Musée de Cluny – Musée national du Moyen Âge | Bernard Desmoulin

Bernard Desmoulin in partnership with Studio Adrien Gardère Paris / France / 2022

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On Thursday 12 May 2022, the Cluny Museum, the only national museum in France dedicated to the Middle Ages and the renowned custodian of one of the world’s most famous medieval works, The Lady and the Unicorn, is reopening after major modernisation works launched by the Ministry of Culture and implemented by OPPIC (Operator of Heritage and Real Estate Projects of Culture).


-  its reputation, forged since its creation in the 19th century,
-  its urban setting at the heart of the Latin Quarter, at the intersection of two very busy boulevards in the capital,
-  its heritage components: archaeological, historic and museum-based,

-  its astonishing architectural collage, from the 1st to the 21st centuries,
-  its prestigious collections in symbiosis with the buildings,
-  its atmosphere: a charming place on a human scale.

“At the heart of Paris, the National Museum of the Middle Ages is the result of the enigmatic interlocking of three ensembles,” explains the architect Bernard Desmoulin: “the ancient thermal baths, the Hôtel des Abbés de Cluny and the 19th century additions to the construction of the museum. The new reception area completes this ensemble of architectural strata. The redesigned museum route provides a cohesive interpretation, redeploying and enhancing the exceptional collections and ensuring they are accessible to all visitors.”


The museum is the result of a unique architectural equation. In the late 15th century,
the residence of the abbots of Cluny, one of the oldest private mansions in Paris, was
built backing onto the Gallo-Roman thermal baths dating from the 1st and 2nd centuries. Having become a museum, in the late 19th century the establishment was given a Roman pastiche-style addition by the architect Paul Boeswillwald. These different strata have now been brought together and follow on from one another in a fluid progression from the new reception area, with its contemporary architecture.

The thermal baths: a construction that typifies Roman techniques. In 52 BC, Julius Caesar conquered the Celtic city of Parisii, which the Romans renamed Lutetia. They brought their own ways of living to the city, in particular the practice of bathing in public thermal baths. A major complex was built in the late 1st century in the northern part of Lutetia, spanning 6,000 m2 and 3 levels. Its ruins have been partially preserved and are clearly visible from outside, recognisable for their construction method of limestone rubble stone cut through with horizontal courses of bricks. The frigidarium (cold room) is the most spectacular

part of the baths due to its dimensions and original 14-metre-high vault. The marble and stucco decorative elements have disappeared, but the Roman construction technique
is clearly visible. Traces of blue pigments on the vault, a mosaic of fragments and two consoles with sculpted motifs above the “pool” help us to imagine the elegant décor. The frigidarium is included in the visitor route as room no. 1, a special setting for the ancient collections, as well as being used for temporary exhibitions

The Hôtel des Abbés de Cluny: the oldest and best-preserved medieval private mansion in Paris, with its courtyard and gardens. Built in the late 15th century for Jacques d’Amboise, an abbot of the powerful order of Cluny, the Hôtel boasts both medieval characteristics and 19th century additions, including a crenelated wall with a passageway and carriage gate, turrets, gargoyles and casement windows. It was a prestigious residence, an actual home set back from the street, with a pleasure garden, reception rooms and private spaces including an exceptional chapel built in the Flamboyant Gothic style.

A contemporary reception building. In 2018, the Cluny Museum was extended by the architect Bernard Desmoulin. With its profile, echoing that of the frigidarium in the thermal baths and its guipure motif inspired by the chapel of the medieval private mansion, this building created a dialogue with those that preceded it on the site, forming the museum as it is today. Designed to fulfil the aim of being accessible to all, with

the installation of lifts in particular, the extension also includes working spaces for the museum teams and a reception area for visitors.


The renovation project, launched in 2011 by the Ministry of Culture, was built on a report on the health of the buildings, the lifetime of the installations, the lack of accessibility for people with reduced mobility, the lack of visibility of the museum, which appeared to have its back turned to the city, and the loss of cohesion of the museum route.

The architects and companies in charge of the project had to find solutions in order to overcome these many challenges in a restrictive context, due to the nature of the building as a listed site featuring a Roman archaeological foundation, a medieval private mansion and a 19th century extension with a labyrinthine configuration.
Step by step, the museum went through a transformation, in order to preserve its heritage, ensure the physical accessibility of all its spaces and make the visitor route fluid and appealing.

