This semester, one of my classes will be taking weekly visits to known — and relatively unknown — Paris museums. We’ll be looking at the art and the collections, but moreso we’ll be focusing on what each museum is trying to communicate and how they are doing it. Every Monday I’ll come back with a report on what we saw and what went on at the museum.
No one told me what the Musée Fragonard was before we went, which was probably for the better.
But the name of the metro stop gave it away: École Vétérinaire.
What felt like years beyond the Paris city limits, we found ourselves in front of the École Vétérinaire, which houses a museum, a library, a horse hospital, and of course, a veterinary school. The museum pre-dates the Louvre in terms of being an actually recognized collection, as it was originally a public space for learning and scientific study (it is in the suburbs because its founder didn’t want the students at the veterinary school to spend all their days partying in Paris — in 1766). In 1902, it was renovated and benefited from a surge of popularity due to the morbid curiosity that marked the period — until it didn’t anymore. For the majority of the 20th century, it was used as a private study space and didn’t reopen again until 1991. In 2008, it was remodelled to the same aesthetic as in 1902.
We walked past the hospital, where we were told that sometimes you can see baby horses hobbling around with bandages on their legs. In the distance was the museum, quiet and almost eerily uncrowded.
The museum itself, at the top of a large grand staircase, completely warps any preconceived notion of what makes a museum, of what defines art. There are inflated animal organs with the pipes sticking out. Painted skulls showing individual bones. Foetuses in jars and kidney stones in a line. Two-headed lambs.
Let me tell you: it was very hard to walk through without a constant look of horror on my face.
The cabinet de curiosités, at the end of the museum past a room of animal skeletons, displays écorchés — flayed humans — preserved and ready for battle, riding horses, and “dancing foetuses”. The bodies still had eyeballs, but no skin. The back wall was covered in the largest collection of parasites in the world; each bottle filled with something creepy, crawly, or otherwise grotesque.
But then, we were asked, why would someone collect these things? Why would people visit? In 1902, well before the dawn of Wikipedia and accidental horrible Google searches, this museum would have been the only insight into specific, particularly exotic, animals. It was easier than traveling. It made seeing unordinary things possible.
Now, the museum is not as popular as it once was, yet maintains the grotesque fascination of the period in which it originated. Students sketch skeletons, learn about animal diseases, and see ailments in real life rather than on a screen. In our case, we were seeing a snapshot of time, flayed, preserved, and papier-machéd. ♦
Musée Fragonard d’Alfort
M° École Nationale Vétérinaire de Maisons-Alfort (ligne 8)