h2o, Snøhetta / Musée national de la Marine, Paris

The museum has re-opened after six years of renovation, showcasing a magnificent, yet sensitive, redesign.

Words By Emily Martin
Images By Boegly + Grazia For Casson Mann


Client Musée national de la Marine
Lead exhibition designer and artistic director Casson Mann www.cassonmann.com
Architects  h2o www.h2oarchitectes.com Snøhetta www.snohetta.com
Project size 2,500 sq m
Completion November 2023
Project cost €71.2m

THE MUSÉE NATIONAL DE LA MARINE has re-opened after six years of renovation showcasing a magnificent, yet sensitive, redesign. Situated in the heart of Paris at the Palais de Chaillot, visitors can now enjoy its classical collections with spectacular scenography and sculptural elements, with Casson Mann’s transformation of the Musée national de la Marine bringing the power and drama of the sea to central Paris.

The museum takes visitors on a journey celebrating the power and drama of the sea

Sited within the historic building, which has been sensitively transformed by architects h2o and Snøhetta, Casson Mann has created a new visitor experience, drawing audiences into fresh encounters with the museum’s maritime stories and collections. The studio was issued with an extensively detailed brief, which included bringing the characteristics of the sea to the museum experience, placing special emphasis on the national historic collection for specialists and general audiences alike, and creating moments of pleasure.

‘Once we had absorbed the brief, our first task was to develop the narrative journey and rhythm,’ explains Delphine Rabat, head of Casson Mann France. ‘We had to decide where and in what order to put each “Crossing” and “Stopover” within the visitor journey, given spatial considerations and access to the heart of the collections. We developed alternating galleries of thematically gathered objects and thematic galleries, which combine history and contemporary issues.’

The design incorporates sculptural ‘landmarks’ that exploit the space and each evoking a specific theme

Visitors start the experience passing beneath an enormous 7m ship’s hull, on the ground floor, that includes an immersive film about the sea. Further sculptural landmarks punctuate the route, such as a stack of full-size, yellow shipping containers suspended beneath the gantry. A giant wave, 20m long and 8m high, introduces the ‘Shipwrecks and Storms’ gallery. This huge projection surface is brought to life with moving imagery of flowing water. Physically and dynamically immersive, it truly brings the sea to Paris.

‘The very nature of the ground floor space is extraordinary; a long, open curving space, 190m long, 12m high with vaulted ceiling,’ says Roger Mann, co-founder and creative director. ‘The two curved mezzanines created by the architects introduce lower areas that create a rhythm of compression and release. Our response was to create a series of moments or “landmarks”, sculptural elements that really exploited the scale of the space, each introducing a theme.’

Visitors walking through this incredible space are guided by the four landmark themes each revealing itself and you progress through: Coque de Bateau (a general introduction to all the themes of the museum); Shipping containers (Consumerism); The Wave (Shipwrecks and Storms); and the finally La Réale (Naval Power).

The museum’s collections include navigation devices, ship models, paintings and sculptures

‘Sometimes these landmarks act as vistas drawing you along and other times are revealed as a surprise depending on how you approach it,’ says Mann. ‘The Coque de Bateau [ship’s hull] is almost full height but hidden until the last moment. The containers are a vista moment; you’re aware of them but the full scale and what they contain is a surprise. The Wave is high but is revealed as you exit the navigation space, and the final assemblage of the large, gilded figures and panels from La Réale sit as a spectacular culmination at the end of the space.’

On the lower ground level, visitors enjoy the unique treasures from the extensive national collection, such as the spectacular, gilded ornamentation from La Réale, built for Louis XIV, and oil paintings by Joseph Vernet.

Made up of two spaces, thematic displays feature stories of human endeavour – commerce, sport, leisure, travel, war, peace, fear, loss and survival – subjects intensified by life at sea. The collections include navigation devices, ship models, paintings and sculptures.

‘To engage new audiences, children and young people, the Vernet paintings are hung quite low, at eye level with the horizon line, to immerse visitors in the scene and invite examination of the extraordinary detail’, says Rabat. ‘The long, curved gallery tells the story of France as a naval power and takes advantage of the original architecture. The proximity that visitors have to the objects, cases and paintings is surprising, reinforcing the relationship between the visitor and object, encouraging the discovery of details. For example, you can walk around the ‘360-degree’ cases (island cases), seeing objects and models from all angles.’

The collection of ship models is displayed chronologically through the centre of the space and is interspersed by arches. Designed to engage young and old, the scheme includes audio-visual and interactive media, tactile models and original interactives that invite > visitors to create and design. To ensure universal access and enjoyment, there are tactile orientation and guidance points throughout. The design can facilitate ‘quiet hours’ when the audio, light and intensity of the scenography is reduced to ensure that sensitive visitors can enjoy a more comfortable museum experience.

Shipping containers are used to mark the theme of maritime consumerism

‘I think there is a relationship between the historic objects and large installations that inspires wonder,’ continues Rabat. ‘And alongside the big visual moments, we have achieved a space for contemplation and analysis of an object or painting. Casson Mann has done delicate design work (in how we used colour, lighting, plinth and spatial design) to magnify the beauty and interest of an object.’

Spatially this was a complex project, owing to the technical challenges of placing large scale objects inside an historic building. The curved forms of the wave and ship’s hull were built in situ with its structural demands needing a close working partnership with architectural engineers. ‘Similarly, the suspended containers required a lot of structural support that is now hidden,’ comments Mann.

The curving vaulted gallery of the Ground Floor has been renovated into one long space with mezzanine galleries whilst the lower ground floor is constrained by the original architectural arches. ‘That’s why we placed our contemporary elements on the open ‘promenade’ of the ground floor and the historic galleries downstairs,’ explains Rabat. ‘We also had to work with two staircases, both historic to the building. On the ground floor, the first one is one-third through the space and the second one is almost at the end. This means that the narrative journey and collection chronology could be experienced either forwards or backwards.’

Thematic displays feature stories of human endeavour and challenges intensified by life at sea

The museum first closed for renovation in 2017, with Casson Mann appointed in 2019 as the lead exhibition designer. During this time, the firm has led a team of 2,000 people through the challenges building conservation and, of course, Covid. It has delivered a masterpiece scheme, showcasing a story and collection that will be remembered for generations.

Says Mann: ‘We are delighted to have had the opportunity to display an outstanding collection in such a magnificent building in the heart of Paris. Our scenography evolved in direct response to the extraordinary scale and fluidity of the museum’s original curving galleries, which have been beautifully restored. We have created a promenade of large-scale sculptural interventions that have a dramatic dialogue with the volumes they inhabit and immerse visitors in the museum’s compelling stories of life at sea.’


Graphic Design 

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