François and Jacqueline Sommer, a wealthy couple interested in both hunting and conservation. It's located in a majestic 17th century mansion in the Marais. Their goal was to explore the relationship between humans and nature, through the lens of hunting. Okay, still sounds pretty conservative in a museum sense, right? Surprise!
The inventive installations in the museum combine contemporary art, taxidermy, the traditions of the cabinet of curiousities, historic objects, and what can only be described of as flights of fancy to create one of the most unusual museum visits I've ever been on. And by the way, the use of media and new technologies was minimal. Ideas, not bells and whistles, animate these spaces although the occasional roar can be heard and video unicorn spotted.
Rooms are organized in different ways--but some are organized by animals: stags, wolves, dogs, and and bears. In many rooms there's an exploratory cabinet, beautifully made, in keeping with the traditional furnishings of the room, filled with skulls, art, and more. Contemporary artists encourage the visitor to consider--and reconsider--our relationship with animals. Historic works of art by Ruebens, Brueghel and others and artifacts create surprising juxtapositions.
What does it mean when we encounter bar-tending tigers or human legs upon a dining table? In each room, clipboard labels (available in English as well) explain humans' changing views of this particular animal. The museum was busy, but not crowded on the day I was there--and I saw looks of discovery on everyone's faces--and very nice guards who were very willing to interact with French speaking visitors, pulling open drawers and encouraging conversation.
How were the staff inspired to create the magical unicorn room or the small room with the ceiling covered in owl feathers to create owls staring down at you? They worked with contemporary artists as an integral part of exhibit re-installations, but they also drew inspiration from the founders and the places they lived and loved. A little web research led me to an site where Claude d’Anthenaise, Chief Curator of the museum, described the museum as a place where:
the staged atmosphere [is] tending to give visitors an unusual experience during which they feel like they have entered the home of a mysterious host or the den of a wolf, deer or wild boar, which is due back at any moment. Kept in a state of expectation, spectators remain on their guard, as attentive as they would be if they were in a forest, watching for any sign that may reveal the presence of a wild animal, which most certainly observes them from its hide-out.What an inventive way to put us, the visitor, on guard, to make us attentive and watchful, contemplating the meaning of our relationships to the natural world. And how great to be surprised.