A museum of images in a garden of peace

With such an abundance of museums and galleries in Paris, should it be a surprise that on occasion, the one you had your heart set on visiting happens to be closed? But then there is the flip side of the coin: you find a space that was closed for the past five or six years and has now reopened. On our next trip to Paris we will definitely go to the recently reopened Musée Carnavalet. But what I look forward to with the greatest anticipation will be our first visit to the Musée Départemental Albert Kahn in Boulogne-Billancourt.

I had heard about Albert Kahn (1860–1940): successful banker, self-made man, philanthropist, world traveller, lover of and commissioner of gardens and, perhaps most important, a pacifist who was a global pioneer in colour photography. But until the arrival of the June-July issue of Côté Paris, I had no idea there was a museum with gardens dedicated to his life and work, or that it had been closed for radical reconstruction, conservation, and new construction. Then, by chance, our friend Mireille visited the museum and gardens on a glorious autumn day and emailed us some of her stunning photographs. I had to know more.

Kahn was born in 1860 in Marmoutier, Alsace, in what was then eastern France. However, after the Franco-Prussian War, the 11-year-old boy found himself a subject of the German Kaiser. In 1876, aged 16, he moved to Paris and changed his first name from Abraham to Albert to symbolize his bond to France. Through family connections, he became an apprentice banker with Charles et Edmond Goudchoux. Albert was noted for his financial insight. When he was still in his twenties, he brokered investments in diamonds and gold in South Africa – deals that benefited his employers, but also brought him great personal wealth.

A rising financial star had to be suitably accommodated. In 1893, Kahn rented a brick-and-stone hôtel particulier on rue du Port in Boulogne-Baillancourt, not far from the Rothschild’s family château. The image below was taken in 1924, during a flood that covered the lawn.

In 1895, the self-made millionaire bought the estate he had been renting and began to purchase adjoining properties, bringing his estate to 4.1 hectares, which he proceeded to turn into seven magnificent gardens. However, he was not always at home to see the work proceed, as his job took him around the world. In 1897 he made his first trip to Japan, where he fell in love with Japanese landscapes and gardening.

The Japanese village is perhaps the most well-known part of the gardens, with its three houses, including a tea house. These Kahn sought out in Japan, had disassembled, and brought to his estate, where they were reassembled and restored by carpenters brought from Japan. But gardens keep growing and sometimes outgrow their original spaces. in the 1990s the Japanese landscaper Fumiaki Takano created a new Japanese garden (shown above) to replace the original version.

A focal point of the French formal gardens is a large glass-and-iron greenhouse, the Palmarium, a reference to the nineteenth-century craze for growing palms in greenhouses. The Palmarium is currently undergoing restoration and serves as a winter garden.

For Kahn, though, accumulating wealth and landscapes was not enough of a legacy. His goal was more ambitious: world peace. His childhood experience of war had led to a lifelong interest in pacifism. For him, an underlying cause of war was the lack of mutual understanding and appreciation of other cultures, peoples, and ways of living. His landscaped gardens represented his views on the potential of humanity. Plants from many countries came together harmoniously. The garden, created under the knowledgeable eye of Kahn’s chief landscaper, Édouard André, was a manifestation of a world at peace.

Kahn’s gardens were beautiful, but for much of his lifetime, the only visitors were his friends and colleagues. Kahn realized that he needed a project that would play a broader role in spreading his ideas about mutual understanding as a cornerstone of peace.

So, in 1898, he established a scholarship program, Bourses de Voyage autour du Monde. Kahn wanted to provide cultural education for young teachers, the people who would help mould the minds and world views of the youth of the day. Those who applied had to propose a study project; beyond that, there were few requirements other than periodic reports. At a time when travel was often difficult and expensive, recipients of Kahn’s bursaries were able to travel in comfort on an itinerary they had devised for up to eighteen months.

These fortunate young people came from France, the United States, Britain, Germany, and Japan. Between 1898 and 1931 there were 150 recipients, of which 27 were women – a remarkable proportion in that day and age. In 1906, Kahn created la Société Autour du Monde to bring about exchanges between former bursary holders and the international elite.

The bursaries were a start, but Kahn was concerned about sharing what the recipients had seen and experienced. At the time, a photographic holy grail was an easy-to-use system of still photography that reliably gave good colour rendition on conventional glass plates. In 1905 the Lumière brothers, who had made their name with moving pictures, began to pursue what would be their next grand achievement. On 10 June 1907, in a newspaper office, they demonstrated their new autochrome technology for producing coloured photographic images on glass plates. Kahn immediately saw the potential of this new technology.

Here is one example of the colour photography possible at the time, showing a Parisian flower seller, taken by Auguste Léon in 1918. Unlike the hand-tinted images of the time, this showed the actual colours of the street and the flowers.

Armed with new photographic equipment, Kahn, accompanied by his chauffeur and travelling companion Alfred Duterte (1884–1964), toured the world, including Japan, China, and the United States, beginning in 1908. In 1909 they visited South America, and in 1910 Scandinavia.

