Cities of Light and Museums

November 25, 1995|By Daniel Berger

PARIS -- Trudging through the Carnavalet Museum is hard slog, and costs a bomb for the permanent collection and another for the wonderful exhibition of photo-journalism by the late Robert Doisneau.

Three hours, and you don't see all of it, because the layout is confusing in this ''hotel,'' or stately home in the Marais quarter, which has housed the museum of Paris history for more than a century.

There are more portraits of luminaries of the Third Empire than the American tourist cares to know about, but also of writers and intellectuals, an Art Nouveau jeweler's shop, archaeology of medieval Paris and lots more.

The Carnavalet is not famous abroad, like the Louvre or the Musee d'Orsay, yet it is moderately crowded on a weekday. Paris is a city of museums, small and medium and huge. The French pursuit of grandeur requires constant national investment in more and bigger museums in the capital.

Paris was the Western world's center for producing art from roughly 1870 to the 1930s. The doubling of the Louvre and the recycling of the abandoned railroad station d'Orsay into a showcase of the 19th century have kept it the leading city for displaying art.

Insuring that it stays that way is national strategy in both Gaullist and Socialist regimes. The tourist economy of Paris and its enduring reputation as a cultural magnet for travelers reflect that success.

Seeing how this works clarifies what is happening in Baltimore: Much the same thing, a colossal bet on museums as an economic prop where traditional sources of employment are drying up.

So the City of Light and City of Crabs have more in common than a Metro.

Haphazard planning

Only in Baltimore, no central mastermind is at work. Separate ambitions and visions have produced an explosion of museums ringing downtown.

They come when Baltimore tourism seemed to be flagging. In the aggregate, they will probably do more for the city than the largest football stadium imaginable.

The Museum of Visionary Art is opening with a national splash and will draw art lovers and the curious to Baltimore from throughout the Northeast, at least once. It starts life as the dominant museum in this suddenly fashionable field in the Americas.

Further out toward Locust Point, the Baltimore Museum of Industry is expanding.

On the north side of the harbor, the Columbus Center will have museums in marine biology and marine archaeology, soon to open.

So both shores will have massive expansions of museum attractions to join the National Aquarium and Maryland Science Center, regardless of whether the ignominiously de-masted Constellation survives.

Nearby, Port Discovery, the children's museum, is being designed by Disney experts to draw families to Baltimore, not just serve the locals.

The City Life Museums are adding a warehouse full of exhibits behind a restored 19th-century cast-iron facade. The Maryland Historical Society, the city's oldest museum in continuous operation, plans an ambitious expansion incorporating the old Greyhound bus garage. Together, they will offer a lot more ''new history,'' on the way real people of all classes lived.

These are all brave ventures -- nonprofit, yet risk-taking. They will compete for assistance from a dwindling public and philanthropic pie with the Walters Art Gallery and Baltimore Museum of Art and smaller existing museums.

Taking a leaf from Paris' book, the new and old combined need common support and promotion, joint brochures, a single ticket good for all during a brief Baltimore visit, common hours and other forms of coordination.

What a good idea.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Sun.

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