I’ve just got back from a visit to Lyons, in south eastern France where I saw the Musee des Confluences, which a number of colleagues have been recommending recently. It’s on the southern edge of the city of Lyons where the rivers Saone and Rhone meet. From afar it looks like an alien spacecraft. As you get closer you realise it’s lifted up on a huge plinth to protect against flooding.
My visit was limited to the permanent galleries numbered 21, 22, 23 and 24. The first thing to say is that there are some stunning set-pieces, including a mammoth skeleton, a huge dinosaur, and a Giant Elk. As you go round you see whole walls taken up with beautifully-lit fossils, skeletons, minerals, and mounted specimens. There is a sabre-toothed tiger skeleton on armatures arranged in a life-like dynamic pose. The galleries are visually stunning, beautifully lit and very spacious.
You can touch some of the objects, such as a large piece of metal – a meteorite – that came from the centre of a star. The AVs were superb too. There was wonderful AV showing continental drift with a clock that takes you back in time to the super continent of Pangaea and then forward millions of years into the future to a time when North Africa will collide with southern Spain. Unless that is, as the rather disturbing commentary on the AV observes, we aren’t hit by a large asteroid or meteorite. Another highly effective AV shows the creation of the earth and the moon and I had to all but tear Christine away to continue our visit of the museum.
My colleagues had told me I had to visit the museum because it integrated natural sciences with human cultures. The sections on how the earth came into being are juxtaposed with objects from world cultures in the museum’s anthropology collection that illustrate creation myths.
The museum if full of attractive displays: a case full of birds arranged by family I noticed in passing had brigaded the bee eaters next to kingfishers so that visitors could see the similarities. Other breathtakingly beautiful displays show shells and large numbers of butterflies, giving a sense of the sheer range and variety of the natural world. However, this is a broad brush approach and I got the impression that finer detail isn’t covered. The big stories, such as the creation of the earth and evolution are represented and one of the first things you see in gallery 21 are some of Elisabeth Daynes’ wonderful models of a Neanderthal woman and other early humans. However, I didn’t see any reference to extracting purple dye from murex shells in the shells display, which would have been a quick and easy way of integrating the different disciplines.
The question is what level of detail is appropriate in a museum of this size? Text is kept to a minimum so the visitor isn’t exhausted by reading during the visit. A text panel for a section might have no more than fifty words, for instance. A label about 25 words. There is nothing to be gained by writing ‘a book on the wall’ as we found when we visited the Musee des Tissus in central Lyons later that afternoon. Detailed treatment of topics at Musee des Confluences is probably reserved for the temporary exhibitions. It was Lumiere or Light when we visited though there wasn’t time to see this as well.
Any large museum or gallery has to strike a balance between what there is to see and the information about the exhibits. It is very nicely done: in a gallery that explores what happens to us when we die visitors can see a flexed skeleton accompanied by bronze grave goods and there is a mirror above to make it easier for visitors to see. Again this is beautifully lit and well designed, a real treat for the eyes and with provision for the comfort of visitors. In the same section visitors can listen to philosophers talking about death and each recording is played back in front of comfortable chairs each with their own sound zone.
Visually this is absolutely stunning museum but I wondered what visitors take away with them from this experience. For instance, although the museum shows the thylacene or Tasmanian tiger and other extinct creatures and talks about plastic in the oceans (this display was created well before David Attenborough’s documentary), does the museum engage the visitor in a conversation about what human beings could do individually and collectively to change this state of affairs? Could it have prompted a discussion about whether it would be right to bring back the mammoth or the dodo or the thylacene? Do they attempt to influence visitors’ behaviour so that the impact of plastics on the environment is reduced? Are they seeking to change opinion and behaviour in a way that benefits the environment? Or is it sufficient that they provide this kind of experience and leave the visitor to go away and reflect on it and do what they think best?
Musee des Confluences is well worth a visit in our opinion and we’d certainly go back again but it is a particular kind of visiting experience, one that’s based on a visual aesthetic.It’s well worth seeing but I asked myself afterwards what do I actually know about the creatures in those impressive displays? When I think about it not that much. And maybe I don’t need to. The displays do what they do but I couldn’t help thinking that just showing stuff, however beautiful it may be and however beautifully it’s done, without engaging visitors, without them taking something more than a passive experience away with them is somehow missing a trick.