Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’archéologie de Besançon: France’s Oldest Public Museum

It is generally thought that the precursors to the modern museums were the so-called ‘cabinets of curiosities’. Wealthy individuals, established families or institutions collected a variety of objects ranging from fine art and sculpture, archaeological and historical objects to rare or curious natural objects and specimens. These collections would be private, and only open to ‘respectable’ individuals. The British Museum in London has in a sense re-created the feel of these early museums in their enlightenment galleries.

The oldest public museum in France, Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’archéologie (Museum of Fine Arts and Archaeology) in Besançon, started out as the private collection of Jean-Baptiste Boisot, an abbot. He bequeathed his personal collection to the Benedictines of the city of Besançon on condition that the collection was open to the public two days every week. This was in 1694, nearly a century before the Louvre became a public museum in August 1793.

There are three aspects to this museum: archaeology, paintings and drawings.

The archaeology collection of the museum has some striking pieces, including the entire sarcophagus of an ancient Egyptian (21 Dynasty) royal scribe named Seramon, (above) and a few mosaic pavements from Roman villas. The mosaic below is the central motif of what is called the ‘Neptune Mosaic’ that dates to the second century BC. The archaeology collection also has a number of artefacts from various sites in the area.

The painting collection has some well known pieces of European art from the 14th to 20th centuries. Including some well known artists, such as Titian, Brueghel the Elder, Rubens, Goya, Renoir and Matisse. But the museum is particularly known for its collection of drawings. With over 5,500 Italian, Dutch and French drawings, this is one of the largest collections in France ranging from the end of the 15th century to the middle of the 20th century.

Henri Matisse, Nature morte au lierre, 1916.

So if you are visiting the France-Comte area of eastern France, and crave some high culture, this museum is a must.

The photographs I have used in this post have been taken from Magika42000’s photostream for this museum on Flickr.

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About Thomas Dowson

Hello, I am Thomas Dowson - a freelance writer and archaeologist living in Normandy, France. My field of expertise is prehistoric art - such as the cave paintings in the Dordogne and South Africa. But I am becoming passionately interested in France more generally, and Normandy in particular, and what this country and one of its very well known regions has to offer people with all sorts of tastes and desires. In 2005 I exchanged a university archaeology lecture room for a Bed & Breakfast in Normandy. More recently I started the Archaeology Travel website; sharing my expertise and love of archaeology and travel with others who also want to explore the many different pasts around the World.