At some point during or after these trips, Kahn came up with his plan to create the Archives de la Planète (Archives of the Planet), which now forms the core of the Musée Départmental Albert Kahn. It consists of 111 miles of silent film reels, 4,000 stereoscopic plates, and 72,000 autochrome colour glass plates. They represent the combined efforts of professional photographers sent to more than 50 countries between 1909 and 1931 with photography equipment and film – all fully funded by Kahn. Their orders were simple: “Keep your eyes open.” Of the collection, 69,000 photographs have been digitized and are available online.

Here is a sample image of a boy with water buffalo, taken in Cambodia in 1921 by Léon Busy.

At Boulogne-Billancourt, Kahn maintained facilities for images to be developed, projected, and screened. Kahn’s screenings attracted notable people such as Auguste Rodin, Colette, Auguste Renoir, Henri Bergson, and the Nobel prize winner Rabindranath Tagore.

As the 20th century wore on, Kahn was aware of the horrors of rising nationalism and the impact of globalization with the consequent loss of traditional cultures. Readily usable autochrome colour photography was an educational tool for Kahn’s aims. In addition to documenting daily life, his photographers also captured conflict and strife. This image shows a hospital in 1916 by Stéphane Passet.

The Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression would bring an end to Kahn’s projects. In 1931 he had to stop funding the bursaries and the Archives of the World. His bank folded and he was personally bankrupt. But here the story takes an unexpected turn. By 1936 his property and possessions were safely in the hands of the Département de la Seine, and he was allowed to live in his former home until his death. In 1937 his gardens, which were close to the site of the International Exposition, were opened to the public. And in the same year, his photographic collection was put on display.

Kahn died in November 1940, shortly after the start of the German occupation of Paris. Because he was Jewish, his body was thrown into a mass grave – a shocking end for a man who had dedicated his life and fortune to the pursuit of peace. But his vision lived on, even through the darkest days of the war.

In 1968 the newly created Département des Hauts-de-Seine became owner of the Kahn property, gardens, and collection. By 1975, work was under way to study and demonstrate the value of the collection. And in 1986 it was reorganized as a departmental museum and later as a nationally significant “Musée de France.” In 1990 the museum opened its first gallery exhibition in a new building designed by architect Gérard Planes. The museum and gardens grew in stature and visitor numbers so much that as the 21st century dawned, annual visitor numbers had risen to 120,000.

Kengo Kuma, a globally recognized architect known for the harmonious integration of his projects in their environmental and cultural contexts, won the competition for a new building. Construction started in 2012, the same year the site was declared a historic monument. The site, complete with its inaugural exhibit and catalogue reopened to the public 2 April 2022.

We hope to visit the Musée Départemental Albert Kahn in 2023. I look forward to perusing the autochrome and other still-photo collections, as well as the moving pictures in the museum. And I long to walk through the varied gardens and perhaps find the calm that will lower my blood pressure somewhat. Albert Kahn, of all people, would understand the need for tranquillity and reflection.  

Text by Norman Ball, contemporary photographs by Mireille Duhen. Photograph of Palmarium from Wikimedia Commons. Historic photographs from the Kahn collection.

About Parisian Fields

Parisian Fields is the blog of two Toronto writers who love Paris. When we can't be there, we can write about it. We're interested in everything from its history and architecture to its graffiti and street furniture. We welcome comments, suggestions, corrections, and musings from all readers.
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13 Responses to A museum of images in a garden of peace

  1. Jessica Morton says:

    I look forward to and eagerly read your always informative, well-written and thoughtful essays. They are such a welcome gift to those of us missing France (and especially Paris) in these continuing Covid days. Thank you!

    • Sometimes writing about Paris makes it feel closer and sometimes if feels even further away in time and distance. And sometimes Covid makes us wonder if we will ever get back. But let’s not lose hope. You will be back and so will we.

      • Jessica says:

        So true, I do hope!
        Meanwhile, your erudite appreciations of The City of Light are such welcome insights into my favorite city.
        Wishing you and your many other grateful readers a very happy and healthy holiday season. 💫

  2. Ana says:

    Lovely and informative. Thank you. I visited the museum and gardens about 6 years ago and realize now that some areas were closed for reconstruction. I look forward to visiting in 2023.

    • I hope your revisit will be even better than your earlier visit. Good luck to all of us who wish to go there in 2023. Thank you for your kind words. It was fun learning about Albert Kahn and I am continuing to learn even more.

  3. The Musée Kahn has been on my list for years, but so far haven’t made it to visit. One day…

    • Hope you get there and Philippa and I hope to get there in 2023. But I guess the last few years have taught us that sometimes plans are subject to change, Good luck to all of us who want to go there.

  4. Trish says:

    I’m struggling with the contrast, the beauty of Kahn’s gardens after he was thrown into a mass grave. Thanks Norman for writing about him.

    • Thank you Trish for your thoughts and struggles; the contrast is just so ugly and inhumane that it is hard to think about, almost incomprehensible. Perhaps this is what Albert Kahn would have liked us to think about and to struggle with. I think he reached you.

  5. Catharine Parke says:

    Wonderful story about an amazing man. I look forward to visiting this someday. I would have never heard of this without you. Thank you!

  6. mem says:

    I remember coming across some of his work on U tube and being very moved . What a wonderful human being . Thankyou for your post

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