The Medieval Museum Musée de Cluny: the value of museums in history.

It is perhaps a prerequisite of being a History student to love visiting museums, but I personally always came away feeling a little disheartened as a child. Plenty of very interesting modern exhibitions, but virtually nothing medieval!
So during the Easter break I was very excited to visit the Musée Nationale du Moyen Âge, a museum in Paris uniquely dedicated to preserving and displaying objects from the Middle Ages. I was certainly not disappointed- they have gathered quite a hoard of treasures over the years, from Cluny museum tapestryfragments of stained glass to Visigothic ornamental crowns. The centrepiece, though, without a doubt, was the stunning, mysterious set of tapestries known as ‘La Dame a La Licorne’- ‘The Lady and the Unicorn’, depicting the five senses; along with a sixth tapestry whose exact meaning is hotly debated, but is no less beautiful.

The museum itself is located in the ‘Thermes et Hotel de Cluny’, the ‘Cluny baths and Palace’, which was the residence of the abbots of Cluny from 1334. The palace was structurally renovated in 1485, and again in 1510, incorporating elements from Gothic and Renaissance architecture. Over this time, it housed such notable personages as Mary Tudor, sister to Henry VIII and wife to Louis XII.
In the 18th century the Hotel de Cluny served many purposes for many different people, before it was acquired by the du Sommerard family. Alexandre de Sommerard followed a general revival of interest in the medieval period; by his death, he had amassed a huge collection of medieval artefacts, and stored them in the Hotel de Cluny.
The collection, which amounted to some 1500 medieval and Renaissance objects, was then bought by the state in 1843 along with the Roman baths. Under the direction of Edmond de Sommerard, son of the previous owner, the collection grew considerably, acquiring pieces like the ‘Dame a La Licorne’ tapestry. By the time of his death in 1885, the museum was home to over 11,000 artefacts, and continued to collect and preserve many precious items, including the remains of kings’ statues from the gallery in the Notre Dame Cathedral, which were discovered in 1977. It continues to do so to this day; it took a few hours to look around all the exhibits in the museum, and I would guess that there are many more than 11,000 currently present there.

Museums are often discussed in relation to their value to modern society, particularly in their role in education. Whilst it would be ideal if national treasures like museums could simply be valued for their virtue in preserving beautiful objects, it is worth remembering museums’ importance in teaching. I was pleased to see more than one school group being taken on a tour of the museum when I visited. This educational process of museum tours offers even more potential when learning about the middle ages. The current director of the museum Elisabeth Taburet-Delahaye, in her words of welcome to the visitor, says ‘You will be transported into an imaginary world….a highly colourful universe, but also an unmapped one, where there are many interpretations of the same reality…’

visigothic jewellery 2-1Seeing the world through the eyes of its contemporaries and understanding their mode of thinking is crucial to understanding the period, particularly from a cultural point of view. It also lends a dimension of humanism to the study of the middle ages that is too often absent. Most of what we know about the Middle Ages comes from written sources, much of which were written by a select, elite groups of monks. This is how much of our history has been passed down to us and how we continue to learn about and understand it. Museums encourage us to think about history in a different way;  through the possessions of people from the times — not just monks, but those from all walks of life.  It is in viewing these artefacts that we gain access to their stories. In the ‘Lady and the Unicorn’ tapestries and many other artefacts besides, a different picture of the Middle Ages emerges: a far cry from the brutal, bleak world that is usually painted through allegories of barbaric behaviour and perhaps the occasional Game of Thrones reference. Though of course the Middle Ages were no bastion of modern values, many features of modern society were indeed brought into practice in this time – universities, to name just one significant institution! There is a tendency to think of the Middle Ages as the former – which is unsurprising given all the inferences in popular culture that work to play on people’s preconceived ideas. Yet I believe that it is through museum displays, learning about the actual lives of people rather than remembering dates from a book or relying on dry descriptions, that a more personal and interesting view of the subject can be found. This may be true for any period, but it is particularly important for a medieval museum; it is this period, if any, that is plastered with the most misconceptions and misrepresentations. It is through interactions with these artefacts that a different, more humanised picture emerges, one which gives us a more rounded impression of the Middle Ages; a picture which does not simply show us knights trying to kill each other at the slightest provocation, with everyone else being ruthlessly oppressed.

I hope people do come away from museums feeling they have gained a new perspective on times past, though perhaps as a lover of medieval history I am biased when I say  the Middle Ages were a time of progress rather than backwardness, a time of flourishing culture rather than systematic repression from all institutions. But if nothing else, it is surely possible through exposure to artefacts either of high culture or of everyday medieval life, to see the people behind the times, to appreciate the beliefs and daily lives of those who were, in many ways, very similar to us.

Written by Elsa Robinson