Archives of the Body & Heart
by Steven G Fullwood
This past November, I went to Paris and London to meet with friends and collaborators, and to see a few sites. Generally, I like visiting libraries and archives when I travel domestically or internationally. I want to tell you about two archives that are worth experiencing in person, the Albert-Khan Musée and Le Catacombs De Paris.
An Archive of the World: Albert-Khan Musée
Bank and philanthropist Albert Kahn (March 3, 1860 – November 14, 1940) was a French is best known for initiating The Archives of the Planet (Les Archives de la Planète), a vast photographical project. Spanning 22 years, this effort resulted in a spiraling collection of 72,000 color photographs and 183,000 meters of film and some audio records for 50 countries.
The Musée Albert-Kahn is a departmental museum in Boulogne-Billancourt, France, at 14, rue du Port, including four hectares of gardens, joining landscape scenes of various national traditions. The museum includes historical photographs and films collected by the banker and philanthropist Albert Kahn.
The Musée not only offers permanent installations of Kahn’s immense archive, but also offers research space, and showcases the equipment and forensic spaces used over a century ago to process the photographs on display. Short film play through the museum. There is also traveling exhibition space building on the exploratory nature of Kahn’s original vision.”
I’m obsessed with documentary projects like this. Particularly when a person not associated with history, geography or art but driven to help document humankind. It is speculated that Kahn was troubled by war, modernity and imperialism rapidly changing the world. He wanted to document the world in a sort of peace project thinking that if people could see others—their particulate way of life—perhaps we would feel more empathetic toward each other. I also think Kahn knew that his work in banking was part of the imperialist project, and that creating this expansive, one-of-a-kind archive is his way of giving back.
Learn more about Khan and the musée here!
A Different Kind of Archive: Le Catacombs De Paris
From their website: “In the late eighteenth century, when major public health problems tied to the city’s cemeteries led to a decision to transfer their contents to an underground site. Paris authorities chose an easily accessible site that was, at the time, located outside the capital: the former Tombe-Issoire quarries under the plain of Montrouge. The first evacuations were made from 1785 to 1787 and concerned the largest cemetery in Paris, the Saints-Innocents cemetery.
The site was consecrated as the ‘Paris Municipal Ossuary’ on April 7, 1786, and, from that time forward, took on the mythical name of “Catacombs”, in reference to the Roman catacombs, which had fascinated the public since their discovery. Starting in 1809, the Catacombs were opened to the public by appointment.”
Dark, dimly lit, and dank, the Catacombs are not a place for those who are claustrophobic or find endless stacks of skulls and bones unnerving. The site was designed so that should one begin feeling uncomfortable or a panic attack coming on, escape routes are available at the end of most tunnels. For me, it was oddly delightful and comforting.
Several things came to mind about the experience of walking through this city of the dead. These were once people whose records are long lost to history. The catacombs is a significant part of Paris’s heritage and so I thought French citizens would be able to see it for free. No. Whenever I return to Paris, I’ll also return to the Catacombs. It’s a fascinating place to explore and consider as I consider my own mortality and final wishes.
Go to the Catacombs’ website for more information.