A Guide to Lyon’s Municipal Museums

By and large, I visit museums which fall into one (or both) of the following categories: free museums and museums related to World War Two. Beyond that, I rarely step foot in these shrines to items of cultural, historical or scientific value. This year, I made an exception. Lyon’s Carte Jeune Musée was just too good an offer to resist. At €7, it nets you entry into Lyon’s six municipal museums – so even if you only plan on visiting two museums, you’re quids – or euros – in. (If you’re older than 25, you’ll need to purchase the Carte Musée, which costs €25.) Once you’ve bought your card and attached a passport-style mugshot to it, you’re all set to visit as many of the following museums as your heart desires: Musée des Beaux-Arts; Musée d’Art Contemporain; Musées Gadagne; Centre d’Histoire de la Résistance et de la Déportation; Musée de l’Imprimerie et de la Communication Graphique; and Musée de l’Automobile Henri Malartre. Over the past few months, I’ve visited each and every one of these museums, so here’s the lowdown on each of these cultural havens.

Musée des Beaux-Arts

With its collection of Ancient Egyptian artefacts, Greco-Roman sculptures and 20th century masterpieces by the likes of Picasso, the Musée des Beaux-Arts is a bridge between antiquity and modernity. Organised chronologically, you can walk through the ages, stopping at the things that interest you and simply skipping sections that don’t float your boat. Although Lyon is geographically closer to Ancient Rome, extensive donations from the Musée du Louvre and prominent Egyptologist Victor Loret mean that Ancient Egypt takes centre stage in the antiquities department. Aside from a mummified hand and head (both of which were being eagerly photographed by some lycéens on a school trip), there’s also a wealth of amulets and the entrance door of the Medamud Temple of Montu, etched with hieroglyphics. Another personal highlight is the comparatively small section on Middle Eastern trinkets; the Iranian, Syrian and Turkish patterned china and tiles are simply gorgeous. Upstairs, vast tableaux stretch from floor to ceiling in some rooms, while others play host to canvases daubed with acrylic and landscapes hanging in gilded frames. If you only have time to do a whistle stop tour, then take advantage of one of the museum’s parcours thématique leaflets, available on heroes, flowers and masterpieces in both English and French.

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Musée d’Art Contemporain (MAC)

Modern art is, in many ways, like Marmite. MAC was no different: one exhibition was right up my street, the other not my cup of tea. Los Angeles, une fiction was an eclectic collection of pieces which simultaneously constructed and deconstructed the myth of this metropolis. From glassware and papier-mâché to acrylic paintings and glowing neon lights, every medium was on display and used to challenge notions of identity, class and culture. Even if I don’t agree with smashing up (otherwise) perfectly edible Terry’s Chocolate Oranges and using them as “art”, I liked the quirky nature of this exhibition as a whole. On the other hand, the tale of Lyon’s alternative culture as told through Frigo Generation 78/90 really wasn’t my thing. I guess that’s art for you – it’s pick ‘n’ mix, and sometimes you get a bag full of sherbet pips (yay) and other times it’s rhubarb and custards all round (nay). Los Angeles, une fiction and Frigo Generation 78/90 are on display until July 9th. Information plaques were in both French and English, and leaflets were available in multiple languages.

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Musées Gadagne

If you’re an amateur de musées, you’re in for a treat, for the Musées Gadagne houses not one but two museums: the Musée d’Histoire de Lyon and the Musée des Marionnettes. The former shows Lyon through the ages, from its time as a prosperous Roman settlement to the urban expansion and development of the city in the 1970s, while the latter offers an insight into the world of puppetry. I knew snippets of Lyon’s history, but the Musée d’Histoire de Lyon taught me a lot about the city, its origins and its people. Vast maps, etched in wood and drawn by hand on parchment, show how the city has expanded over the decades. Under Roman rule, Lyon was known as Lugdunum, and occupied a relatively small stretch of land along the banks of the Saône; centuries later, the city expanded to include the banks of the Rhône. Industrialisation led to a booming silk industry, though not everyone was happy; the canuts (silk workers) revolted twice over working conditions and pay. (If you want to know more about Lyon’s role in the silk trade, then consider taking a trip to La Maison des Canuts.) Artefacts – ranging from antique looms to Napoleon’s bed – filled each room, giving you a flavour of life in that particular era. As someone who detests Punch and Judy, the Musée des Marionnettes wasn’t really my scene. That said, I couldn’t help but admire the craftsmanship that had gone into each of the marionettes on display, even if some of them looked decidedly creepy. Audioguides were available in several languages, at no extra cost, and information sheets were provided in French, English, German and Italian in every room of the Musée d’Histoire de Lyon.

