History of the museum
Heir to the Musée d’Art juif de Paris, the mahJ project was launched in 1985, following the exhibition of the Isaac Strauss Collection at the Grand Palais. It gained momentum in 1988 with the creation of a non-profit organisation, which took the project forward until the museum opened in the refurbished Hôtel de Saint-Aignan in 1998.
The mahJ project, launched in 1985 on the initiative of Claude-Gérard Marcus, Victor Klagsbald and Alain Erlande-Brandenburg and supported by the City of Paris and the culture ministry, was a response to two converging aims: to create an ambitious museum of Jewish culture in Paris following the examples of New York and Amsterdam, and display the national collection, for the most part kept in the storerooms of the Musée national du Moyen Âge since the Second World War (only certain medieval objects in the Strauss Collection were still on display there after 1945).
Although France has one of the largest Jewish communities after Israel and the United States, only a modest museum in rue des Saules in Paris, the Musée juif comtadin at Cavaillon and the Musée judéo-alsacien at Bouxwiller were specifically dedicated to Jewish culture. In the Louvre, a section of the Department of Near Eastern Antiquities was devoted to the Islamic arts (it became a department in its own right in 2003), but Judaism was still not represented in France’s national museums.
The choice of the Hôtel de Saint-Aignan
L'hôtel de Saint-Aignan en 1992
Led by Laurence Sigal from 1988 and supported by the French Museums Directorate at the Ministry of Culture and Paris City Hall’s Cultural Affairs Directorate, the project culminated ten years later with the opening of the mahJ in the Hôtel de Saint-Aignan. Built on the northern outskirts of medieval Paris by the architect Pierre Le Muet (1591-1669) from 1644 to 1650 for Claude de Mesmes, Comte d’Avaux, this aristocratic mansion stands on a complex plot bordered to the south by the Wall of Philip Augustus.
Acquired by the City of Paris in 1962 as part of a plan to preserve the Marais quarter, the building had several uses before Paris City Hall decided to allocate it to the future museum.
A museum of Jewish culture in the Marais
Libraire dans le Marais
Paris, début XXe siècle
Since the late 18th century, particularly around rue des Rosiers, the Marais quarter has been home to a large population of Jews, initially from the Rhineland regions then from Central and Eastern Europe. Gravely affected by the Shoah, this community was partly revitalised by the arrival of North African Jews after decolonisation.
The Hôtel de Saint-Aignan, modified by storeys and floors added after the Revolution, housed the workshops of many of these immigrants: hat and cap makers, furriers, tailors, etc. Today, the mahJ is located in the heart of a profoundly transformed district whose traditional shops and businesses have made way for fashion boutiques, but which boasts more than half a dozen museums (Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, Musée Carnavalet, Musée Picasso, Musée Cognacq-Jay, Maison européenne de la Photographie, Mémorial de la Shoah), all members of the Marais Culture Plus association and constituting a cultural fabric unparalleled in Paris.
The mahJ’s location facilitates a number of local extra-mural activities, organised in conjunction with a guided tour of the Pletzl (“little square” in Yiddish, a term denoting the district around rue des Rosiers).
Sculpteur de pierre,
Restauration de l'hôtel Saint-Aignan
The restoration of a historic monument
The Hôtel de Saint-Aignan’s restoration was directed successively by the architects Maurice Berry, Jean-Pierre Jouve and Bernard Fonquernie.
Undertaking a procedure quite rare in France, they removed the storeys added to the original west wing built by Le Muet, rebuilt the main staircase and recreated the bas-relief coat-of-arms of the mansion’s subsequent owner, Paul de Beauvillier, Duc de Saint-Aignan.
To re-establish the mansion’s original interior volumes, they also effaced the vestiges left by former inhabitants, removing the added mezzanine floors, walls dividing rooms into separate workshops and apartments and effacing the signs painted on the facades.
Catherine Bizouard and Francois Pin, winners of the architecture competition, did not seek to recreate the mansion’s original aristocratic decoration (except in the dining room, where the murals painted by Vuibert had survived, and in the Duke’s Room, where the panelling was recreated), but to evoke its original spaces with the cross walls punctuating the permanent collection.
Exhibition spaces were created on the north side. Although few are large in surface area, they provide abundant wall space ideal for presentations of small-format drawings, prints, and photographs.
A media library with twenty-eight workstations was installed halfway through the permanent collection and a 198-seat auditorium was created beneath the main courtyard. The adjoining 150 m² cellar is now the auditorium’s foyer and can also be used as an exhibition space. A bookshop with a choice of some 5,000 titles, was installed at the exit of the temporary exhibition spaces. The rest of the space beneath the courtyard and the main building, houses storerooms, workshops and infrastructure installations such as heating and air conditioning.
The educational workshops were installed in the Duc de Saint-Aignan’s kitchen, giving directly onto the main courtyard. Finally, in 2008, the mansion’s stables were converted into a beautiful 120m² space ideal for receptions, meetings and contemporary exhibitions.
A multidisciplinary tool
A prestigious historic setting and the cultural project of its creators have transformed a historic building into a dynamic, innovative, high-performance museum equipped with exhibition spaces and educational, mediation and research facilities.