Exploring Paris with Paris Muse

By Maria Martens Serrano - Friday, November 20, 2015
Exploring Paris with Paris Muse

Paris is known as the city of many things: love, art, fine cuisine, and most importantly these days - resilience. In the aftermath of last week’s terrorist attacks, Culture Minister Fleur Pellerin spoke the following words: “In tragic moments that pass over France, culture is more than ever the symbolic place of discovery for oneself and others.”

Exploring Paris with Paris Muse

Paris is known as the city of many things: love, art, fine cuisine, and most importantly these days - resilience. In the aftermath of last week’s terrorist attacks, Culture Minister Fleur Pellerin spoke the following words: “In tragic moments that pass over France, culture is more than ever the symbolic place of discovery for oneself and others.” 

These words ring strong and true for the city that holds so many treasures, beautifully kept and presented in the vast number of museums and institutions that are world-renowned for their devotion to art and culture.  

These institutions, such as the Louvre, are part of the intrinsic fabric of the city, and they belong to all those who come to Paris to appreciate their, and its, beauty. Yet, with so much to see and do, it can often be overwhelming - where to start in a city, or a museum, that holds so much?  

To answer this question you can turn to Paris Muse, a company with a focus towards personable and personalised guided tours. The quality of their tours is owed in large part to their team of specialised educators, all equipped with advanced knowledge in the areas of their field and, most importantly, a passion for  the city’s art and history. 

In this interview, Artdependence Magazine speaks with several members of Paris Muse, Sarah Bachelier (Educational Coordinator), Kristen Laakso (Head of Communications), and Melissa Anderson (Editorial Associate) to find about more about their work.  

Artdependence Magazine: Firstly, a few questions on the Louvre, where most of Paris Muse tours take place. With so many of Paris Muse's tours in the same location, how does the coordination avoid overlaps? And how do the Paris Muse tours work alongside the Louvre’s own guided tours?

Sarah Bachelier: Our educators make sure there is no overlap even though we may have tours starting at the same time.  Each of us are conscious of our fellow colleagues in the galleries and we do our best to make sure we create enough space between us.  Our approach is the same when dealing with the other large tour groups that can, at times, overwhelm the space of the Louvre.  Our clients have the most meaningful experiences when our guides can create an intimate atmosphere where real dialogue can happen.  This is always a priority for us and a constant creative challenge at a busy place like the Louvre, where sometimes crowds can overwhelm the art . Our job is to help visitors really focus on the works they are seeing.

AD: Could you tell us a bit more about the Louvre Quest tour? It is one of the longest tours by Paris Muse (3 hours) and seems to be the tour most dedicated to a socio-historical perspective. 

Sarah Bachelier: Our Louvre Quest is indeed one of the longest programs we offer—it covers a lot of historical ground of the Louvre’s collection. It is designed for families with teenagers as an educational quest that explores Ancient Mesopotamia, Ancient Greece and Egypt, and concludes with the Italian and French paintings.  All of our educators on all of our tours bring a socio-historical perspective, since you can’t really discuss art without relating it to its time period and cultural context.  Since it’s designed for teenagers, Louvre Quest is perhaps more an effort on our part to make those connections as accessible and as vivid as possible.

AD: “Cracking the Da Vinci Code at the Louvre” is the most ‘commercial’ of the tours offered by Paris Muse; it has also gathered the most publicity. The design of a tour around Dan Brown’s book is interesting, since it was not well received among academics for taking the liberty of bending facts. Are the book's faults a kick-off point for the tour? 

Kirsten Laakso:  Certainly “Cracking the Da Vinci Code at the Louvre” is the most ‘commercial’, in the sense that it’s received a great deal of publicity because of the book’s incredible popularity.  We created the program because so many of our visitors were asking us questions about Dan Brown’s book in the Louvre, so we felt we had to respond intelligently.  “The Da Vinci Code” inspired a world-wide conversation about the history of Christianity and the Italian Renaissance painter, Leonardo da Vinci. Our tour isn’t solely about correcting the inaccuracies in Dan Brown’s fictional novel, but it does clarify things. It educates people about early Christian art and goddess worship in ancient Greek religion using the magnificent collection at the Louvre. We use the book’s controversial interpretation of Leonardo’s “The Virgin of the Rocks" as a starting point, to tell visitors about other approaches, so that people can take a closer look at the painting and make their own informed decisions about its meanings. Like all of our programs, it’s designed to encourage visitors to look more closely at the details of works of art.

