Musée Rodin at night
Musée Rodin on Saturday night. Photo by Josh Clark.

Saturday night, 1:00 am. Ellen and I are lying on the grass in the gardens of the Hôtel Biron, the brightly lit facade of the Musée Rodin 100 meters behind us. In front of us, the eerie projection of Bill Viola’s “The Messenger” shines a ghostly reflection in the garden’s pool.

We watch the image of a nude male figure slowly, slowly rise to the surface of the projected water; the sound system suddenly booms with his deep breath and then he sinks back down, and the cycle begins again. The spooky, surreal images and sounds combine with the surroundings of the night-lit sculpture garden to make the grounds feel like the world according to Edward Gorey. We take a few minutes to absorb Rodin’s Gates of Hell by moonlight. Creepy.

You’ve never had a museum visit like this one.

And that’s the genius of Nuit des Musées, an annual event in Europe in which over 2000 museums stayed open til the wee hours, their galleries free to all. In Paris alone, over 100 museums hosted special programs and contemporary art installations this weekend.

The motivation for the event is to shake up stodgy preconceptions about museums and reveal them as lively, relevant places. It works. No night club has lines as long as the ones we saw outside the national archives on Saturday night (the national archives!). And it’s no wonder: The heady mix of stately architecture, music, light shows and surprising artistic interventions effectively turned the whole city into a night club.

The Messenger by Bill Viola
“The Messenger” reflects in the pool at Musée Rodin. Photo by Josh Clark.

Like so many other entertainments, it turns out that art exhibitions go down better as nocturnal activities than as staid Sunday afternoon outings. The streets were full of people taking it in. Parisians always turn out in droves for all-night culture fests like Nuit Blanche and Fête de la Musique. Nights like this hit a neat trifecta of Parisians’ best loved aspects of their city: tradition, culture and architecture, which the French sum up in a single word, patrimoine.

As we sat among a throng of kids in their early 20s enjoying their patrimoine at Musée Rodin, my only surprise was that museums don’t do this more often. I don’t want to settle for just one night at the museum.

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