluid – there were about twenty level breaks – it was necessary to touch the inner shell of the Cluny museum. The first step was the construction of a building to adequately accommodate our visitors. How to extend the museum towards the boulevard Saint-Michel without threatening the archaeological remains? Bernard Desmoulin’s building, inaugurated in 2018, stands out for its intelligence and discretion. To limit the impact on the archaeological layer, it is reversible, that is, built on a series of micropiles, leaving the possibility of excavations.

New reception building for the Musée de Cluny, west façade, designed by the architect Bernard Desmoulin © M. Denancé / Musée de Cluny – National Museum of the Middle Ages

It’s also a strong signal: the museum is now visible from boulevard Saint-Michel. Today, going from west to east, one crosses the new reception, the 19th century building behind which is the frigidarium of the old Gallo-Roman baths, and finally the medieval hotel transformed thanks to the reopening of all the windows (which had been blocked). From now on, the visitor understands that he is in a medieval hotel in the heart of Paris. The next step is to recover its architectural unity by reintegrating in Cluny part of the public garden (which had been detached from it during the creation of a medieval-inspired garden in the year 2000) to restore the historic site of the garden of the hotel of the abbots Let us not forget that this medieval hotel was one of the first Parisian hotels between a courtyard and a garden.

The new museography of the museum was accompanied by a revision of the visit itinerary that is now chronological.

This new course was born from the desire to make our collections more understandable, to better explain intellectual developments by locating them in the long term. Since its foundation in March 1844, the Cluny Museum has exhibited its collections by theme to highlight the technical know-how of artists and craftsmen. Thus, one room presented the art of carpentry, another that of brass. [objets en cuivre jaune ou en laiton fabriqués à Dinant et dans la vallée de la Meuse] or another devoted himself to textiles.

Room 6 dedicated to the Work of Limoges (12th-13th centuries), Cluny Museum - National Museum of the Middle Ages ©Alexis Paoli, OPPIC

Room 6 dedicated to the Work of Limoges (12th-13th centuries), Cluny Museum – National Museum of the Middle Ages ©Alexis Paoli, OPPIC

This museography reflected the way art history was taught through grand techniques, but was also based on a necessary distinction between the identity of the Louvre and that of Cluny. The Cluny Museum thus constituted, from its origin, a reservoir of forms and knowledge for artisans, “ gunsmiths, locksmiths, cabinetmakers, decorators, leatherworkers, potters, earthenware and porcelain “, as François Arago clearly states in his report presented to the Chamber of Deputies, then to that of Paris, which decided on the acquisition of the Hôtel de Cluny and the collection of Alexandre Du Sommerard by the State in 1843. Today, the Prism chronological order makes it possible to recreate settings that were rarely presented.Take the example of the Sainte Chapelle: when Félix Duban and Jean-Baptiste Lassus began to reunite from 1841 the twelve apostles who had been scattered since the French Revolution, they decided Entrust the sculptures considered in very poor condition to the Cluny museum. Thus, six apostles were sent to Cluny and replaced in the Sainte Chapelle by copies. The same was done with the stained glass windows and the bundles of columns that supported the great gallery of relics of the upper chapel.

Room 12 dedicated to Northern European art in the 14th century Musée de Cluny - national museum of the Middle Ages ©Alexis Paoli, OPPIC

Room 12 dedicated to northern European art in the Cluny Museum of the 14th century – National Museum of the Middle Ages ©Alexis Paoli, OPPIC

We also have a small reliquary that, although it is not part of the reliquaries commissioned by Saint Louis to house the relics of the Passion of Christ from Constantinople, nevertheless belonged to the treasury and was executed at the time of construction. Until now, these works were distributed in three different rooms of the museum: Gothic sculpture, goldsmithing and stained glass. This general reflection on the reorganization of the collections was also accompanied by a very extensive campaign to restore the works from which the Apostles of the Sainte-Chapelle benefited.

In 1992, the Musée Thermes and the Hôtel de Cluny became the National Museum of the Middle Ages. What confirmed this name change?

Cluny’s specialization around the Middle Ages is the result of a long evolution during the 20th century. The collection that the State bought from Alexandre Du Sommerard brought together pieces from protohistory to the 19th century. From the end of the 19th century, an extensive deposit policy was carried out with other institutions, with the aim of reorienting the collection towards the European Middle Ages and Renaissance. Between the two wars, furniture from the 17th and 17th centuries was gradually sent to regional repositories in museums or castles, such as Azay-le-Rideau.

Chess players, stained glass window in the Hôtel de la Bessée in Villefranche-sur-Saône, around 1450, Paris, Cluny Museum - National Museum of the Middle Ages ©RMN-Grand Palais / Jean-Gilles Berizz

chess playersstained glass window of the Hôtel de la Bessée in Villefranche-sur-Saône, around 1450, Paris, Cluny Museum – National Museum of the Middle Ages ©RMN-Grand Palais / Jean-Gilles Berizz

Then, in 1977, around 5,000 works from the 17th and 18th centuries left Cluny for the Château d’Écouen, twenty kilometers north of Paris, where the National Museum of the Renaissance was opened. The Cluny team actually founded the Musée d’Écouen by working on the distribution of its collection between the two museums. In 1998, the exceptional collection of Jewish religious objects of Isaac Strauss (1806-1888) left Cluny to serve as the founding nucleus of the Museum of Art and History of Judaism in Paris. This collection had been acquired on the composer’s death by Baroness Nathaniel de Rothschild and donated in 1890 to the Cluny Museum.

There is a renewed interest in the Middle Ages. Is it fashionable?

In fact, we have noticed an increase in attendance from people under the age of twenty-five. Popular culture took hold in the Middle Ages, through theheroic fantasy (medieval fantasy), series, comics or video games. It has also become a refuge culture well analyzed by certain historians. The National Education also plays its role in the teaching of medieval literature that so well highlights the courtly world of chivalry and the marvelous. The exhibition “The Lady with the Unicorn” at the Musée des Abattoirs de Toulouse, in 2021, revealed to us that a whole young generation of artists was passionate about the Middle Ages.

Tapestry of The Lady with the Unicorn: “My only wish”, around 1500, Paris, Cluny museum - national museum of the Middle Ages ©RMN-Gand Palais / Michel Urtado

hanging from The lady with the unicorn : “My only wish”, around 1500, Paris, Cluny Museum – National Museum of the Middle Ages ©RMN-Gand Palais / Michel Urtado

Do you have a project to carry out among contemporary art in Cluny?

We study proposals but it is not about systematizing them. The Cluny museum has its identity as a museum of medieval art and history and we are few: the National Museum of the Bargello in Florence, the Episcopal Museum of Vic in Catalonia or the Schnütgen Museum in Cologne. Other museums, of course, preserve medieval works, but they are presented in larger sets. We do not refrain from presenting contemporary works when an artist enters into a real dialogue with our collections and the Middle Ages. It is also a way of showing that there are bridges between different eras and as the great historian Jacques Le Goff said, ” the study of the Middle Ages makes the present more ardent and clear This is also what we seek to do.

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