An exceptional museum in the heart of France
I’m a “big picture” guy. I like headlines and high-level summaries, not pages of detail. Global trends and big ideas are more interesting to me than step-by-step accounts of what happened in the past. One of the members of my team at work once told me (by way of explaining why we were having trouble communicating) “we’re all operating at 5,000 feet, and you’re flying at 35,000 feet.”
All of this is to explain my enthusiasm – “love” is not too strong a word – for the place Karen and I discovered in Lyon last year: the new Musée des Confluences.
Although Lyon is one of my favorite places in all of France, I don’t often write about it here – it’s very well covered by other writers in other blogs (go here to see a good list), and big enough to be a fitting subject on its own. Last time we were in the city, though, we noted that the normally restrained Michelin Green Guide described this museum as “a place you have to see” – so we went to check it out for ourselves.
Confluences: Where Ideas and Rivers Flow Together
The name of the Musée des Confluences is itself a kind of brainy pun. It’s a museum dedicated to big ideas and the grand themes of history and science – the “confluences” of ideas and culture. But it’s also physically situated at a confluence – the place at the end of the Presqu’île (“almost an island”), the peninsula in central Lyon where the Rhône and the Saône rivers join and flow together toward the Mediterranean Sea.
This physical location is unusual in another way. You can walk through the historical quarters of Lyon and appreciate the fine medieval churches and Renaissance houses from the city’s glory days as one of the world’s great textile centers. Out here, though, at the end of the peninsular "almost island", the architecture is aggressively modern, even shocking. The headquarters of EuroNews (by the architects Jakob & Mac Farlane) and this bizarre apartment building by Jean Nouvel were the first things we saw from the museum’s parking lot.
A building like no other…
But the Musée des Confluences is itself a marvel of contemporary architecture. Designed by the Austrian firm of Coop Himmelblau and opened in 2014, the building has zero symmetry, zero traditional structure. It looks different from every angle of approach – in fact, sometimes its appearance changes as you take a few steps forward or back or left or right! According to the architects, though, it does have a kind of internal logic: a base (the socle), a giant steel “cloud” (supposed to symbolize “the unknown”), and a massive “crystal” component (symbolizing “opening up to the world”).
In any case, it’s a radically contemporary look – is it a spaceship? Some kind of animal? Whatever you see in its exterior form, inside you’ll find great open spaces and an eminently practical design, with 5 galleries for temporary exhibitions, 4 large rooms devoted to permanent exhibits, 2 auditoriums, and several areas for workshops and studios.
… to house a museum like no other
All these spaces are dedicated to an enormous ambition: the Musée des Confluences, according to its mission statement, “tells the story of mankind and the history of life. Unprecedented in the world of European museums, it sets up a dialogue between all the sciences to better understand the world.”
They mean it, too! Depending on who you ask, the Museum is a “science center”, an anthropology center, an arts-and-crafts exhibition, a place for philosophical reflection…in short, it’s one of the most eclectic collections I’ve ever seen in a space like this. At the same time, though, it is organized so thoughtfully and so brilliantly that you don’t really notice how eclectic and wide-ranging it is until you’ve finished the tour.
The Musée des Confluences : Four Grand Themes
The permanent collections of the museum are organized around four main themes:
Starting with the Big Bang, the collections trace two different ways of explaining how our world came to be. On the one hand, there are scientific explanations of how the planet was formed and how life evolved over the eons; these are illustrated with remarkable fossils from many different geological eras. But (in the spirit of drawing from other disciplines in a “confluence” of ideas), there’s also a fascinating collection of origin stories – religious interpretations of our roots --drawn from cultures all over the world. Of course there are radical differences in these stories, but it’s the commonalities that made this exhibit so moving and interesting to us.
Again in this exhibit, there’s a scientific element – the way we sort and classify species. In the end, as one of the signs says, “No matter where it is found or the language or beliefs of the country, a feather is still a feather.” But there’s also a serious philosophical story – how that classification of species has changed over time based on what we as humans perceive as “common” or “different” among the different plants, animals, insects, birds and aquatic animals around us.
According to the museum, “A human being is a migrant who is able to come together with others, stops for a time and forms societies, cultures and civilizations. Th[is] exhibition questions these ways of functioning on the basis of three constants, namely organization, exchange and creation.” For me, the most fascinating parts of this exhibit showed how humans routinely create objects for the same purpose – shields for self-defense, pans for cooking – but how variable the execution of these objects can be from culture to culture.
Eternities or “Afterlives”
Again, this exhibition hall reflects the enormous ambition of the creators of the Musée des Confluences. After all, what questions are bigger than “What is our place in the universe? What happens when we die? Is there life after death? And (if so) what does it look like?” Not surprisingly, there is more “philosophy” than “hard science” in this section of the museum – but it is founded on deep studies of how different cultures practice their funeral rituals and how they express their beliefs about Eternity.
A Provocative and Moving Day in Lyon
You’ve probably guessed by now that we found the Musée des Confluences to be one of the most interesting, though-provoking, challenging places we’ve ever visited anywhere in the world. It is relentlessly eclectic and “universalist”, so it naturally appealed to my love of seeing “the big picture”.
But it is also unabashedly “intellectual” in a time where that’s not always considered a good thing to be. There are dozens of kiosks in the museum where you’re invited to sit down and listen to contemporary French philosophers talking about very deep subjects, from how we as humans position ourselves in the natural order of the world to the nature of death and spiritual experience.
In short, it’s a reflection of some of the most deeply held values in French culture but expressed in a series of powerful exhibits that include remarkable fossils, collections of animals, and human arts and crafts as they’ve evolved over the centuries. If any of these subjects appeals to you, I can’t recommend the Musée des Confluences highly enough the next time you’re in this corner of France!
Have you visited a museum or other site in France that speaks particularly to you? A place that you found moving or provocative in unexpected ways? Please share your experience with us in the comments section below – and please take a moment to share this post with someone else who is interested in the people, history, and culture of central France.