Monday, August 31, 2009

Princeton in France: Working in the Musee d'Orsay

This summer I spent six weeks working at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris; an internship I got, quite unexpectedly, through the Princeton in France program. I say “unexpectedly” because the internship is usually reserved for Art History majors, with their superior knowledge of gallery air pressure, humidity levels and obscure 19th century sculptors. Being a plain old history major, and thus one word short of every other intern there, I felt pretty self-conscious on my first day on the job. Okay, I could distinguish Manet from Monet, but my knowledge of 19th century French art — or any art for that matter — didn’t stretch much further.

Luckily the internship turned out to be a delightful experience. French people are much friendlier than their reputation makes them out to be, and really like throwing parties for themselves (every other weekend was like a city-wide Lawnparties); the museum has a lot more to it than a smattering of world-famous Van Goghs (though he does dominate the postcard selection); and walking to work every day along the sun-bleached Parisian riverbank was an experience I won’t forget in a hurry, despite (or perhaps because of?) the stench of urine under every bridge — as anyone who’s been to Paris will know, French people aren’t afraid of public drunkenness.

Nevertheless, while my internship was very positive on most levels, it did lead to some interesting observations. First off, everyone working there was a woman - everyone. I always knew that art history courses were skewed toward the fairer sex, but when I arrived on my first day and found myself the only guy among 25 female interns, I was shocked. And the weirdest thing was no one seemed to have a good reason to explain it. The closest I got was some Freudian response about it all being a reaction to the lack of female artists within the Orsay itself — it being a museum devoted to 19th century French art, there are about three women represented in the whole place (though there’s no shortage of plump, naked women in the paintings themselves).

Secondly, French people (or French museum curators at any rate) don’t yet know how to use computers. All the work at the Orsay was done on paper, which meant many hours by the photocopier, followed by many hours filing. When one brave intern from Wellesley asked why the museum wasn’t subscribed to any online journals, she was greeted with a odd mixture of alarm and intrigue, as if the curators had never even considered looking on the Internet for information.

My biggest gripe, though, was with the restoration of the museum. Housed in an awe-inspiring 19th century railway station, the 1986 refurbishment manages to screw up just about everything that the Louvre Pyramides across the river got right. Where I.M. Pei’s transparent triangles are a graceful contemporary presence, adding to the original Louvre palace without obscuring it, the clunky, nigh-on Fascistic restoration of the Orsay is a violent assault on the station’s original design, dragging down the platform hall with monstrous stone blocks and scaffolding-like walkways.

Luckily the museum’s collection is strong enough to speak for itself, especially in the upper galleries which house the world-famous Impressionist collection (from waterlily-man Monet to must-have-been-a-paedo Degas). It was here that I spent my most memorable hours at the Orsay, during lunch breaks, and particularly on Mondays, when the museum was closed and the usually jam-packed galleries were deserted. All in all, a highly memorable internship experience that I would recommend to just about anyone — even the non art history-buff.


Anonymous said...

How good was your french when you did this? Any language issues in a working environment like that?

Adam Tanaka said...

Well, you need a fairly good level of French to get into the Princeton in France program in the first place, and not that many of the people working at the museum spoke good English. In short, it wasn't at all an anglophone environment.

Person of Interest said...

When the Musée d'Orsay first opened, I submitted a letter to an art journal decrying the 1986 reconfiguration, calling it a tacky trade show layout rammed into (and hopelessly at stylistic odds with) the soaring barrel vault of the Beaux-Arts station. But my opinion was lost in a general acclaim. Now I read (with considerable delight) your critique of that design: "nigh-on Fascistic" and "a violent assault on the station’s original design." Well put. You may have felt out of place as a student of history in a venue of art historians, but you demonstrate an unusally refined eye for architecture which, sadly, also includes experiencing pain at architectural blunders.

Now, a couple decades later, even the French authorities have caught on. Apparently recognizing that the building's great art was not best served by the 1986 format (no longer obscured by novelty, design errors become more obvious), the museum is undergoing an extensive "renovation" to correct its laundry list of flaws, while much of the collection goes on a world tour. Hallelujah! Perhaps the Musée d'Orsay will no longer be where Impressionism meets Albert Speer.