In a recent article celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Pompidou Center in Paris, its president, Serge Lasvignes, said “Access to culture and art is crucial to opening minds and learning how to deal with what’s different and foreign.” The inverse is also true: Opening minds and learning how to deal with what’s different is crucial to making art and culture accessible.
The Centre Pompidou, more familiarly known as Beaubourg is a cultural center entirely devoted to modern and contemporary arts. It houses the Musée National d’Art Moderne, a public library: BPI, an acoustic/music research institute: IRCAM, a cinema, as well as performance spaces and a forum for conferences.
Along with MOMA in New York and the Tate in London, the Pompidou Center is one of the world’s most important modern art museums. According to the Paris Office of Tourism it is also one of 10 most visited museums in Paris. The difference with the others is that 60 percent of visitors are French as opposed to, say, the Louvre whose majority of visitors are foreign. Most people return more than once a year. These statistics would have been very surprising 40 years ago, when public perception of the building was, to put it politely, not so favorable.
In 1971 an international design competition awarded, for the first time in France, two young foreigners: British architect Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano from Italy. The winning project was provocative with its exposed skeleton of brightly colored tubes for mechanical systems leaving more space inside for art. Critics called it a monstrosity and likened the exterior escalator to that of a supermarket. Before long, however, people embraced the building and appropriated the outside space around it. Twenty years later the Pritzker architecture prize jury said that the Pompidou Center had revolutionized museums, ”transforming what had once been elite monuments into popular places of social and cultural exchange, woven into the heart of the city.”
The museum still strives to make culture accessible to everyone. Just as attitudes about the architecture have evolved so have approaches to inclusive design. France passed a law in 2005 requiring public buildings to be barrier-free by 2015. This provided an impetus for cultural institutions to evaluate how their content might also become universally accessible. There is still a long way to go.
As an example, we recently took our son, an autistic young adult, to see the Walker Evans retrospective there. At the welcome desk, we asked if there were any support materials for the exhibit. A booklet of general information in French, for “visitors with a handicap”, was all that was offered. When we reached the mezzanine level and passed through ticket control there was a large panel with the symbol for handicap: a stick person in a wheelchair. In front of this, an industrial desk and chair but nobody behind it. We asked the ticket agent and she answered “good question” with an air of resignation. This is very revealing. The symbol reinforces the notion that “accessible” refers only to reduced mobility. Not to diminish the importance of removing physical barriers, but many disabilities are not apparent. Pompidou Center displays cutting edge designers (currently Ross Lovegrove) so why such ugly furniture? This reflects the medico-social, institutional setting, to which society has segregated those labeled handicapé. No person? No one to give human support or communicate which services are available to visitors with specific needs.
We made our way to level 6 via the escalators enjoying the spectacular views of Paris as we have many other times. My son loves photographs and Walker Evans is one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century. His principal subject was American vernacular culture, informal forms of expression used by ordinary people for everyday purposes. Walker Evans’ work, spanning the depression era to the seventies, was profoundly moving. The exhibit is authentic, spiritually uplifting and on point. In our current political climate of post-truth a picture is, as the saying goes, worth a thousand words. Nonetheless, a quote by the artist caught my attention on the way out. “Grunts, sighs, shouts, and laughter ought to be heard in a museum. Precisely the place where these are usually suppressed.”
Musée National d’Art Moderne is located inside the Centre Pompidou in the 4th arrondissement of Paris. There are two entrances to the building. The wheelchair accessible entrance is on the corner of rue du Renard and rue Saint-Merri. It is on level 1 and may be used by all visitors with a disability. The main entrance is on the cobblestone square Place Georges Pompidou. There is a steep declining slope leading to the entrance hall (Forum) on level 0. Look for the “Access Prioritaire” which allows one to go through security more quickly. Once inside the building, the museum entrance is clearly indicated. It is accessible by elevator and escalator.
Accessibility: Admission is free for visitors with a disability and one accompanying person. Cinema, shows, workshops, guided tours, and other activities are reduced price but require reservation. Guide dogs, by law, are welcome. The museum is wheelchair accessible and visitors with reduced-mobility may borrow wheelchairs from the vestiaire level 0 or on levels 5 and 6 in exchange for a piece of identification. Most conference guides are trained in both art history and neuropedagogy. Click on the icon for more information in English about services for specific needs. There are links on that page to a dedicated website and a booklet (also available at the information desk) but both are in French only. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone 01 44 78 12 33 with any questions.
Food and Beverage: There is no shortage of cafés and restaurants in the beaubourg quarter. My favorite places are outside along the sculptural Stravinsky Fountain. Inside the Pomidou Center there is a self-serve café on the mezzanine level and the upscale restaurant Georges on level 6 has outdoor rooftop seating.
When to visit: Open Wednesday through Monday 11am to 9pm. Closed on Tuesdays and May 1st. Check the online agenda for details about guided tours.
Metro: Rambuteau (line 11) is the closest, Hotel de Ville (lines 1 and 11), Chatelet-les-Halles, line 14 is the only wheelchair accessible metro but it is not very close.
Bus: lines 29, 38, 47, 75 are wheelchair accessible and stop right in front.
By Car: There is a private parking entrance on 31 rue Beaubourg. Take the elevators marked “sortie rue Saint-Martin” then use priority access on the left. It is also possible to be dropped off at the taxi stand on rue Renard.