Preserving the buildings. This initial, essential, phase was carried out under the supervision and leadership of Paul Barnoud, Chief Architect for Historic Monuments. The Cluny building is unique in its composite character. It took two years of works, from 2015 to 2017, to provide the specific treatment required for each ensemble. Exposed to the weather, the Roman ruins were protected by ballasts, the masonry was cleaned and the Roman outbuilding was re-roofed. The chapel of the Hôtel de Cluny, meanwhile, received treatment both outside and inside, including the cleaning of the façades, stained glass and the painted and sculpted decorative elements, which were so tarnished as to be difficult to discern. Colours reappeared, including the blue-green of the vault and the multicoloured sculptures of the tambour door. The 13 heads of angels, each taken down one by one,
as well as the mural paintings, are now clearly visible. Finally, the restoration revealed sculpted details, namely the botanical decorations that illustrate the delicacy of the Flamboyant Gothic style.

Making the museum visible and accessible to all. Making the site accessible was the priority for the project and a major factor in allowing the museum to welcome the public in line with the standards required of an ERP (Establishment Receiving the Public). The creation of the new reception building in 2018 was the first step in the reorganisation of the visitor circuit, which was finalised by the works carried out inside the medieval private mansion.

Reconciling preservation with innovation. While the new reception now appears seamlessly integrated into the site, building it came with several challenges. As the architect Bernard Desmoulin, whose project was selected by competition in July 2014, remembers, the aim was to “build on the Roman ruins without damaging them, to accommodate all the features of a new reception within a small 16 x 16 m space, all within a highly visible urban environment.” The double-gable reception building is both visible and unobtrusive, complementing the architectural and contemporary collage of the site through the choice of materials: aluminium plates in all different sizes and textures, some of which feature the lace motif in the stonework of the chapel’s tambour door, with which Bernard Desmoulin “fell in love at first sight”. “A ray of sunshine on a sheet of metal and some thirty trials resulted in the right colour for the envelope of the new reception building, which changes with the light.”

The new reception, which was inaugurated in July 2018, therefore plays the essential role of a pivotal building that orchestrates the visitor flows between the different spaces: the ancient thermal baths, the medieval private mansion and the 19th century extension.

Removing obstacles. With its 27 changes in level, the visitor route had previously been a labyrinth filled with obstacles and totally inaccessible to people with reduced mobility. Solutions were found without overlooking the heritage-related constraints: the museum now has three lifts, a new staircase and two platform lifts that help mitigate the final remaining changes in level. In the cobbled courtyard of the medieval private mansion, a path for wheelchairs and pushchairs was also created by levelling the cobblestones, in order to make the site 100% accessible.


Reconfiguring the space, repositioning the works within a chronologically-themed route and bringing a sense of unity to this new setting were the key challenges for the teams chosen by competition to redesign the route: Bernard Desmoulin in partnership with Studio Adrien Gardère, museographer, scenographer and designer.

Designing a new decor, with white walls and slate-grey Viroc. In order to bring a sense of unity to the route, there needed to be a common language: “For the new furniture, we chose a composite material (concrete with wood particles), Viroc, in slate grey, which would work with the concrete in the different architectural levels and seem as though it had always been there. The polychrome of the works, and the golds of the altars, shine through,” explains Adrien Gardère.

Each work is a project in itself. “Scenography is theatre,” points out Gardère, “it needs to direct the visitor’s eye and create relevant juxtapositions. Working with the curators, the works were modelled in order to find the best position for them within a more inviting, clearer and more coherent route.”

With stone, glass, enamel, gold, ivory, textiles and dozens of metres of wall hangings,
all very different in nature, the selected works required specific presentations, such as display cases for the gold- and silversmithery, velcro for the tapestries lined with velvet, which needed to fall in just the right way, special picture rails to best present the display cases, allowing the light to shine through, proper bases for the capitals, which have to be looked at from below. Nearly half of the works, especially the sculptures, required new mounts. This was a project in itself, for which a specific contract was signed with the company Version Bronze, with recommendations recorded in a set of specifications. For the keystones or large stone altarpieces, the reinstallation required pull-off tests in order to ensure that the system was secure.


Musée de Cluny – musée du Moyen Âge
28 rue Du Sommerard 75005 Paris
Tel.: +33 (0)1 53 73 78 00

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    On Thursday 12 May 2022, the Cluny Museum, the only national museum in France dedicated to the Middle Ages and the renowned custodian of one of the world’s most famous medieval works, The Lady and the Unicorn, is reopening after major modernisation works launched by the Ministry of Culture and implemented by OPPIC (Operator of Heritage and Real Estate Projects of Culture). THE ASSETS OF THE CLUNY MUSEUM -  its reputation, forged since its creation in the 19th century, -  its...

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