In Paris

Peter Campbell

The designer Calum Storrie has just published a book called The Delirious Museum.[*] His starting point is the belief that the museum should be a continuation of the street – as easy to enter, as amusing to pass through. This concept is possible in Britain where we have no museum charges, but the notion that streets have a lot in common with museums – and that the pleasures and interest streets offer may be greater – has a history which parallels that of Modernism. The delirious museum Storrie assembles in his imagination runs together the domain of objects caught in the museum net and that of objects which still float free. Primary texts are those in which Baudelaire and Benjamin describe the flâneur’s disengaged observation of the city’s unfathomable complexity.

At the time I was reading The Delirious Museum I took a Saturday walk in Paris from the Musée Carnavalet, which stands in the narrow streets of the Marais, to the Musée d’Orsay, grand enough in itself and made grander by its position, across the river from the Tuileries and the Louvre. Paris is generous to people finding their way round with maps. Here (as is not the case in London) street names are abundant. You can find them at almost any junction. Later, looking on the internet for something about the form the signs take, I came upon an electronic magazine, Ruavista: Signs of the City, in which the street as museum is celebrated very much in Storrie’s terms. Its editor, Marc Voelckel, offers a quotation from Balzac: ‘Strolling is the gastronomy of the eye.’ He says he ‘strives to promote a new form of urban tourism based on visiting ordinary streets and paying attention to details rather than famous spots and beautiful architecture’.

His page about Paris street signs is excellent: evidence, if you need it, of what the uninformed eye misses. I had noticed that there are corners where the standard white-on-blue plaques overlie street names cut in the stone of the building. I would not, however, have known to look for the evidence they offer of a revolutionary edict which removed royal and religious epithets (no saints’ names allowed). That it was Napoleon who ordered the standardisation of signs is not surprising, and their orderly evolution is worth plotting, but that architects are now free to use lettering that matches the style of new buildings is unexpected. In modern streets, where commercial and institutional liveries compete for attention often on the same front, this freedom from coercion has much to be said for it.

Walking across Paris reminds you that London might now have the regal expansiveness of Paris if the Whitehall Palace that Inigo Jones and John Webb drew up for Charles I had been built. Then our prime minister might be living not in the modest decency of Downing Street but in something more like the Hôtel Matignon. Passing it and other grand houses given over to government use in the rue de Varenne you are struck by the amount of old building which still stands in Paris. In the streets of the Marais, tilted façades probably tell of medieval timber behind later plaster. In London’s 18th and 19th-century squares, commerce was excluded. In Paris, the old plan, which gives ground floors to shops and workplaces, seems to have been sustained, or at least preserved. You see it in the arcades of shops which line the rue de Rivoli, the place des Vosges and the Palais Royal. Small businesses enliven all sorts of much more recent pedestrian routes too, perhaps because when Haussmann’s boulevards sliced through Paris the urban texture of the segments they divided off was little altered. It means that transitions from tight congested lanes to broad streets down which rivers of traffic flow punctuate cross-town walks.

The richness of the street points up shortcomings in museums. In one strand of Modernism, artists were, and are, at war with them. Although this antipathy is on the face of it slightly puzzling – actors seem happy enough with theatres and writers with libraries – reasons for it aren’t difficult to find. Duchamp proved that by exhibiting an object you can make it into a work of art. But it turns out that display can also take the acid out of protest. Artists have learned to live with the museum’s tendency to impose and change meanings; even when angry they no longer call for the wrecking ball. Instead of destroying museums, dissenters, as Storrie describes them, set out to parasitise and subvert them. Duchamp sidestepped the museum when he distributed multiple sets of miniatures of his work, packed in suitcases. Chris Burden’s Samson attacks (or at least pretends to attack) the bricks and mortar. His piece consists of a turnstile, a winch, worm gear, a 100-ton jack, timbers and steel plates, designed to be placed in the entrance to a museum. Visitors passing through the turnstile drive a glacially slow extension of the timbers which, in theory, threaten to knock down the walls. When it was shown in Newport Harbour Art Museum, the fire department was alarmed. In Vienna in 1996 a document was issued which explained that there would never be enough visitors for the machine to do its worst.

Inanimate things in museums – teacups from which no one drinks, pictures which will never again be bought and sold – can, as much as stuffed animals, make one think sadly of the time when they were alive. Modern curators know this and spend much time and money avoiding notions of dust, death and mummification. Even art museums do not cram everything in the reserve collection onto the walls. But in avoiding the confusion, heterogeneity and abundance of old-style museums like the Pitt Rivers in Oxford, some of what they shared with the street has gone: an ability to feed the imagination with unexplained, comical, sinister and melancholy juxtapositions, for example – the aspect of collecting the Surrealists exploited.

Storrie is good on the relation between spaces and things exhibited: on Carlo Scarpa’s museum designs, in which windows may bite a top corner out of the walls and ceiling of a room and pieces of sculpture may be positioned to become part of the building, and the intricate interlacing of objects and architecture in the Soane Museum – all of these are striking alternatives to the tradition of the plain room that culminates in white, evenly lit operating-theatre-like spaces. They are still the norm when new rooms are built for notable collections. Storrie’s commentary on the work of Daniel Liebeskind and Frank Gehry shows how their most acclaimed buildings – Liebeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin and Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim – achieved presence not by complementing collections but by taking over from them the job of engaging attention.

The contrast between the vivacity of the street and the quiet of the museum is not always to the advantage of the street. The Musée Carnavalet is devoted to the history of Paris; it was founded at Haussmann’s instigation at a time when he was supervising the demolition of much of the city. The building was once the home of Madame de Sévigné, and the ad hoc run of rooms with 17th and 18th-century panelling and furniture and a collection of mainly unremarkable portraits causes you to exercise your historical imagination. A collection of striking pieces would be more glamorous, but might not force you to think as hard. If a museum makes it too clear how you are expected to respond to things and if displays are cut down to what can be digested easily, there is less to wonder at and be curious about.

[*] Tauris, 192 pp., £49.50, December 2005, 1 86064 569 0.