Local Experiences

History Lesson: Musée d’Orsay

By Sarah Bramhall

When I studied abroad in Paris in 2010, I took a class at the University of Paris (more commonly known as the Sorbonne) and was asked to write a 14-page paper on the Musée d’Orsay. In French.

I got an A on the paper, in case you’re wondering. But that’s beside the point.

The point is: the Musée d’Orsay is a must-see in Paris—and not only for its vast collection of impressionist art. The building itself has a great story to tell.

The Orsay train station was built for the 1900 world’s fair and was the first train station that took travelers in to the heart of Paris (before that, trains would only take you as far as the outskirts of the city—not exactly convenient). Victor Laloux, the architect, was told the station needed to “blend in” with the surrounding landmarks – notably the Louvre, right next door – so he designed the station to be as beautiful as it was useful.

Unfortunately, Laloux didn’t account for advancements in technology. By 1939, trains had grown too long for the Gare d’Orsay, and in the 1960s, the city of Paris made plans to demolish the station. The Parisian public had other ideas – the outcry against the station’s demolition was so intense that the Gare d’Orsay was turned in to a national historic landmark in 1973. At about the same time, the Jeu de Paume (which housed impressionist art at the time) began to get too crowded, and an idea was born: let’s turn the Gare d’Orsay in to a museum. The Musée d’Orsay opened to the public in 1986.

When the city’s architects turned the Gare d’Orsay in to the Musée d’Orsay, they were intentional about making sure guests get a sense of the building’s history. The central gallery stretches the length of the building – it almost feels like a train could run through at any time. And of course, the museum’s famous clock, a vestige of its past life, hangs on the wall in the gallery.

So make sure you plan a visit to the Musée d’Orsay during your stay in Paris. I promise you won’t regret it (and since it’s much smaller than the Louvre, your tired feet will thank you.) And when you visit, take a moment before you dive in to the collections and look at the building itself. If you ask me, it’s the most impressive work of art in the place.

Sarah lives in Austin, Texas but would rather be in Paris. Follow her on Instagram.

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