Guide Tour of Musée des Archives Nationales, Paris, France

The Musée des Archives Nationales is a state museum of French history operated by the Archives Nationales. The museum features exhibitions drawn from the collections of the government archives and aims to provide document-based perspective on France’s history and the evolution of French society. The National Archives Museum introduces: on the one hand, a permanent tour around the most famous documents kept in the National Archives; on the other hand, temporary exhibitions based on the collections of the National Archives.

National Archives Museum was first established under Napoleon III in 1867 with the direction of Léon de Laborde, exhibits archival documents held by the institution to the public. It is also known as the Museum of the History of France from 1939 to 2006. The National Archives are made up of three services with national competence: The National Archives in Paris, The Archives Nationales d’Outre-Mer, The National Labor Archives.

The Musée des Archives Nationales located in the Marais district, in the magnificent hotels of Soubise and Rohan, the National Archives preserve the archives of France from the Merovingians until 1958. Hôtel de Soubise is one of the finest private mansions in the Marais district, are extravagantly painted and gilded in the rococo style inside, with antique furniture and 18th-century paintings, with reception rooms decorated by Germain Boffrand and paintings by Boucher, Van Loo, Trémolière… Stroll through the gardens to discover the scenic and architectural beauty of this unique heritage site.

The Musée des Archives Nationales permanently displays remarkable documents from the government archives as well as alternating exhibitions. These exceptional documents, parchments, papers, microfilms, sound recordings or digital files which represent hundreds of linear kilometers filled with documents. Each new hanging is an opportunity to take out from the stores of the collection around thirty unpublished documents and pieces,

The Musee des Archives Nationales is a fascinating and unusual museum, which provides people with a different perspective on the history of Paris and France through the centuries with a rich collection. And many documents are presented for temporary exhibitions on specific themes, and may even include letters from people such as Danton, Robespierre, Napoleon Bonaparte, etc. Notable collections include the rarest to the most symbolic among which the diploma of Charlemagne, the foundation of the Sainte-Chapelle, the last letter of Marie-Antoinette or even the constitution of the Fifth Republic…

All year round, the Archives Nationales also has a rich programme of events linked to numerous initiatives of the Ministry of Culture and Communication, but also those in Paris and the Plaine Municipality: European heritage days, European museums nights, Nuit Blanche, music festivals, hidden heritage, Festival Nomades, Festival Métis, etc. Concerts run by the museum are also organized: ‘Jeunes talents’, ‘Concert des Amateurs’, ‘Les Midis Baroques’ and the ‘Piano du Prince’ concerts.

The National Archives were created during the French Revolution. Under the Ancien Régime, there was no centralized organization of State archives, only individual repositories. It was by decree of September 12, 1790 that the National Assembly gave its archives the name of National Archives. This new institution is then defined as follows: “deposit of all the acts which establish the constitution of the kingdom, its public law, its laws and its distribution in departments.”

In 1808, Napoleon I installed the National Archives at the Hôtel de Soubise. The Hôtel de Soubise was first built in 1371 as the Hôtel de Clisson and later acquired by the Ducs de Guise. In 1705, it was rebuilt by architect Pierre-Alexis Delamair, with little remaining of the original structure but its turreted medieval gateway which is now the only surviving remnant of Parisian private architecture from the 14th century. In 1808 the buildings were acquired by the state, after which Napoleon designated the Hôtel de Soubise for the Empire Archives.

During the 19th century, the National Archives began to collect the archives of the ministries. They extend around the Hôtel de Soubise with the construction of the “great depots” under Louis-Philippe and Napoleon III. The staff specializes (archivists trained at the School of Charters), inventories are published. In 1867, the Archives Museum was created: the most remarkable documents are exhibited.

In 1927, the Hôtel de Rohan, previously occupied by the Imprimerie Nationale, was assigned to the National Archives.. It makes it possible to keep the minutes of Paris notaries, whose collection begins immediately (law of March 14, 1928). After the Second World War, new fields of collection developed: personal and family archives, business archives. “Missions” were created in the main ministries to organize the collection and conservation of archives as soon as possible.

The Paris site is then saturated. In 1972, the former NATO buildings in Fontainebleau were assigned to the National Archives. The “city of contemporary archives” must accommodate the transfer of archives from the ministries. An ambitious project is developed (8 conservation units of 80 km.l.). Only two units will be built because the site, which is difficult to access for researchers, does not sufficiently allow the development of contemporary archives. The Fontainebleau teams are developing expertise in contemporary archives and in particular electronic archives.

The Caran on the Paris siteIn 1988, in Paris, a building dedicated to the public was inaugurated, the Caran(Centre d’accueil et de recherche des Archives Nationales), which brings together the various reading rooms that previously coexisted on the Paris site in the Marais.