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Centre d’Histoire de la Résistance et de la Déportation (CHRD)

When the Germans invaded Lyon, they seized control of the École de Santé Militaire. Here, they tortured dozens of members of the French Resistance, including Jean Moulin. Today, this very same building houses the CHRD, a museum which documents the heroism of the Lyonnais and the hardships that they were subjected to. The entrance hall is plastered with film posters: Shoah; Le Dernier Metro; Schindler’s List. Upstairs, plaque upon plaque tells the tragic tale of those whose lives were cut short at the hands of the merciless Klaus Barbie. Audio recordings relay eyewitness accounts; photographs, propaganda and sketches offer a visual testimony to the horrors of the Occupation. At the time I visited, there was a temporary exhibition entitled Les Années Noires, which, fittingly, was in almost total darkness, thereby evoking the gloomy, despondent atmosphere of the era. Finally, I settled down to watch the footage from Klaus Barbie’s trial. Barbie headed up the Gestapo in Lyon between 1942 and 1944, and his brutal treatment of prisoners earnt him the nickname the “Butcher of Lyon”; he is thought to have been directly responsible for the deaths of up to 14,000 people. Watching witness after witness recount the horrors that they or their family endured was harrowing; words can never truly convey their trauma. The CHRD is the sort of museum that I prefer to go to alone; there’s a lot to take in, and I like to know that I can read everything, absorb everything, and not feel like someone else is getting bored waiting for me. Information throughout the museum was provided in French, with audio guides in other languages available; the footage from Barbie’s trial was subtitled in English.

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Musée de l’Imprimerie et de la Communication Graphique

As a self-confessed lover of printing presses and typewriters, this museum was right up my alley. From its humble origins to its contested place in the digital era, the printing industry is brought to life with videos, historically important artefacts and the museum’s in-house artist. I pored over the medieval manuscripts with their elaborate illustrations embellished with gold leaf, marvelled at the minuscule letters used in mechanical printing presses and couldn’t help but smile at the old printed chocolate wrappers on display. Until September 20th, Bande Dessinée: l’Art Invisible – inspired by Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art – takes centre stage as the museum’s temporary exhibition. Having studied several bandes dessinées in my fourth year at Leeds, I found this exhibition particularly interesting. Extracts from McCloud’s – for want of a better word – book guide you through the exhibition, with well-placed examples on display to help you make sense of the theory behind the medium. Copies of McCloud’s bestseller were available for perusal, alongside other graphic novels referenced in the exhibition. It was fascinating to see comics in their various stages of conception, and the artistry that goes into them. Given the prominence of the BD in French culture, perhaps it isn’t a surprise to see an exhibition on it; all the same, to me it reflects changing attitudes and shows that the BD has come to be – rightfully – recognised as an art form by respected institutions. Information plaques were in both French and English in the main collection, and solely in French in the temporary exhibition.

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Musée de l’Automobile Henri Malartre

Spread over four floors of the Château de Rochataillée-sur-Saône and the nearby Halls Gordini and Pradel, the Musée de l’Automobile Henri Malartre houses an indisputably impressive collection of wheel-bearing vehicles (and associated paraphernalia) from the eighteen hundreds all the way through to the twenty-first century. Simply put, it’s a motorhead’s dream. Malartre was an avid collector of motor vehicles, especially early models and those with ties to the region, and his collection soon outgrew the storage space he had. Enter, the Château de Rochataillée-sur-Saône. It was here, in 1960, that Louis Pradel, Mayor of Lyon from 1957 to 1976, inaugurated the Musée de l’Automobile, the first of its kind in France. Today, you’ll find humble penny-farthings, flashy Harley Davidsons, F1 racing cars and – a personal favourite, simply for the comic value of the name – a van dubbed the Papamobile (Popemobile), so-called as it was used by Pope John Paul II during his official visit to Lyon in 1986. The Musée de l’Automobile is located in Rochataillée-sur-Saône, eleven kilometres north of Lyon. If you’re in the unfortunate position of being sans automobile, fear not – simply catch the n°40 or n°70 bus from Lyon and alight at Rochetaillée; from the bus stop, simply follow the signs marked ‘Musée’ to the top of the hill. Signs throughout the museum were in French, but leaflets were printed in both English and French; in the Halls Gordini and Pradel, detailed leaflets in multiple languages were available at the ticket desk.