AD: Designing a program or a course (whether for a tour or an exhibition), which accommodates people with different degrees of knowledge, raises the question - what stands most in the way of an audience’s willingness to learn? The inverse of that question - what builds a positive response in people when they are faced with new information? 

Sarah Bachelier: I actually rarely find that an audience is unwilling to learn. The quality of the learning experience a visitor will have has to do with the way information is communicated.  The most positive responses to tours and exhibitions happen when curiosity is encouraged.  Our visitors need to feel like we are considering their different backgrounds, questions and interests, since that’s what really enriches the exchange.  At Paris Muse our goal is to communicate with our visitors—to talk with them, not at them— no matter what their familiarity is with the history and culture we are exploring together.

AD: The act of putting the past into perspective is dynamic; approaches to how we (re)consider history are ever-changing. What would you say is notable about today’s audiences’ conceptions of history and the changing currents in art, architecture, and society in general?

Melissa Anderson: The historian Christopher Hill wrote that "History has to be rewritten in every generation, because although the past does not change the present does." To me, this is one of the most powerful lessons that can come out of a history classroom and what first drew me to history many years ago. Leading museum and walking tours in Paris, I find that current events absolutely affect how visitors understand the art and history they encounter, and that, in turn, our need to understand ourselves and the world today makes artifacts from the past ever more relevant. Whether I am sharing the Code of Hammurabi on a Louvre tour, or Notre Dame Cathedral, visitors make connections with modern parallels, which raise questions about how much things have changed and how much they haven't. The trend in my experience is for audiences to look for commonality, to pinpoint a fundamental human experience that transcends culture and time.

AD: A few tours are momentarily on hold, such as “The Evolution of Pablo Picasso at the Picasso Museum” - will this tour be making a comeback? 

Sarah Bachelier: Yes, The Evolution of Pablo Picasso at the Picasso Museum is making a comeback!  It should be available next month.  At times we have to put certain programs on hold, while museums are being renovated or collections are being rehung. We want to be sure our educators are absolutely familiar with the collection where they teach.  The Picasso Museum, for instance, just had a major re-hang of the collection that curators finished in late October. It now tells new stories about Picasso’s work and we wanted to be sure we took the time to explore those new stories.  It gave us a chance to revise our programs and to train everyone with the new content. It’s really rewarding to work with collections like this, as it keeps our programs fresh and brings visitors back for more.

AD: Some Paris Muse tours are temporary. This year’s summertime program included “Jewish art and history in Paris”, at the Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme of Paris. How do new partnerships and new tours develop? 

Sarah Bachelier: The partnership with Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme happened because of a mutual contact.  Many of our educators work in other areas of the arts, so we have a lot of relationships in Paris, and we build on those whenever we can.  The MAHJ was looking to start educational programs in English, and they wanted to work with a team of experienced educators who could provide great experiences for their Anglophone visitors. We look forward to working with other Paris museums like this.

When developing new programs, we try to respond to what our visitors tell us. We created our latest family tour ‘A Nile Family Voyage of the Louvre, for example, because our most popular family tour, ‘Paris Muse Clues: A Family Tour of the Louvre,’ did not cover Egypt. So we decided to develop a program that would build on the enthusiasm lots of kids already have for ancient Egypt, and give families an accessible, interactive introduction to the Louvre’s amazing collections.

Thank you Paris Muse for sharing your thoughts. We would also like share here a fragment from the personal and profound response of Paris Muse to the tragedies that took place: 

We understand that many of you may be hesitant to travel to Paris after Friday’s events. While this is a deeply personal decision, we have emerged from these days of mourning and reflection with an even stronger commitment to our mission. The best response we as a team can think of to hatred and fear is to continue to embrace the diversity of cultures and understanding of difference that the museums of Paris provide. We believe that culture is the best reminder of our inherent impulse to create, rather than to destroy. 

Top image,  photographer: Rachel Helfand

Maria Martens Serrano is a Dutch-Salvadoran writer. She studied under a liberal arts program at University College Utrecht, going on to graduate with an MSc in Sociology from the University of Amsterdam. Exploring a broad range of interests, Maria previously worked with a news website and a human rights NGO, before becoming involved with several art fairs in the Netherlands. She now writes on topics of arts and culture. In early 2015 Maria joined the team of Artdependence Magazine as editor and contributor.

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