First of all, I’m not a Europhile. Give me Latin America on a GS1200 BMW and you can keep the stuffy ancientness of Le Moyen Age with its lovely villages among the vineyards… snore…
But I have to tell you about the Basque Museum in Bayonne, Bay of Biscay, Pays Basque, France.
After the Disneyland of the Louvre (I loved every inch of it) and the utterly exhausting, brilliant-but-with-reservations Musée de Quai Branly, this exquisite and passionate little museum still makes me smile.
It’s so intimate, so determinedly Basque (ie not French or Spanish) and such a celebration of a unique culture… captivating.
Note to self and Story Inc: the ONLY video in the whole museum (it’s bigger than the Rotorua Museum, about as big as the Museum of Siam in Bangkok, only with thousands of objects) is of the Basque Choir – uncut – au naturel – sweet. And it has a dedicated mini-cinema just for that video.
Everything else is an object, or an artwork, a fabric, furniture or costume display, or brilliant models showing the stone-age societies and their structures, or the development of the Basque cities as trading ports, or documentary-style photographs of traditional Basque life. It’s chronological from the stone-age to the present day, but with constant visual references both backwards and forwards in time.
In one gallery where you’re seeing how Basque Catholicism developed into a specialised environment for worship (model of the 3-tiered church interior etc), there’s an open view to another gallery festooned with big devil masks and costumes still used in the devil-defying dances of today… Probably means nothing to you if you’re not Catholic, but wow! Here’s a graphically realistic Jesus with gory wounds in the same viewshaft as a hysterical, nastily-gorgeous Satan!
Best of all, the displays are beautiful. There’s exquisite detailing on the showcases and in the juxtaposition of things. The galleries have remnants of old beam-and-plaster walls merging with modern flat white planes; they feel like they’re a conversation – a narrative – a whisper in your ear. The lighting is clever, witty, selective. The text is sparse (just enough to know) and has an undertone of pride – ‘family secrets’ as a way of explaining, like whakapapa with a wink.
Don’t be fooled though, this is not a ‘lesser museum’. They’ve spent many millions of Euros here. The humble exterior belies the fact that several buildings have been conjoined to create the galleries, and every aspect of the museum is a tribute to design, craftsmanship, and the delight you feel as a visitor, knowing this has been made with love, pure devotion to an ideal, and to hell with the expense! Salut!