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"It is like entering Ali Baba's cave"

Interview with Evelyne Possémé, curator of the Galerie des Bijoux at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris

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Published: 7 Jul 2020
“We wanted the gallery to be a genuine encounter between visitors and the jewellery that safeguards a certain magic”, says Evelyne Possémé, curator of the Galerie des Bijoux (Jewellery Gallery) at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. "In many instances, though not all, the material and techniques used to create the jewellery on display are not usually within the grasp of the general public, only to the very rich. We asked Roberto Ostinelli, set designer and architect in charge of the original project at the gallery, to use Ali Baba's cave as inspiration". Just like the character in A Thousand and One Nights, the visitors find themselves surrounded by treasures beyond their imaginable reach, which give off the impression that they shine with their own light.
 
"It is like entering Ali Baba's cave"

Ph: Didier Boy de la Tour

The visitors find themselves surrounded by treasures beyond their imaginable reach, which give off the impression that they shine with their own light.
The Galerie des Bijoux, supported by Van Cleef & Arpels and the Ecole des Arts joailliers, was opened in 2004 inside the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, which is part of the Louvre complex; it displays around 1,000 pieces of the 7,000 in the collection in two spaces, arranged in chronological order to cover a time period stemming from the Middle Ages to the present day.

It is the only area in the museum lit entirely by artificial lighting. The windows have been blacked out and the walls covered entirely in dark panels: this allows the full vibrancy of the gold pieces and precious stones to emerge on a uniform backdrop. The items are exhibited in transparent floor-to-ceiling display cases and the jewels are arranged at different heights: held in place by fine supports, "they look like they are suspended in air" says Possémé, and no shadows are cast over any of them.
 
"It is like entering Ali Baba's cave"

Ph: Didier Boy de la Tour

As we have seen, the horizontal progression of the items follows a Historical line, while the vertical dimension reflects the position on the body where the jewels would be placed by the person wearing them: so much so that, for those people of the "right" height, the play of lights and reflections allow you to see the necklaces and precious tiaras projected on to yourself. In part, it was due to a need to make a virtue out of a necessity: "it was impossible to completely eliminate the reflections", explains Possémé, "so we decided to keep them and play around with them because they contributed to the magic of the place. In order to find the right way to arrange them, we organised special laboratories over a period of weeks with students studying new technologies".

While it is true that a diamond is forever, it would be excessive to expect the same of a lighting system, especially at a time of such rapid technological advancement. 15 years after the inauguration of the Gallery, the maintenance and replacement of parts in the old fibre optics system had become problematic and the quality of the light in the areas had deteriorated. "It was hard to see some of the jewels properly" explains Possémé; furthermore, "a lot of the jewels on display are on loan from some of the big luxury maisons and have particular display requirements, which were difficult to render with the previous system".
 
"It is like entering Ali Baba's cave"

Ph: Didier Boy de la Tour

Thankfully, nowadays we can use LEDs with considerable technical, financial and environmental advantages and, as a result, the lighting in the Gallery was modernised between the end of 2019 and the start of 2020, without changing the atmosphere, only the useful solutions for achieving it. Having collaborated with the Van Cleef & Arpels maison during an exhibition at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in 2012 and then on another one in Beijing in 2018, Possémé had made contact with the lighting design agency Voyons Voir and the director of the museum welcomed their offer to handle the project. With excellent results: "the effect is incredible", says Possémé; "it is not often that the same concept works even after all this time, but it is still modern and we can keep it for another 15 years". One of the factors that contributes to its long-lasting aesthetic capacity is how discreet the lighting is: "I doubt visitors take any notice of the lighting", says Possémé, "probably because it is much easier to spot bad lighting than a well selected one".