I had mixed feelings about visiting the Conciergerie and what to wear had nothing to do with it. The imposing, turreted building on the Ile de la Cite near Notre Dame was originally built as a royal palace. At the end of the 14th century, the king moved out and it became the Palace of Justice and a prison. In the 1790s, so-called “enemies of the revolution” were incarcerated here before they went in front of the Revolutionary Tribunal for judgement and—for nearly 2600 of them in just 13 months— to the guillotine.
I knew it would be an excellent place to start to understand some of the terrors of the French Revolution and the legend that surrounds the Conciergerie’s most famous prisoner, cake-loving Marie Antoinette. However, based on my experiences of other sites of crimes against humanity, I was prepared for a distressing visit.
I was not prepared for modern art. The ancient and cavernous Hall of Men at Arms at the start of the visit was filled with paintings, sculptures and installations that appeared to have nothing to do with the palace or the revolution. I had been warned about the use of creepy mannequins in the cell reconstructions, but I was faced with a white plaster man on all fours who carried an 8-foot whale on his back, a bronze of a female dog with 6 silicon-enhanced human-like breasts, and a floor-to-ceiling fabric vessel full of live flies.
I needed some answers. The turgid brochure gave me this:
“Bêtes off - Who are these other beings that inhabit the world along with us? What does their silence mean? What do they perceive when they look at us or beyond us? The animal question is gaining ground in contemporary thinking, and is also a theme which stimulates artists.”
It took me a few minutes to shift gears. I looked at some of the other pieces in the exhibition. There was a taxidermy deer with its neck buckled under the weight of its more than 30 points and 6 feet of antlers. There was the skin of a unicorn on the wall. Through the slats of La sale des Trophies one saw wooden but clearly distressed horned animals and mounted heads.
One piece did make me smile. As I looked at it, I netted the most recent in my large collection of chatty Parisian museum guards.
After the ubiquitous pleasantries, he gestured towards the piece, “It is very interesting, no?”
“Yes. This one is one of the few that makes me smile.”
We both considered the clever, wooden representation of a bear skin rug on the wall. I’ve always had this thing for brown bears. The piece reminded me of the soft toy versions of bear skin rugs I’d seen for children’s rooms and my faithful ted, Bill Thomas, who I rescued last year from a box in my parent’s attic.
“I mean some of these pieces are pretty heavy,” I continued. “At least this one is a bit light-hearted .”
The previously talkative guard did not say anything and continued to look at the piece. I filled the slightly uncomfortable silence.
“I mean this one feels better.”
The guard turned and looked at my face. Then he looked at what I was wearing. I was hit by painful spasm of self-awareness. I was standing in an exhibition about animal rights and celebrating a dead bear while wearing a sable coat. Oh god. I clutched my arms self-consciously around me and my fur.
“It’s vintage,” I wanted tell him. “These animals died a long time ago.”
He just looked at me.
“It’s not my fault!” I wanted to yell.
My face burned. I put my eyes back on the bear. I noticed something else. Some of the wooden crates that made the piece had writing on them. “WINCHESTER” one said in red capital letters. “AK-47” was stamped across the bear’s right shoulder. OH GOD, this “light-hearted” bear was constructed with gun boxes.
I had to get out of there. I started to try to make my way to the door and to the rest of the museum, but thanks to the layout of this “wild space [where] the visiting public will experience some strange encounters”, I ran into a dead tree whose branches were full of snakes hanging limp from their necks. I looked down at my snake-skin cowboy boots.
“They said they were ethically sourced,” said a pleading voice inside my head.
Alright, maybe one might argue that the Reign of Terror has a connection with the way we treat animals. Was that what the curators were trying to say with this exhibition here at the Conciergerie or was it just a display space? Either way, I had to get out of there. Bring on the prison and Marie Antoinette.
As I anticipated, the tour of the prison cells and video presentation were difficult and thought-provoking. An examination of how the ideals of a revolution can be so perverted in practice has a lot of current relevance.
The last stop on the tour was a reconstruction of Marie Antoinette’s cell. I looked at the slightly distracting mannequin that was supposed to represent the much maligned queen. I wondered what she might have thought about in those days before she was killed.
She was, of course, most famous for responding to the news that the poor did not have enough bread to eat with, “Let them eat cake.” I wondered what she regretted. I wondered if she ever wished she’d been a bit more observant or thoughtful before she opened her mouth. I know I sure wish I had been.