Emile Guimet had a dream: to destroy the cultural barrier between East and West. "I want to put holes in this curtain!" he wrote in 1874. "I want to see, and I want everyone else to see!" Seeking to make that vision a reality, the Lyons industrialist founded a Paris museum in 1889 that developed one of the world's most important collections of Asian art. But the Guimet also became a museum-goer's nightmare, housed in an antiquated fin-de-siècle building that became an overcrowded, dark and dusty labyrinth, leaving much of the collection inaccessible to the public. "The museum was like a maze," says director Jean-François Jarrige, "and the works were lost."
On Jan. 20, after a three-year, $50 million renovation, the Musèe National des Arts Asiatiques reopened to generally rave reviews from architecture critics and art lovers alike. In the tradition of other ambitious Paris projects-I.M. Pei's remake of the Louvre's Richelieu wing, Gae Aulenti's transformation of a disused train station into the Musèe d'Orsay-architects Henri and Bruno Gaudin basically gutted the old structure and rebuilt it from the inside out. "Our task," explains Henri Gaudin, "was to make sense of the space. The staircases were my starting point from which I was able to get a general idea of what I wanted to do with the space. Then we took down many of the walls and installed the skylights. It is the light that brings the museum together."
The result is stunning. The renovation added 2,500 sq m to the floor plan and a spectacular central staircase, creating a total area of 13,000 sq m. Not only is the redesigned structure lighter and airier, but the extra space has allowed the museum to dedicate larger areas to the formerly neglected Korean and Japanese collections. The cathedral-like main room is open and welcoming, giving flight to an enormous and imposing Cambodian Naga (a half-human, half-serpent divinity), displayed in its entirety for the first time since 1878. The gallery then moves organically by region, from South East Asia, through Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Tibet and China, emphasizing the galvanizing force of the Buddhist spirit. Henri Gaudin says the greatest compliment he has received is that the restoration highlights the works themselves (the Chinese department alone numbers some 20,000 objects). "I wanted the rooms to be able to communicate with each other," he says. "It's a metaphor for this museum, which has pieces representing many different cultures. Cultures can't be closed off from each other, and their art shouldn't be either."
The museum has a rich history that includes an Eastern dance performance in the library by the legendary spy and femme fatale Mata Hari, and a Buddhist ceremony attended by Edgar Degas and Louis Pasteur. But the Guimet's appeal has always been the extraordinary treasures amassed by more than a century of acquisitions. Eager to obtain the Guimet's hoard of Egyptian art, the Louvre agreed to swap its entire Eastern art collection in 1945. The Guimet also packed its larder with booty from the closing of Paris' Indochina Museum in 1935.
The collection also boasts the coveted "Treasure of Begram," artifacts from the first century that were found in a 1937 excavation in Afghanistan, and brings together three different worlds of art: Greco-Roman glassware, Chinese lacquers and Indian carved ivory tablets. The appeal of such matchless holdings, an extensive exhibition program ("Asia of the Steppes from Alexander the Great to Ghengis Khan" opens this week), as well as a chic new boutique, bookstore and Asian restaurant, is expected to lure 400,000 visitors a year to this former ugly duckling of a museum that has reemerged as a swan.