Paris has reopened one of Europe’s most fascinating museums of the middle ages in the former Cluny Mansion
Since May 2022, the Musée de Cluny, the only national museum in France dedicated to the Middle Ages, has been open to visitors. This reopening – after being closed for five years – crowns a long series of renovation and reconstruction, part of an ambitious modernisation project that was planned in 2011 and started in 2015. The project has been the largest since the museum opened its doors to the public back to 1843.
The museum is housed in one of the most remarkable buildings in Paris as it integrates existing historical structures: the Gallo-Roman Thermes de Cluny (baths) are among the largest ancient remains in northern Europe, notably thanks to the preservation of a vast vaulted room, the frigidarium; the residence of the Abbot of Cluny a monastic order which set foot in Paris in the 13th century.
The town mansion as preserved today was built in pure gothic style in 1485 by Jacques d’Amboise, the Abbot of Cluny. Expensive materials, a complex layout and opulent decor characterizes the residence. The highlight of the structure is the Chapel. Almost square in shape, a dense network of ribs unfolds from its single central pillar turns it into a spectacular example of gothic architecture.
An low-profile contemporary expansion for the reception hall
“The renovation was made necessary to adapt the museum to new accessibility norms and provide a better intelligibility to the medieval world,” explains museum director Elisabeth Taburet-Delahaye.
“The project is ambitious for its visual results rather than for its ambitious volumes or surfaces or even for the involved financial means,” she describes further. Financing was provided by the State, Ministry of Culture.
The only new addition is a reception building with a modern but discreet facade giving an access to the garden and blending perfectly into the historical structures. The new reception area with its modern structure gives also more visibility for the museum, which is often ignored by a large public despite its excellent location in the heart of the Latin Quarter.
Inside, the Musée de Cluny offers a renewed presentation of 1,600 works including a new circuit along its extensive collection. The choice of a chronological route and the choices made in the museography now show what the management calls a “New Generation Middle Ages”. Light is more prevalent throughout the collections revealing the amazing treasures that the museum keeps.
Redesigned circuits inside
The tour takes visitors from the bright rooms of the new reception area with its contemporary architecture, to the high vaults of the frigidarium (cold room) of the ancient baths, before crossing a 19th century building and then circulating through the rooms of the medieval hotel. Its windows, on the courtyard and garden sides, have been opened up to make it easier to understand the building.
The frigidarium of the ancient baths on level -1 and the Gothic chapel on level 2 are valued above all for their architecture. They both are logically integrated into the tour. The former entrance to the museum from the main court is now a coffee shop with a small outdoor area.
Throughout this multi-level tour, the new museography, following an overall logic, shows the diversity of artistic expressions, mainly European, over a long period of time, more than 1000 years.
The presentation of the most famous works of the collection was however not changed. The special room which houses the 6 tapestries that make up the hanging of the Lady of the Unicorn, was renovated and totally reconfigurated back to 2013! Next work to be now completed are the medieval gardens. They are accessible from the outside of the museum as they form a public square.
In total, the State spent €21.5 million for the complete project, including €7.6 million for the construction of the new reception building and €11.4 million for the redesign of the museum circuit. With its new installation, the Musée de Cluny is a perfect addition to any tours of medieval Paris.