Paris:- Wednesday, 16. October 1996:- A calculation tells me that Paris is no less than 147 kilometres from the nearest sea - at Dieppe on the channel - or about 173 kms upstream from Le Harve, as a bird flies - not as the Seine meanders.
Nevertheless, Paris is a port city, France's third largest after Marseilles and Le Harve - with about 60 kms of quais, docks and wharfs - so it is no wonder that it has a Musée de la Marine - a Maritime Museum.
It is a fact of history that France looks in upon itself but it is also a geographical fact that France has coasts on the North Sea, the Channel, the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. For this reason, the Musée de la Marine has a far greater importance than is immediately apparent - and it is the second largest in Europe after St. Petersburg - but the most important in terms of the quality of its functions and collections.
When I researched the feature about Trocadéro [see also Former 'Bottle House' is Now Respectable: Trocadéro - Four Museums, Parvis and a Theatre, in Metropole Paris Issue 1.18] I took the time to pop into the entry of the museum, but it is not until today that I have learned that this is a far vaster enterprise than I imagined; in more ways than one.
In 1748, Henri-David Duhamel du Monceau offered his collection of naval and arms models to Louis XV and they were installed in the Louvre. After a few years of discussion, the collection was moved in 1943 to the 195 metre-long Passy wing of the Palais du Chaillot, where it today occupies a gallery at entry-level and a lower gallery. The floors above the entry level house the Musée de l'Homme.
Paris' Musée de la Marine is revealed today as a huge set of spaces, but this museum is also the administrative centre of an entire interlocking network of marine museums, with satellites at Caen, Brest, Port-Louis, Rochefort, La Seyne-sur-Mer, Toulon and St. Tropez. The museum also has close relations with maritime and cartography museums in Lisbon, St. Petersburg, Sydney and Hamburg.
The last time I was here, only at the entry, I thought I was seeing enough because there is a really large model sailing ship just inside the door. If you like looking at these things as I do, you might not go further. If you do, though, be prepared for a long visit - or, better yet, over several days! - because the displays of ship models - some hundreds of years old and some very large with incredible detail - and other maritime artifacts, are many and extremely varied.
In a quick stroll through the main gallery took me past ships of the 17th century, galleys of the Mediterranean, Marie-Antoinette's barge, model ships of the American independence war, the French Revolution and the First Empire, the emperor's galley, the Second Empire, light-house lanterns, the stairs down to the lower level, and the space for the temporary exhibits, such as 'Les Temps des Clippers' which is currently on until 18. November.
You can turn left before the stairs, towards the windows facing the Tour Eiffel, and return past the space for the actual Navy, the steam era, the commercial shipping space, all sorts of displays about wooden-ship construction, an area for navigation instruments, and finally, an area devoted to fishing. If you are interested in all of it, this walk should take an entire day, or more.
The museum proposes thematic visits and suggests 16 of them. There are also visits with conferences, cycles of visits, visits for schools and even, guided birthday visits.
How the Obelisk Got to the Place de la Concorde
You see many great things when you are walking around Paris, and when I write 'great' I mean large, huge and made out of what appears to be, stone. The Obelisk at Concorde is the kind of thing I mean.
It is not a replica. According to legend, it was a gift from Mohammed Ali, viceroy of Egypt, to Charles X of France. It came from Luxor, 150 kms up the Nile from the sea and it arrived in France and was erected at Concorde in 1836, when Louis-Philippe was in power. The Obelisk is 23 metres long and it weighs 220 tons and is 3,300 years old.
Rewind yourself to 1829 and try to figure out how it was done. You can stand in the place de la Concorde while thinking about it, but if you want a fast answer you will find it in the Musée de la Marine, in two adjoining glass cases.
The sand-box model shows how to tip over an Obelisk, slide it into a huge wooden box, float it down the Nile to the sea, where a beached barge waits, with its front-end cut off. Your imagination takes over, and you slide the boxed Obelisk inside the barge and re-attach the front end. Then you can read about the barge being towed to Toulon, being transshipped to Rouen, and floated up the Seine to Paris. The Obelisk's emplacement is not far from the river, so the rest is a reverse of the operation in Luxor.
In order to learn each and every detail of these sorts of feats - and everything else you may want to know about things maritime - the museum has an extensive library of several thousand volumes, augmented by more than 25,000 in Rochefort - in total more than 150,000 documents in all, not counting 180,000 photographs.
For researchers - and the public - the museum provides documentation services and its specialized library; but both are only accessible by appointment, or by correspondence. Prints from the black and white photo collection can also be ordered.
It all adds up to being France's National Maritime Museum, and it is recognized as such outside of France: one of the most important museums that France has.
Le Temps des Clippers - The History of the Belem
This is the name of the current temporary exhibition at the Musée de la Marine, and it continues until Monday, 18. November.
The exposition portrays the age of the Clipper Ships; their routes, their cargos - opium! - tea! - and the lives of the men 'of iron' who worked these last 'wooden ships' for their cargo races that spanned the seas of the globe.
The 'Belem' is a three-masted contemporary French clipper and there is a wide collection of large photos of it in action in seas that are not only untidy, but huge. As I am behind a camera so often, I could not help wondering how this particular photographer got these shots - from another ship, or from a helicopter? No matter how - very dramatic scenes.
Musée de la Marine
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