What qualities go into a great museum? For me, there are a few. A great museum has to start with a great collection. Whether it’s art, antiquities, or anything else, a museum cannot be truly great without a world class collection. Secondly, it has to have a good physical space. A beautiful view, a historic building, a wonderfully designed modern setting… any of these can fit the bill, but to be great, a museum can’t just be in a warehouse. Finally, a truly great museum has to have a “wow” centerpiece, a single incredible exhibit that is in itself worth the price of admission.
I have visited a lot of museums, and a few stand out as fitting this basic description: the British Museum, Mexico City’s Museum of Anthropology, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Today, I found another: Paris’ Musee D’Orsay.
Most tourists who come to Paris line up to see the Louvre, and with good reason. It is the largest art museum in the world, and it is stunning. In fact, it also qualifies as great by my standard. But for me, the Orsay is even better. Why? Let’s go point by point.
We begin with the collection. Unlike the Louvre, which focuses on early French art, the Orsay’s collection spans the years of 1848 to 1915. When I see those years, one thing screams out to me: Impressionism. The French Impressionists are – to me – at the pinnacle of art, and the Musee D’Orsay has a spectacular collection of their works. The Impressionist and post-Impressionist galleries are on the top floor of the museum, so it is important to arrive early and make a bee-line straight there.
Works by Monet, Renoir, Degas and more fill several rooms. While the highlight for most might be Monet’s Blue Water Lilies, I prefer a series of his done with French flags waving, one of which is on display here.
The post-Impressionist gallery is headlined by Van Gogh, and a couple of his self-portraits. (While 95% of the Orsay is French artists, they make an exception for the Dutch Van Gogh because most of his works were done in France.)
Lower floors contain exhibits by Manet and Rousseau (among others), and more sculpture than I could possibly list. Of course, Rodin is heavily represented, both by The Thinker and his Gates of Hell.
So the Musee D’Orsay checks the box of having a great collection. (It is also manageable. You can probably see everything in a good four hours, and get a real feel for the highlights in two.) What about its physical space?
This is where the Orsay shines above virtually every museum I have ever visited. The building was constructed in 1898 as a railway station. Done in the beaux-arts style, it is heavily embellished with carvings, decorative features, and a huge gold clock.
From the main hall (the sculpture galleries sit here, as though outdoors) it is easiest to see the curved roof, and it leaves no doubt of the buildings’s former life. By 1939, with newer trains being longer, the station stopped being used. In 1970, it was slated for demolition, but was saved by the French Ministry of Cultural Affairs, as part of a plan to bridge the gap between the Louvre’s and Pompidou’s collections. And so, in 1986, after a five year refurbishment, the Musee D’Orsay opened.
The best view of the building is from just along the Seine – or even while on a Seine cruise. The facade contains destinations served by the station, as well as two huge clock faces.
Once again, the Musee D’Orsay easily checks this box. The physical space is unique, beautiful, and even a bit overwhelming. But what about that “wow” centerpiece?
Back on the fifth floor, on either side of the Impressionism gallery, is something that is bound to wow any visitor: the chance to be on the inside of a clock face. The Orsay’s two outward facing clocks are accessible… from the inside of the building! It is a feeling out of Alice in Wonderland, being on the other side of a clock, and one that nearly every visitor seems to need a photo of, making both spots (one is inside the cafe and the other next to two huge paintings by Toulouse-Lautrec) very crowded as the day goes along. But while it can be a long and frustrating wait to get your perfect photo for Instagram, you’ll still marvel at this incredible and unique feature of an Orsay visit.
To be a great museum, three things are needed: a vast and impressive collection, a beautiful physical space, and a unique centerpiece that brings the “wow” factor. Paris’ Musee D’Orsay has all three. It is a spectacular museum, one worth putting at the top of your Paris wishlist.
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