Museé de la Chasse e de la Nature
The Hunting Museum
Paris / FRANCE
Away from the crowds fighting
for a glimpse of the Mona Lisa,
exists a different type of museum
experience. One where there
exists more silence than noise
and you can have a moment alone
to reflect on the glass cased treasures.
Between the stuffed lions and
vintage rifles, this memorial to
hunting brings life to a pastime
known for commemorating death.
Half of the fun of traveling lies in the chase, hunt, and discovery of new sites. Pages of magazines, books, or internet write ups can never prepare us for the experience of visiting a new place. The excitement when we unleash our senses on a much anticipated destination make the hours of flying, customs lines and stale train interiors worth the wait. The minute we enter the quiet halls of curiosity, our senses skim across the new surfaces for a touch of the familiar and the hope of discovery.
Its been a long time since I was in Paris. My last trip was under very different conditions. In 1998 while visiting a girl in Belgium, whom I was nursing a heavy crush on, we came to Paris for the day. Her family was headed to the World Cup to watch France take on Croatia in the quarter finals. The city was a buzz with checkered Croatians and Le Coq clad French going wild for the game. Being completely indifferent to the sport, I took advantage of the preoccupied crowds and enjoyed a day alone. This pilgrimage was to see my mentors at the Museé D’Orsay. Manet, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec were all eagerly anticipating my arrival. And on my modest budget we agreed to meet for the afternoon. Since I could hardly afford to swoon my favorite artists, I could offer them my undivided attention for a few hours. I left completely smitten with Paris, its painters, and of course the Belgian girl.
When I returned to Paris last month after my workshop in London, the city looked the same, but the young man who arrived with puppy dog eyes for the Impressionists had changed. Long gone was the Belgian girl, France was no longer in spell of soccer delight, and the light summer breeze was replaced by an early heat wave. Between spells of rain and rainforest humidity, a writer friend and I dodged the sun and the crowds to visit some of his favorite spots. We share an similar appreciation for “thoughtfully considered,” so I was fairly certain the days ahead would be excellent.
Mosh Pit at the Louvre
On the first full day we went to the Louvre. Not exactly an original idea, but there were half a dozen paintings I wanted to see. Painting and sculpture, even more than photography reads completely different in person. Do not let books or websites have the final word on paintings. Go see them yourself.
In order to survive the mob of museum goers, a surgical approach to sight seeing was mandatory. In between each painting was a constant hoard of shutter-pushers who appeared to be on a scavenger hunt of art. I call them shutter-pushers rather than photographers, because anyone who walks down one side of a gallery, taking one picture of each painting is nothing but a public nuisance. Never in my life had I ever pushed someone in a museum, but that day I pushed three.
After my elbow match with these shutter pushers, you might wonder…which paintings did I want to see?
- Rosso Fiorentino’s Pieta, surely the biggest surprise and one of the most active paintings I have ever seen in the flesh.
- Everything by Leonardo Da Vinci, who only has 14 completed paintings in the world. For all the postcards, t-shirts and college posters they make of his work, his paintings never loses any of their power in person.
- Domenico Ghirlandaio Grandfather and child, any art history student will recognize the work. Its not particularly significant to me other than the fact that it reminds me of the point at which paintings went from being fantastical decoration to objects worth studying.
- Paolo Veronese’s Marriage at Cana, which any street photographer would look at with envy. It is a preposterously large assembly of characters which possesses a unity and variety that keeps Veronese’s position in art history secure and all of ours about as stable as descending a spiral staircase coated in butter on a sailboat in a storm.
Two hours had passed, we were both getting hungry and the museum made its closing announcements. We made dash for the door where thousands of iPhones taking selfies in a desperate panic to prove to everyone back home they had been to the Louvre. Without incident, we escaped and declared the day was not pretty, but it was successful.
The following morning, we were off in a different direction. We were going to the Museé de la Chasse, or the Hunting Museum as I will continue to refer to it. This small museum was a fifteen minute walk from his apartment just off of the Canal St. Martin. Along the canal were empty bottles from last nights festivities. They are a reminder that young minds are fueled by equal parts, hormones, alcohol, and caffeine. By 10:00am the next morning the canal was empty. Its nocturnal inhabitants were still asleep in their tiny beds, enjoying a wine induced sleep. Shortly they would wake to hangovers and the odd sexual regret. I always feel a bit of nostalgia when I see those empty bottles. They bring me back to a carefree time when the day was outlined by three simple objectives:
- Eat as well as possible for as little as possible
- Find a place to drink that had more women than men
- Finish the evening in drunken philosophical discourse where brilliance and stupidity would dance together all night, but alway sleep in separate rooms.
Fantasy of the Hunt
When you arrive at the Hunting Museum, there are no banners announcing current exhibitions. There are no corporate sponsors showing how their pseudo-philanthropy is making your experience possible. Rather, an unassuming door leads to an anteroom where a cash register sits next to a few books about the museum. One could hardly call this a museum shop. (One point worth noting: this museum would benefit tremendously from a good partnership with a local barrista and a quality bookshop to satisfy the literary urges that spring up inside)
Upstairs the museum is laid out like the manor house of Ernest Hemingway, if he ever could have had one. It feels as if they should install an eighty year old man, smoking a pipe, in shifts, to add to the atmosphere. Minus the tweed and the burning briar pipes, each room is themed by a type of hunt, starting with the boar, then moving on to the stag, and even venturing into the mythical chase of the unicorn. Ancient hunters must have been dreamers. Before the world of science had cataloged all the large animals that actually exist, hunters were free to invent any monster their brains could conjure and they would not let facts stand in their way. How else could someone hunt for jack a lopes or unicorns?
The third floor will turn the stomach of any preservationist or animal rights activists. There are enough dead exotic animals to keep Noah’s Ark in business for 1,000 years. I have rather ambivalent feelings about hunting. I grew up with guns and used to hunt with my father and his friends. The main difference was that I never felt the need to shoot anything. The excitement was in finding animals in the wild. Once shot, I could not find the animal again. So in my head, it made more sense to see them and watch them walk away. Obviously I do not possess the same mentality that brought an eight foot polar bear or the pair of lions to the museum.
But in spite of my difference with hunting, I do enjoy many of the aspects that go along with its history. From the paintings to weapons and dress there are many vestiges of hunting culture which existing in our closets today. Unlike the wrestling matches at the Louvre, the only things we needed to watch out for at the museum were the odd stuffed animal on a chair. The taxidermy, which is top quality, is on display in many forms. There are screeching owls, docile gazelles and sleeping foxes throughout the museum. I commend the museum on their sense of humor. One could never be sure if the curators were secretly laughing as we passed through the space.
We spent a little over an hour inside the museum and felt like we were done. Art, like coffee is better taken in small concentrated bursts. Overall it was a delightful experience and completely unlike our time at the Louvre.
Many museums in the last few years have lost touch with their ability to deliver an experience. They are more concerned with the celebrity architects vying to design the next Bilbao or the big name artists who will generate the greatest ticket sales. In the absence of these features the Museé de la Chasse e de la Nature made for a unique morning that blends history, fantasy, and a curious imagination (sometimes brandishing a weapon.) And while the activity of hunting exotic creatures will not leave everyone on the same side of the fence, the museum traces a curious facet of human history that cannot be entirely praised or condemned.
Musée de la Chasse e de la Nature
62 Rue des Archives, 75003 Paris, France