A visit to the Musee Guimet in Paris last Sunday was an important reminder that being in a Museum is first and foremost a physical experience. I had been having a bit of a rough time in the city and was really hungry for a spiritually uplifting day. This Museum of Asian Arts in the 16e arrondissement not only lifted my spirits, it fired my imagination, soothed my heart and transported me to worlds and ages far beyond the city outside.
Learning and intellectual engagement are understandably high on the agenda of most museums these days and I’d be the first to promote that but, being in those sculpture halls, I didn’t need to know the date and the provenance of the objects, it was enough just to stand and stare.
They key ingredients here were the same ingredients all museums have at their disposal. Space, light and objects. The skill, of course, lies in weaving these three together. From the welcoming embrace of the atrium - which draws you into a top-lit, triple height space - to the generous staircase giving views up through the section of the galleries, this museum invites you to explore.
But the stand-out move at the Musee Guimet is the lighting, particularly in the sculpture hall. The beautiful play of light and shadow across walls, across floors, across statues seemed to add a fourth dimension and an unfathomable depth to my experience. Being here put me in mind of Jun'ichirō Tanizaki’s essays “In Praise of Shadows” - not simply for the title as I enjoyed the effect of shadows all around me - but also for the reminder that museums often strive to shout louder, to shine brighter and to move faster in order to attract new audiences. Tanizaki welcomes subtlety, light and shade and an appreciation of the integrity of both made and natural things.
I guess you could call this a “being in the museum moment” and I’d like to congratulate the lighting designer of the sculpture halls for an exceptional piece of work. I’m also enjoying the irony that, in the City of Light, my most enlightening experience was among the subtlety of the shadows.