Thursday, June 30, 2011

Telling Stories at Les Egouts and Versailles

Two highlights of my trip to Paris and its environs were the relatively obscure Museum of the Sewers (Les Egouts) and the wildly popular Chateau of Versailles with its gardens. It might seem strange to write about them in the same post, but you'd be surprised by how much they have in common. Both are authentic historical places with rich histories, and both, as interpretive sites, missed opportunities.

Les Egouts, accessible via a museum entrance at Pont D'Alma in Paris, are earnest and forthright in the story they tell about the history of Parisien sanitation. The self-guided walking tour reminded me of Ms. Frizzle's Magic School Bus, beginning with a series of placards describing the water-cycle, all narrated by the ever-affable "Curious Crayfish." Aimed at children, these introductory panels established an informational and environmental tone remenisant of a science museum. As I passed through the sewer tunnels, aided by my English gallery guide, I encountered the most fascinating part of the exhibit: a long gallery filled with panels and artifacts, described in French and English, that charted, in essence, the environmental history of Paris from the middle ages through the present day. What was distinctly missing from the tour was a sense of the other uses of Paris's sewers, especially during the second World War. The exhibit would benefit from an audio guide that pointed out the ways in which the sewers served to hide the resistance fighters, or even more, from optional guided tours focused on different periods in the history of the place.

Versailles, as well, missed opportunities to broaden and deepen the history of the buildings and the grounds. The challenges faced by the institution were obvious-- Versailles is in danger of being loved to death. The place was so popular on a Thursday morning, that we feared at times being crushed against the plastic-covered walls, strategically shielded from the sea of humanity. Audio tours in 10 languages were available as part of the ticket package for the place, but it seemed that the stories told at each stop along the way were limited due to a desire to move people along. At least that's my hope. Otherwise, the missed opportunity would be more glaring-- very little information about the political strategy of the sun-king and the revolution that changed France, and lots and lots of information about the furniture.

The gardens, though, are not to be missed!

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