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10 thoughts on “A Guide to Lyon’s Municipal Museums

  1. Thank you for this guide! I admit I haven’t visited most of Lyon’s museums (and I can’t get a carte jeune for anything in France anymore, unfortunately!) but I’m happy to learn a little more about them thanks to you.

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    1. There are still plenty I haven’t been to – including the Musée des Confluences, which everyone seems to rave about. I’m hoping to make it to the Maison des Canuts before I leave, as it would be interesting to learn more about silk production in Lyon and it’s only €2 to visit. I’m no longer in possession of a student card, so for me it’s been great to come across age-based discounts in France!

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      1. I wish I had gone to Musée des Confluences too – even the outside is photogenic! I think the history of the silk industry in Lyon is so interesting, especially because we see the remnants of it in the apartments with high ceilings and the traboules. I hope you’ll write about it if you go!

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      2. I’ve heard mixed reviews about the Musée des Confluences depending on the temporary exhibition that’s being held. It has such a futuristic, photogenic exterior! It’s nice that the silk industry has left its legacy in so many different ways across the city.

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  2. Hey Rosie! I have been a bit off the grid with finals, etc. but now I’m back and looking forward to reading this and catching up with all of your other articles that I’ve missed! For one of my first entries back I’ve done a Travel ABC’s tag which was so much fun, and when choosing bloggers I like to nominate I thought of you! Heres the link if you fancy giving it a go, I’d love to read your answers! https://aspiretoamble.com/abcs-of-travel/

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    1. Hi Kia! No worries – I remember the feeling all too well from when I was doing my finals this time last year! (It slightly terrifies me that a year has already passed – where did it go?!) I hope they went well for you 🙂 I’m just reading your post now – I absolutely love this idea, and would totally have done what you did and just joined in regardless of nominations! Thank you for nominating me – it’s certainly given me food for thought, so this could take a little while before I have a post up!

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  3. The Musée des Beaux-Arts is my absolute favorite in Lyon!!! ❤ But I also loved the CHRD, and I'm not nearly into World War History as much as my dad 😀 If I had gotten the card (as now I realize I should have!) I would have definitely visited the Musée d'Histoire de Lyon! I got to see the Marionettes when it reopened one Sunday and was free, but I really wish I could have seen the Lyon part and learned more about the city! Oh well, next time 🙂

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    1. I first visited the Musée des Beaux-Arts over the Journées du Patrimoine back in September, when they had free entry, but decided I may as well return for a second visit with the museum card! Seeing half the museums is pretty good going though – and as you say, there’s always another time to catch up 🙂 In May there was the Nuit Européenne des Musées, and loads of museums had free entry (not just these). I meant to go, but having spent a whole day watching the tennis tournament at the park I was too tired from the heat!

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  4. I profess I’m not a huge fan of museums (having been to too many Beaux-Arts in France, I’ve tired of them quickly), but the MAC and Musée de l’Imprimerie sound really interesting. Paying 7 euros for access to so many museums sounds like an incredible deal, and it seems like a good idea to spend your weekends discovering what the city has to offer: artistically, culturally, and historically. There’s a *strong* possibility that I’ll be living close to Lyon this fall, so I just might have to make the trip over for the museums! Thanks for sharing.

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    1. I can empathise with you there – I’ve also seen a few too many of those! It was a fantastic deal – I probably wouldn’t have bothered to visit so many of them otherwise, but at that price it seemed silly not to see them all. The temporary exhibitions at MAC and the Musée de l’Imprimerie were some of the best I’ve seen (in France and elsewhere). That’ll be nice for you to experience life in a different region – and I imagine it’ll open up a whole host of new travel options for you!

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