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

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:

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.

Pass through the Cluny's heavy wooden doors onto to a small cobbled courtyard , and the frenzied world of the boulevards seems light-years away. The din of choked-up traffic suddenly fades, and it is like being transported at a stroke into a more tranquil age.

The mood persists inside the warm, intimate museum itself, which, with its wooden floors, latticed windows, and huge carved stone fireplaces, reproduces with almost uncanny accuracy the atmosphere of a great house of the period. It is all done with a minimum of modern props - a tribute to clever lighting, the intelligent use of space, and the splendor of the exhibits themselves. Every kind of artifact has been gathered under the Cluny's roof to help convey this comprehensive picture of life in the Middle Ages. Among the most stunning displays are heavy carved-mahogany chests, often with intricate inlay work; pieces of sculpture, armor, jewelry, and metalwork; and illuminated manuscripts. A series of stained-glass windows, some dating back to the 12th century, are set against a black background and dramatically backlit.

The most famous and exquisite of the Cluny's treasures, however, are its many rich medieval tapestries in delicate, faded shades. The finest is the set of ''The Lady With the Unicorn,'' dating from the 15th century - a perfect example of the so-called thousand-flower type of tapestry. This set, first brought to public notice by the writer George Sand, who found it hanging in the rooms of a public official, was finally purchased by the museum in 1883. Five of the six hangings are believed to depict allegories of the senses, but the meaning of the sixth tapestry, A mon seul desir, remains a mystery. The Cluny's tiny chapel on the first floor, which was at one time the abbots' oratory, is one of the most important pieces of architecture to survive from the Middle Ages. Its most powerful feature is the flamboyant vault which fans out like a palm from a single central pillar.

Among the ancient works to be seen at the Cluny, in a skylit room of majestic proportions, are the 21 sculptured stone heads of the kings of Judah. The heads date from the early 13th century. Originally part of Notre Dame Cathedral, they were taken down by overzealous republicans during the French Revolution and were lost for almost two centuries. They were finally rediscovered six years ago during an excavation project.

Only one section of the baths themselves - the Frigidarium - is still intact. The ruins of the others lie in the gardens beyond, which are open to the public on Wednesdays. The rest of the week they are the exclusive province of a family of stray cats.

Musee Rodin. As its name suggests, the Rodin is a one-man museum. It is installed in an imposing 18th-century residence, the Hotel Biron, where Auguste Rodin worked and sometimes stayed toward the end of his life, presenting his art as payment for rent.

The mansion, a fine example of rococo architecture, is set in a serene, leafy garden largely restored to its original 18th-century layout. Complete with pond benches and, in summer, a charming open-air cafe, it is a favorite haunt of local Parisians. It is a splendid setting worthy of one of the outstanding sculptors of all time who dared to flout the rules of 19th-century art to create vividly lifelike figures based on his own observation and on the example of the great masters - Michelangelo above all.

Even before entering the museum, the visitor is confronted by some of Rodin's most famous casts - among them those that made his reputation within his lifetime. Standing on the lawns that surround the forecourt are ''The Thinker'' (1880), cast in bronze; the six figures of ''The Burghers of Calais'' (1895); and ''The Gates of Hell'' (1880-1917), standing 12 feet high and framed by the figures of Adam and Eve. Nearby looms the figure of the literary giant Balzac, a statue that provoked violent controversy when it was unveiled in 1897.

Inside, exhibited on two well-planned and easily manageable stories, is the bulk of this extensive collection. It fully conveys the mixture of vitality and poetry that characterizes Rodin's art. It includes busts, portraits, some less-well-known but spellbinding sculptures, anatomical studies, examples of the artist's early work as an ornamental sculptor, and part of his own collection of furniture, painting, and antiques. An enchanting and exhilarating experience on no account to be missed.

Musee Marmottan. This compact, private museum in the elegant 16th Arrondissement, not far from the Bois de Boulogne, is hidden away in what appears to be just another apartment building. Behind its unassuming facade, however, it houses three important collections.

The museum has grown from a bequest made in the '30s by the art historian Paul Marmottan. It consisted originally of Renaissance consular and Empire works. Since then it has been transformed by a number of spectacular legacies. The most dazzing of these was Michel Monet's gift in 1969 of 65 paintings by his father. The Wildenstein collection of medieval illuminated manuscripts was added later and first went on display less than three years ago.

The Monet canvases, dating from 1886 onward, form one of the most significant collections of the painter's work to be found in Europe. They are displayed in a large underground gallery built especially for the purpose, which provides a stark contrast to the high-ceilinged pomp of the rest of the building. A majority of the Monets are a series of scenes of the artist's garden at his house in Giverny, Normandy. There are also informal portraits of his friends and family, as well as some views of London under a heavy gray veil of mist.

The Wildenstein collection of hundreds of manuscripts from Italian, French, and German schools, dating from the 13th to the 16th centuries, is contained in a single spacious room aglow with color. It has its own opening times, from 10: 30 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. and 2 p.m. to 4:45 p.m. Of the fabulous Marmottan collection, only a fraction is on show at any one time, and the works are not always laid out to best advantage.

For some mysterious reason which Marmottan employees could not explain, there is no single guide to the museum available. Instead, the museum sells three separate, expensive catalogs - one for each of the collections. Rather than allow this to discourage you from an otherwise rewarding experience, you can equip yourself beforehand with one of the general guides to Paris which offer a thumbnail sketch of the exhibits, and leave your eyes to do the rest. A final note of advice: It is always worth making a quick telephone call to check that the museum you intend to visit is open as advertised. Practical information:

Musee Carnavalet: 23 Rue de Sevigne, 3rd Arrondissement. Telephone 272.21.13. Admission: 9 francs. Free for senior citizens, half price for students. Free admission on Sundays.

Musee des Thermes and Hotel de Cluny: 6 Place Paul-Painleve, 5th Arrondissement. Telephone 325.6200. Admission: 9 francs. Free for those under 18 , half price for those aged between 18 and 25 and for senior citizens; on Sunday half price for all visitors.

Musee Rodin: 77 Rue de Varenne, 7th Arrondissement. Telephone 705 01 34. Admission: 7 francs (Sunday half price).

Musee Marmottan: 2 Rue Louis Boilly. Telephone 224 0702. Admission: 10 francs.

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