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Small museums - an essential part of Paris's vast cultural heritage

By Vera FranklSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / January 13, 1984

Resist the temptation the next time you are in Paris to follow the crowds to the Louvre, the Centre Pompidou, or the Museum of Modern Art. Instead, try beating a less well-trodden path to one of the many small museums scattered throughout the capital. You could be in for a pleasant surprise. Intimate and often specialized, they are nevertheless enormously rich and diverse, and form as essential a part of the city's vast cultural heritage as the better-known collections. Out of the dozens of smaller museums well worth seeking out, here is a personal selection of four:

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Musee Carnavalet. The most Parisian of Paris museums, the Carnavalet is a must for visitors eager to gain an insight into the fascinating and often turbulent history of the city and its inhabitants. Situated in the Marais district and housed in a Renaissance mansion renowned for its architecture, the Carnavalet traces Parisian history from the 16th to the 19th century - from the time of Francis I to the post-Napoleonic republic.

Once the home of the prolific 17th-century letter-writer Mme. de Sevigne, the Carnavalet was bought by the city of Paris in the 1860s at the instigation of the inspired Baron Haussmann (builder of the Paris boulevards). It opened its doors to the public in 1880.

The exhibits are set out in chronological order in a series of airy, beautifully proportioned rooms with parquet or marble floors and pastel or mirrored walls. A lavishly frescoed main staircase leads to the first floor, which overlooks four courtyards set out as formal gardens.

The Carnavalet's is a rich and varied collection. It comprises several thousand paintings, including works by Ingres, Delacroix, and Courbet, as well as sculptures, drawings, miniatures, porcelain furniture, and other objects. Many of those dating from the 17th and 18th centuries are displayed in rooms appropriately decorated with painted wood paneling of the same era. One particularly charming little period salon, transferred to the Carnavalet from the one-time Paris home of the engraver Demarteau, is entirely covered in elaborate oil canvases painted between 1750 and 1765 by Francois Boucher and his assistants, with the additional help of the young Fragonard.

The most dramatic and haunting exhibits, however, are those dealing with the revolutionary period, which covers eight rooms. An anonymous and chilling portrait of Dr. Joseph Guillotin, whose name became identified with the decapitating machine, stares down from one wall. On another hangs a poster in oils of the ''Rights of Man,'' and in a nearby display cabinet is Robespierre's leather briefcase with his name stamped on it in gold, as well as documents bearing his signature. Most unsettling of all is one of the hundreds of orders of execution issued by the revolutionary tribunal.

Although the Carnavalet was originally intended to illustrate the whole of Paris history, lack of space has meant that many of its treasures have had to be consigned to the vaults. There are plans to take over a nearby building shortly so that these can be permanently displayed. Meanwhile, several rooms at the museum are used for temporary exhibitions that allow at least part of the ''hidden collection'' to be seen by the public.

Musee des Thermes and Hotel de Cluny. A combination of 2nd-century Gallo-Roman remains and an 18th-century hotel (one of the few of its kind left in Paris) provides the strikingly beautiful setting for this museum. Set slightly back from the intersection of the busy St. Michel and St. Germain Boulevards on the Left Bank, the Gothic house that was once the Paris residence of the wealthy abbots of Cluny is now the home of one of the world's most fabulous collections of medieval art.