The BnF Museum – Site Richelieu
5 rue Vivienne, 2nd
M° Pyramides or Bourse
Open Tuesday – Sunday 10am-6pm (Tuesday night until 8pm).
Closed on French holidays except May 8th, Ascension Thursday, and Toussaint (November 1st).
Entry €10 (€13 if you also want to see the temporary exhibition). Entry to the Salle Ovale reading room is free.
After 12 years of restoration, renovation, and transformation, the historic Bibliothèque Nationale de France’s new museum opened to the general public in September 2022, in celebration of its 300th anniversary. While a library museum might not sound very exciting, it houses some of France’s greatest treasures collected by French monarchs since the Middle Ages. The richly-decorated baroque décor of the Mazarin Gallery alone is worth the price of admission.
First built in the 17th century to house the art collections of Cardinal Mazarin – Chief Minister to King Louis XIII and the Sun King Louis XIV – the building just north of the Palais Royal became home to the Bibliothèque du Roi (or King’s Library) in 1721, incorporating the royal collection of books and treasures passed down from successive kings dating back to Charles V in 1380.
In addition to books, the library also housed the royal treasures in the Cabinet du Roi, or King’s Cabinet, which included ancient coins and medals, royal jewels, and statues and precious items from ancient Greece and Rome. The labels on each item make it clear whether they were “acquired”, purchased, or received as donations. After the 1789 French Revolution – where miraculously the collections remained virtually unharmed – it became the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, or the French National Library, where both the book and treasure collections continued to grow through successive acquisitions and donations.
Entrance to the museum and other spaces open to the public – including the small bookshop, the café, and the Salle Ovale reading room – is via the newly-created garden at 5 Rue Vivienne. Once you purchase your ticket, the museum is upstairs, via a modern metal staircase that echoes those found in the newly-renovated Carnavalet and Maison Victor Hugo museums. The collections are arranged chronologically through a succession of rooms, each with more fabulous décor than the last, culminating in the Galerie Mazarin, a fabulous baroque gallery reminiscent of the Louvre’s Apollo Gallery.
Some of the museum’s highlights:
- The 7th-century throne of King Dagobert, the last of the Merovingian kings of France.
- Masterpieces of Roman and Gallo-Roman silverware dating from the 1st to the 3rd century found by a farmer plowing his field in Normandy in 1830.
- Renaissance-era royal jewels commissioned by François I and Catherine de Medici.
- A 1st-century Greek tablet depicting a scene from Homer’s Iliad (“seized” by the French military in 1798).
- A large collection of “turtle” coins from the ancient Greek island of Aegina, thought to be the first coins made in Europe, circa 400BC.
- Gilded prayer books and bibles from Louis IX (later named Saint Louis).
- Original handwritten manuscripts from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris and Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex.
While some of the larger signs are in French and English, the individual item descriptions are only in French, so be sure to use the free multilingual app available on the BnF website here if you want to be able to get the most out of the museum (just type in the three-digit code for any item in the museum to find the description). There are also interactive screens in each room that are multi-lingual offering in-depth information about certain works. The stories behind the works are often as interesting than the items themselves, so it’s worth taking the time to read the descriptions or read ahead to know what you’ll be looking at.
Entrance to the permanent collection is €10 for adults; €13 if you’d like to also visit the temporary exhibits (both free for students with ID). You can purchase a timed ticket online to skip the line (recommended), although be aware they don’t seem to have their entire website available in English yet.
There are lockers for your coats or bulkier bags that aren’t allowed into the museum. You’ll need a €1 or €2 coin to operate it, but if you don’t have one just request a token (un jeton) from the front desk staff.
Allow yourself two hours if you don’t want to be rushed through the permanent collection, longer if you plan on also visiting the temporary exhibitions.
The Library Reading Room
The Salle Ovale reading room is also open free to the public, space permitting. Here you can relax with your own book or browse the collections of 20,000 books, including reference books, magazines, French literature, and 9,000 comic books/graphic novels dating back to the 1830s. There are nine ‘digital mediation’ terminals in the Salle Ovale to search the collections and read about the BnF’s history, architecture, and how it works.
Note: There are sections of the BnF Richelieu only accessible to students and researchers who have applied for access (they have a separate entrance at 58 Rue Richelieu). If you’re not sure whether any particular room is open to the general public, don’t be shy about asking any of the helpful librarian staff you’ll see throughout the building.
The Museum Café
There’s a branch of the popular Rose Bakery on the ground floor of the library serving snacks and light meals as well as hot and cold beverages, with some tables outside in the garden as well. Open Tues 10am -7pm and Wed-Sun 10am-6pm.
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