Where the Rhône and Saône rivers meet in Lyon is the location of the historic French city’s urban development project, which has been transforming the former industrial wasteland into spaces for residences, offices, shopping and leisure since the early 2000s. One of the leading attractions to this new riverfront is the Musée des Confluences, a unique interdisciplinary institution that merges ethnology, anthropology, the natural sciences, geography, technology and more. Through the 2.2 million objects within its collection (some of which visitors are even invited to touch), the museum contemplates what we know and the much we still don’t. The museum is located at the tip of the peninsula—the confluence of the two rivers—a landmark symbol of its own objective: the converging of knowledge and place.
Just before the museum opened to the public at the end of December 2014 (after more than a decade of paperwork and construction), CH was on the ground in Lyon to experience this new space in person.
The first impression upon arrival is nothing short of spectacular. Vienna-based Coop Himmelb(l)au designed a Deconstructivist work of architecture that echoes the two rivers coming together; the hard, transparent “crystal” fusing with the floating, obfuscated “cloud.” Its massive structure, the bending of steel and glass into shapes and curves—all of its features provide the perfect gateway for entrance, provoking curiosity and wonder.
Walking through the four permanent exhibitions is a journey through the story of the world. In the Origins room are reconstructions of early humans such as Neanderthals and homo sapiens to the skeleton of a 155 million year old Camarasaurus purchased from Wyoming. “It cost as much as a Jeff Koons artwork, but much more permanent than some paintings,” the museum’s science director, Bruno Jacomy, chuckles to us. Surprisingly preserved alongside fossils of mammoths and a touchable 630 kg meteorite are “human” artifacts such as representations of Chinese and Indian gods. It provides a balanced story that takes culture into account.
In the Species room, next to the rows and rows of different stuffed birds, there is an intricate “tree of life” sculpture hanging from the ceiling, a visual representation of the world’s massive biodiversity where humans are a mere single branch. However small we are in context, the question is posed about humans’ place in biodiversity and our place in the world; this is achieved through, for example, showing skeletons of species made extinct by our presence—such as the dodo and sea cow.
The Societies room explores civilizations and humans as individuals within society—how did communities come together to organize and exchange? What did they create? Money in the form of seashells from Oceania is one example on view, which leads to the discussion of power—how it is created, undermined and wielded. A quote pulled from Bertolt Brecht’s play “The Beggar or The Dead Dog” is written on one of the display cases: “There is no emperor. Only the people that one exists and one individual believes that he is it.” Quotes like these are scattered throughout the exhibitions, providing even more cultural context to historic pieces.
Last but not least, the Eternity room delves deep into the uncommonly confronted subject of what comes after death. A Peruvian female mummy from the 15th century is placed alongside a contemporary artwork by Lyonnais artist Jean-Philippe Aubanel that contemplates the concept of eternity and our eventual deaths.
Aside from these permanent exhibitions, the museum will host four to six additional exhibitions throughout the year. While ambitious in its intentions, the Musée des Confluences has executed its plans to great success, more than fulfilling the expectations of its long-waiting local residents. Through their uniquely contextualized and editorial-like presentation—going beyond displaying just the date and description of a piece—the museum ignites a furious curiosity for knowledge in the unsuspecting visitor and furthermore sets the bar as a museum of the 21st century.
Interior window and Tree of Life images by Nara Shin, all other images courtesy of Musée des Confluences