Faced with the saturation of the Paris and Fontainebleau sites, and the remoteness of the Fontainebleau site, the construction of a third site was envisaged in 1995. An association of researchers, archivists and genealogists, “Une cité pour the archives”, was set up in 2001 to obtain a political decision. Jacques Chirac, President of the Republic, and Lionel Jospin, Prime Minister, commit to the project. In 2004, the government chose the site of Pierrefitte-sur-Seine.

Entrusted to the architect Massimiliano Fuksas, the new building, the largest archive repository in Europe, was inaugurated by François Hollande, President of the French Republic, on February 11, 2013.

The National Archives are a service with national competence created on January 1, 2007 by order of the Minister of Culture dated December 24, 2006. Its mission is to collect, classify, inventory, preserve, restore, communicate and highlight the public archives from the central administrations of the State, the archives of the notaries of Paris and private funds of national interest. The National Archives are made up of three services with national competence: The National Archives in Paris, The Archives Nationales d’Outre-Mer, The National Labor Archives.

The National Archives collect, preserve and communicate the archives produced by the government and central administrations, as well as the minutes of Paris notaries and private funds. They have three sites: Paris (archives of the Ancien Régime, minutes of the notaries of Paris), Pierrefitte (archives after the French Revolution, private archives) and Fontainebleau (private archives of architects, specific contemporary collections).

The Archives Nationales d’Outre-Mer preserves the public archives of the French colonial presence overseas. There are also private and business archives relating to overseas territories as well as a library, a map library and a specialized icon library. They are located in Aix-en-Provence.

The National Labor Archives are located in Roubaix, in the former Motte-Bossut factory. They mainly keep public and private archives made up of all the players in the world of work and economic and social movements (companies, trade unions, associations and architects).

Hôtel de Soubise
The Hôtels de Soubise and de Rohan have exterior architecture in the Baroque style, with rooms throughout in the Rococo style, including the Chambre du prince, Salon ovale du prince, Chambre d’apparat de la princesse, an amusing Cabinet des singes (Monkey Cabinet), and the fine Salon ovale de la princesse with featuring gilt and crystal decor and ceiling frescoes by François Boucher, Charles-Joseph Natoire, and Carle Van Loo. Many of the rooms were carefully restored in the early 1900s.

It was from 1371 that Olivier de Clisson, successor to the Constable had a mansion built in the heart of the Temple site. All that remains of this first habitat is the fortified entrance gate confined by two watchtowers on the current rue des Archives. This is the only vestige of 14th century private architecture still visible in Paris.

In 1553, François de Lorraine, Duke of Guise, and his wife, Anne d’Este, acquired the mansion. Very dilapidated, the building required major reconstruction work that the powerful Guise family entrusted to the famous Italian artist, leader of the first school of Fontainebleau, Francesco Primaticcio, known as Le Primatice. Under the influence of the Duke of Guise, the hotel became the headquarters of the Catholic League during the Wars of Religion.

In the second half of the 17th century, Marie de Guise, known as Mademoiselle de Guise, the last descendant of the name, considerably embellished the hotel and its gardens. They became the scene of a brilliant court where regulars rubbed shoulders with Corneille, Tristan L’Hermite and the composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier.

The Museum
Designed by the Director General of the Archives of the Empire, Léon de Laborde, the Archives Museum opened in 1867 in the salons of the Hôtel de Soubise. Regular exhibitionsthematic temporary exhibitions reveal the documentary richness of the collections by focusing on a particular aspect of the history of France through numerous original documents.

The successive layouts of the route make it possible to extend the temporal amplitude of the presentation (the first choice stopped at Napoleon I) and to reduce the number of rooms. In 1950, Régine Pernoud gave new impetus to this museum,educational service of France and program the first temporary exhibitions. The Permanent Route, inherited from the 19th century, was removed in 1995: insufficiently adapted to public expectations, it also jeopardized the conservation of the exhibits.

A new route, completely revised, is gradually being offered to visitors in certain rooms of the Hôtel de Soubise. It includes a presentation of the variety of media and forms of archives and the sometimes little-known resources that they keep, an evocation of major documents, emblems of the history of France and privileged places of national memory, but also a glimpse behind the scenes of the Archives, of the classification, “boxing” and storage work that takes place there on a daily basis.

The permanent itinerary of the museum in ParisThe National Archives Museum presents, in the restored neo-rocaille decor of its former reading room, a panorama of around a hundred documents illustrating the different types of archives kept by the institution – from rolls of parchment to digital files – and the evolution of the spelling in the official papers emanating from chancelleries, ministries or notarial offices as in those relating to the private forum.

This tour is partially renewed every four months to comply with preventive conservation standards which require, for the preservation of these precious writings, to expose them only temporarily to light. The collection present in the course in the form of facsimiles such as the oldest document of the National Archives, the diploma on papyrus of the Merovingian King Clothaire II dating from the year 625, the royal accounts on wax tablet of King Saint-Louis or even the constitution of the Fifth Republic.

