It’s difficult to believe that the Marais, today a bastion of elegance – as it was when its graceful hôtels particuliers were built in the 17th century – was for much of the 20th century a grimy, dilapidated, poverty-stricken quartier that had a date with the wrecking ball. As recently as the 1970s, some 70 percent of the apartments there had no private toilets. The living conditions for the 81,000 residents at the time were considered the worst in the city. Since then, it has undergone a dramatic transformation, thanks to a historic preservation law proposed by then-French Culture Minister André Malraux in the early 1960s. That metamorphosis is the subject of the current exhibition at the Musée Carnavalet, “Le Marais en Héritage(s).”
I was eager to see this show to learn more about this favored and favorite part of the city, a haven for strollers with its narrow streets; for shoppers with its small, mostly independent stores; and for gourmets and revelers with its many restaurants and bars. Instead, alas, I found an exhibition that may fascinate professional urban planners, but with little of real interest to the general public. It starts, believe it or not, with a filmed interview with a politician. Not exactly a sexy opening, even though Pierre Aidenbaum, mayor of Paris’s third arrondissement, is a genial character.
The museum is owned by the city of Paris, so perhaps it is not surprising that the exhibition is so dry and “municipal,” looking at the renovation of the Marais mainly from the point of view of administrators.
Models of some of the more notable mansions are accompanied by bits and bobs of 16th-, 17th- and 18th-century relics (some ceramic pieces, a belt buckle, a couple of coins, etc.) dug up by archaeologists when the buildings were being restored. Labels describe the history of a building’s protected status – what date it was listed as a monument, the name of the association that helped clear the rubble from the basement, etc. – rather than anything that might inspire you to visit, for example, the lovely Hôtel Beauvais, where Mozart once stayed with his father as a little boy. There is an abundance of maps, some of them beautiful but many too technical for the layman to understand.
I did find a few parts of the exhibition informative and interesting. In a televised interview (inexplicably in German with French subtitles), for example, Malraux defends his project to save historical quarters of the city in
the face of complaints that it was removing Paris’s “patina.” It’s not a patina, he explains, just grime, adding that in photos from the late 19th century (before the effects of industrialization and pollution could be seen), the city’s buildings were still light in color. A real patina would have an orangey cast like Versailles, which escaped the effects of pollution. The cleaning was making “Paris gay again,” said Malraux, more presciently than he knew.
I would have liked to have seen more exhibits like the wall of 45 photos of the Marais taken by amateurs for a contest called “C’était Paris en 1970,” showing the buildings and people of the quarter as they were before renovation. The event was so popular that Juliette Gréco even recorded a song, “Paris en 1970,” which plays in the background.
It was also interesting to learn at the end of the exhibition about neighborhood resistance to a plan to evict residents to make room for the foundation of wealthy art dealer Aimé Maeght, a friend of Malraux. The locals won that battle against gentrification, but the war has been pretty much lost.
Unless you are passionate about urban redevelopment, I think that a walk around the Marais would be far more rewarding and interestingly informative (read the historical plaques in front of many of the buildings or join a guided tour like those offered by the excellent Paris Walks) than a visit to this exhibition. Or just wander through the beautiful garden and rooms of the museum, Madame de Sévigné’s former home, and enjoy its wonderful permanent collection, which includes everything from fascinating relics from the French Revolution to the furnishings from Marcel Proust’s cork-lined bedroom.