The immense digital wave sweeping from one end of the room to the other should ensure the buzz of the new National Maritime Museum in Paris. Ten meters high, moving and accompanied by a soundtrack, it is one of the great gestures of a completely renovated establishment. Designed as a “place of wonder”, but also of very contemporary messages on the role of the sea and the oceans, this museum, born in 1748, has undergone a spectacular transformation.
Let us reassure former visitors to the Trocadéro Palace: the old collections of models and models are still on display, as is the series of paintings by Vernet, commissioned by Louis XV. Likewise, the large figureheads or the wooden decorations of the La Réale galley commissioned by Louis XIV are still there to dazzle. “We have retained 65% of the old collections,” says the director, Vincent Campredon. On the other hand, the presentation and spaces have been completely redesigned, and digital technology has made its grand entrance into the rooms.” On the pediment of the Davioud building which has housed the museum since 1943, a poster announces the color: “This museum, we can read, presents the sea like nowhere on earth.”
The slogan, well thought out, is not just a simple formula. It summarizes the shift chosen by the establishment, managed by the army, from old rooms bearing the history of the national navy towards a broader scenography, encompassing climate issues. The museum almost changed its name, before the idea was abandoned. Even renovated, it must, argued the army, remain the home of sailors and the national navy. Its motto “Honor, homeland, valor, discipline” is displayed on the walls today. She reminds us that the country is still a great maritime nation.
“We start from the past to open towards the future, with burning questions like overfishing or cruise ships,” continues Vincent Campredon, who repeats that “the ocean is the future of humanity”.
The idea of overhauling the old museum dates back to 2004. At the time, it was one of the oldest establishments in France, presenting collections, notably that of the encyclopedist Duhamel du Monceau, collected over 250 years. We meet sailors, grandfathers accompanied by their grandchildren, classes, and few international tourists. A series of major exhibitions may punctuate its offerings, but attendance is slowly but surely declining. At the time of its closure, in 2017, it reached less than 100,000 visitors, which did not live up to the theme (nor the location, on the Chaillot hill). “Make me suggestions so that the establishment can be reborn,” asked Breton Jean-Yves Le Drian, then Minister of Defense, to Vincent Campredon one day.
Son of a sailor and himself a naval officer, the latter will throw himself headlong into the affair. It will be long and fraught with pitfalls. The building, built in haste for the 1937 Universal Exhibition, is not the strongest and contains asbestos. The cost of the project was initially estimated at 50 million euros, and was finally reestimated at 72 million.
It is necessary to sort the 60,000 objects, including 2,800 old models and models, that the museum owns. Then have what needs to be restored in the Dugny conservation center, near Le Bourget. There are all the skills for maritime heritage, including old rigging. Everyone gets to work. It took two years to repair the wood and rope of La Muiron, a model of a 44-gun frigate dating from 1805. The work itself began in 2019, soon interrupted by Covid. Everything has been redesigned, the entrance, the circulation areas, the mezzanines, access to the basement. With a ceiling height of 13 meters, the building allows the h2o architects agency, in a consortium with the Norwegians Snohetta, to play with volumes.
At the entrance, a wave-shaped ceiling is adorned with small flashing lights, reminiscent of the movement of water. A huge bow (protruding part which forms the bow of a ship) gives the measure of maritime transport, and the large wave makes it possible to address the question of storms, shipwreck and rescue at sea. Containers illustrate a part on the Haven. A narrow reconstructed submarine berth, or a model of the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier highlight the current role of the navy. In all, nearly 1,000 objects are exhibited and presented by the Casson Mann agency.
This reinvented route hopes to triple attendance, to 300,000 visitors. If people with reduced mobility were previously unable to come, everything has been thought of for them. Visiting slots with “softened scenography”, and reduced sounds and lights, will even be offered for tired or hypersensitive people. “We aim to be a forum and a crossroads where all navies, national, commercial, fishing, recreational, racing or scientific, meet,” continues the director. The museum has already announced exhibitions, including a first “Filmed Ocean”, designed with the French cinema library (from December 13, 2023 to May 5, 2024). Subsequently, another called “Alone around the world”, will tackle solo races. It should be held at the time of the Vendée Globe, and host part of the race headquarters within the walls of the museum. There will be something to breathe new life into the Trocadéro palace.