In the Empire Room you can discover archives presentations relating to packaging and containers etc dating back from the Middle Ages right through to the 20th century, with an original document being presented on show each month, that constantly changes. There is also a new media room that can present 3D modules, and there are more up to date archives such as facsimiles on display as well, not forgetting temporary exhibitions, and organised events that place here including discussions, workshops, etc.

The museum has both a permanent exhibition and rotating special exhibitions, which not only highlight the holdings of the Archives Nationales but also provide history on archival processes. The collection has objects dating back to the first century A.D. De Laborde developed the classification and numbering system for the collection, most of which are still in use. The museum’s collections are ordered as follows:

AE I (Iron cabinet), AE II (Museum of French documents), AE III (Museum of foreign documents), AE IV (Sigillographic collections), AE V (Exhibits and objects seized), AE VI (Historical Objects). The AE IV sub-series no longer exists today, having been replaced by the Center for Sigillography and Heraldry.

Iron cabinet
The iron cabinet of the National Archives is a safe executed by order of the Constituent Assembly of November 30, 1790; it was originally intended to house the forms, plates and stamps used in the production of assignats, then the constitutional act and the minutes of revolutionary laws and decrees. It now contains all of France’s constitutions, as well as documents of the highest historical value (Louis XVI’s journal, Marie-Antoinette’s Gazette des Atours, platinum meter and kilogram standards, Oath of the tennis court.

Museum of French documents
This sub-series is made up of an old collection which corresponds to the choices made by Laborde and his collaborators when the museum was created, to which is added the new collection made up of items listed as they enter the Museum. The old collection is made up of a continuous chronological sequence from the Merovingians to the First Empire. We thus find there the oldest document preserved in the National Archives (Confirmation by Clotaire II of a donation made to the Abbey of Saint-Denis, 625), the interrogation of the Templars in 1307, the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685.

Museum of Foreign Documents
This sub-series contains treaties and diplomatic documents concerning relations between France and foreign powers. For example, the ratification by Henry VIII, King of England, of the Treaty of Ardres signed with François I in 1546 or the letter from Fath-Ali Shah, King of Persia, to Napoleon I in 1806.

Evidence and seized objects
This sub-series consists of objects removed from police files or proceedings with which they were kept as exhibits. The oldest date back to the middle of the 18th century, the most recent to the sixties of the 20th century: the attack by Damiens against Louis XV (1757), the Choiseul-Praslin affair (1847), the trial against the OAS (1959-1965).

Historical objects
The origin of this sub-series is threefold. Certain objects have been deposited directly in the Archives of the Nation as historical monuments (model of the Bastille, standards of weights and measures, keys to towns taken from the enemy, furniture from the hotels of Soubise and Rohan, etc.). Others were donated or purchased in the same spirit, such as Minister Clarke’s portfolio or the tapestry of the story of Achilles from the Hôtel de Rohan. Finally, others were contained in the archive files and have been removed for better preservation. Finally, it should be noted that all the paintings belonging to the decoration of the Soubise and Rohan mansions (above the door in particular) received a rating in AE VI.

Orleans Chancellery
It was at the request of Philippe d’Orléans, future Regent, that the mansion known as the Chancellery of Orléans was built from 1703 near the Royal Palace. Its construction was entrusted to the architect Germain Boffrand and it received from that time a quality decoration. Then inhabited by the Argenson family, it was renovated by Charles De Wailly in the 1760s, and was then considered among the most refined of Parisian mansions.

The hotel having been demolished at the beginning of the 20th century, its decorations were kept by the Banque de France, which had become its owner. After lying dormant for many years, this extraordinary complex will soon be reassembled, at the end of an exceptional heritage project, on the ground floor of the Hôtel de Rohan, in the quadrangle of the National Archives. The opening of the entire Hôtel de Rohan, after the end of the renovation work on the quadrangle of the Archives, is scheduled for 2023.

Research Centers
The Onomastics Center preserves and makes available to the public extensive documentation relating to the names of places and people throughout France. Dedicated to the study of seals, heraldry and more generally the emblematic, the Center for Sigillography and Heraldry preserves and makes available to the public rich collections of French casts and foreigners as well as specialized documentation.

The Parisian Topography Center provides specialized researchers with a documentation file on plots and houses in Paris from the 13th century to the French Revolution, and an alphabetical file of old street names. The Center for the Study of Legal History carries out research and analysis work on legal collections, in particular on the Parliament of Paris.

The Ordinances Commission of the Kings of France, responsible for publishing the Catalog of the acts of Henri II, in the Collection of the Ordinances of the Kings of France, can provide information on any search for royal acts from the Ancien Régime and more particularly from the 16th century, i.e. of the last Valois, from François I to Henri III (1515-1589).