An Old Paris Museum Makes a New Name for Itself
PARIS — The Musée des Arts Décoratifs has long had an identity crisis.
It is in a 19th-century wing of the Louvre building on the Rue de Rivoli, but it does not belong to the Louvre.
It gets confused with the École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs, the elite national school for art and design on the other side of the Seine River, even though there is no connection between the two institutions.
And it is not a museum dedicated to the early 20th-century Art Deco movement, even though “Art Deco” is shorthand for “Arts Décoratifs.”
So in January, in an effort to reinvent itself, the museum changed its name. It is now called Musée des Arts Décoratifs/MAD, pronounced not “mad” as in angry, but “mahd” as in the subculture and fashion movement in 1960s Britain.
“We are the second-oldest museum in Paris after the Louvre and a good neighbor of the Louvre,” said Olivier Gabet, the museum’s director, in explaining the name change. “But it was important for us to remind people that we exist and who we are: a museum of ‘mode’ or fashion, the arts and design.”
(MAD in French also stands for Mode, Arts, Design, which Mr. Gabet called “our three kingdoms.” The name has also been given to the Bibliothèque des Arts Décoratifs and to the Musée Nissim de Camondo and its design and architecture school.)
The Louvre, the largest museum in the world, attracted more than eight million visitors in 2017, MAD a record 920,000.
The museum was founded in 1864 by a group of wealthy French businessmen, built almost entirely from private collections and moved to the Louvre in 1905.
It has a rich, eclectic permanent collection of more than 788,000 objects (both on display and in its reserves), including furniture, textiles, painting, fashion design, tableware, crafts and graphic arts, from the Middle Ages to the present. It receives nearly half its operating budget from the French state but remains a private museum that must raise its own money for exhibitions, renovations and restorations.
That very diversity can confuse the public. When the museum reopened in 2006 after a decade-long, $45 million renovation, it flaunted its exquisite space, with a soaring central atrium flooded with natural light from circular skylights. But it still found it difficult to brand itself.
After all, how do you find a unifying thread for a storehouse of objects that includes Aubusson carpets, Sèvres porcelain, architectural drawings, groundbreaking photographs from the 1930s and 1940s, a 13th-century bronze ablution container, a 16th-century ivory skeleton on a tomb, 18th-century cabinets with intricate wood veneers and a late 20th-century Japanese hopping robot?
The museum has one of the most important collections of period rooms in the world, beginning with an imaginary medieval bedroom, dismal and dark. Then there are the bedroom, boudoir and bathroom created for the mansion of the couturier Jeanne Lanvin in the 1920s by the master designer Armand-Albert Rateau, and the 1875 bronze bed furnished with silk velvet that belonged to a famous courtesan who was an inspiration for Émile Zola’s novel about the prostitute Nana.
“Yes, there is an absence of hierarchy,” Mr. Gabet said. “That’s part of our strength.”
Even though the museum houses one of the world’s most important collections of design and the decorative arts, it is better known for its fashion collection, which is on par with that of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Costume Institute in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The most recent show, “Christian Dior: Couturier du Rêve,” was the largest fashion exhibition ever mounted by the museum. A retrospective of 70 years of the house of Dior, it featured more than 300 haute couture gowns from seven designers who led Dior starting with Christian Dior. During its six-month run, which ended in January, it attracted a record-breaking 708,000 visitors.
The museum has featured exhibitions on subjects as varied as buttons and Bauhaus, and retrospectives on such fashion greats at Madeleine Vionnet and Balenciaga. A show on Dries Van Noten focused not only on his fashion, but also on his sources of inspiration, from paintings to opera arias
In March, MAD will open the largest exhibit ever of the jewelry collection of Diane Venet, whose husband is the sculptor Bernar Venet and who has amassed about 200 pieces by artists including Picasso, Georges Braque and Robert Rauschenberg.
To expand its fashion collection, the museum solicits donations from designers. Pamela Golbin, the museum’s chief curator of modern and contemporary fashion and textiles, invests a great deal of time attending the Paris shows to get to know designers and their work.
“We don’t compete with the big design houses who can buy back their great treasures at auction,” Mr. Gabet said. “Sometimes designers ask us if they can donate their work, sometimes we ask them for donations.”
The museum just keeps getting more cool as a destination for eating and shopping. It enlisted the architect Joseph Dirand to redesign its ground-floor restaurant, which reopened in 2016. It was given a casual Italian feel and called Loulou, after Loulou de la Falaise, a fashion muse and designer for Yves Saint Laurent.
Open every day from noon until 2 a.m., the restaurant has become a destination for Paris fashionistas and glitterati even if they do not venture into the museum collections. Loulou’s signature dish is a white pizza with black truffles for 42 euros, or about $52. In good weather, the terrace opens to the deliriously beautiful gardens of the Louvre and the Tuileries.
Then there is the gift shop, which is worth a look even if you do not have €350 for a pair of two-tone rose and gray leather gloves or €540 for a limited-series original light fixture from the Eiffel Tower. (There are lightweight tin dinner plates in wallpaper designs from the museum’s collection at €9.50 each.)
Mr. Gabet is willing to promote his museum whenever he can. When Beyoncé and Jay-Z wanted to see the 2016 Barbie exhibition during a visit to Paris, he took them on a private tour, then tweeted about it.
“We are a museum that is mad about objects,” Mr. Gabet said, in English, rhyming it with “glad.”
Maybe that should be MAD’s new slogan.
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