It’s the Confluence of Life: Lyon’s Museum of the World

Spread the love

Confluence Museum, Musée des Confluences, Lyon, France

When planning a trip to Lyon, you will be struck by the hype for the Museum of the Confluence.  It’s a striking new glass building, opened in 2014, perched on an island on the Rhone, and it has a glossy modernity that promises an attractive museum-going experience.  In France, where so many museums are so underfunded, it looks like it should stand out as an amazing showcase of what could be in other places.

Rather like Mucem, its spiritual equivalent in Marseille, the Confluence Museum isn’t quite all it’s cracked up to be.  It’s been designed well, and has an impressive sheen, but it falls short of delivering its potential.  I mean, this could be an amazing place – they have the space and they obviously have the artefacts.  The problem, for me, was the fact that they have taken a very modern approach of ‘thematic’ curation and it simply isn’t very satisfying.

Let me explain my problem.  Now, if you are talking about one specific subject – like Death, in the ‘Eternities’ gallery – and want to explore what this means to cultures from around the world and through the ages, you can create something which is quite interesting, because the subject is easy to unify.  The ancient Peruvian rituals of burial contrasted against those of the ancient Egyptians shows the similarity of different civilizations’ attitudes to the afterlife.  Fine.

If, however, you look at ‘Societies’, you have a theme which is so broad, and so diverse, that it becomes unfocussed and meaningless.  It feels rather like they had a selection of objects they wanted to show off and came up with a title that could broadly fit them.  Frankly, a display of stones and minerals doesn’t really link up with three stunning Japanese statues of monks except in the broadest of broad terms.  The museum is excited by these juxtapositions and feels that it invites dialogue.  Well, they should have heard my language when I was going round.

Actually, to be fair, the problem was more that I was hit with the feeling of being somehow short-changed once I’d finished looking round.  As you go through all the slick, well-lit, well-designed galleries, you go with the aesthetically-pleasing flow.  Afterwards you think… “What did those Noh masks have to do with stuffed animals?”

Oh well.

Because I may not be being fair to the museum, I’ve cut-and-pasted the summaries of what the galleries are about from their own website.

Origins – Stories of the World

All of us on the planet share the same questions on the origin of the world and our place in it. Numerous narratives from Inuit, Aboriginal and Chinese cultures and the indianised civilizations of Asia deliver interpretations of the beginning of the Universe, life and humanity. Alongside this science does not cease to take an interest. The exhibition invites us to go back in time to the Big Bang along a trail that suggests two approaches to explaining the world: one illustrated by natural science and scientific and technical collections and the other illustrated by ethnographical and modern collections.

This quote does something to explain what they think this first gallery is about.  I would say that it’s about dinosaurs, fossils, Asian deities, time and trying to see outside our world.

The dinosaurs are extremely impressive.  There isn’t really that much on show, but the way that it’s been designed and lit makes it seem a lot more exciting than it is.  Children seemed to enjoy this section, and I must say I did too.

A little randomly, after talking about meteors and things, there was a display of Chinese gods.  They date from the late 19th century and are beautiful.

Astronomy and our movement in the heavens is looked at through a variety of interesting objects, including calendars which take a different form than the one we use in Europe.  It built on an exhibition in Basel which had looked at this same subject.

Finally, some gorgeous Hindu sculptures were on display – largely on loan from the Musée Guimet in Paris.  They were lit sublimely.


Species – the Web of life

The join between what has been called humanity and animality is a universal preoccupation. The exhibition questions the way in which human beings see the world, are integrated in it and contribute to modifying it. Living beings, human and non-human, weave into the world a network of varied links, a mesh in which everything holds together and corresponds. The trail is naturally structured by this mesh, made up of 27 kilometres of strings. This scenography, all in metaphors, thus makes tangible the asymmetric links that unite the different species of the living world.

The stuffed animals in this gallery seemed to interest children, and the gorgeous displays of butterflies certainly made for a very striking display.  As a theme it was a tad… loose.

Societies – Human theatre

A human being is a migrant who is able to come together with others, stops for a time and forms societies, cultures and civilisations. The exhibition questions these ways of functioning on the basis of three constants, namely organisation, exchange and creation. The scenography creates a novel landscape that arouses curiosity by juxtaposing and dialogue with exhibits stemming from remote cultures and periods.

Again this was a visually very striking gallery, littered with machines, tribal objects and a few examples of extremely fine sculpture.  The technology was interesting – particularly the particle accelerator, which looked like it had come out of a Tintin book.

The display of stones and minerals was beautifully lit and displayed, allowing the natural glitter and sparkle of many of the pieces to dazzle you.  It was a good reminder of how extraordinary nature is at producing glorious objects – and how important it is for such displays to be lit properly to really appreciate the wonder of it all.

A random selection of objects from Asia and Australasia had some interesting objects, like the Samoan barkcloth and the pectoral ornament from Papua New Guinea – that has what looks like a European movie star pasted onto it.

One of the highlights of the museum for me were these three remarkable 16th century Japanese sculptures.  They were beautiful.  The workmanship was genuinely incredible, with the faces showing such serenity in contemplation that you are kind of inspired to contemplate with them.

Eternities – Visions of the beyond

What is the place of death in this day and age when its limits are constantly being pushed back? Unlike other living beings the human being questions himself about the afterlife. Funeral rites express in part the desire to go beyond that inconceivable end. They render acceptable the separation of the living and the dead and afford a different perspective on disappearance. Ceremony, gestures, words, by appeasing and attributing a new place to everyone, contribute to re-establishing a shattered social order.

For me this was the most coherent gallery, showing various artefacts related to death rituals and burial practises around the world.  It also had two of my favourite items – the little Peruvian pot, very nicely positioned in the case so that it looks like it it’s thoughtfully contemplating its neighbour, and the golden mummy mask with the charming cartoon-like smile.

So In Summary

Though I found many of the objects on show to be very beautiful or highly interesting, it was frustrating that the set-up came across as unexpectedly shallow: striking juxtapositions may be intriguing but they don’t necessarily throw up any thoughtful or illuminating connections.   Making links between science and anthropology and ethnography is a fantastic idea – the fields are clearly closely related and it could have made for an exciting experience to explore the world in this way.

As it was, the museum was a pleasant enough place to wander round.  I just think they could make more of this amazingly huge building – be aware, there is a lot of empty space and exploring the collections doesn’t take as long as it you might think it would.  

However, I’ve seen from other people’s reviews that it’s generally loved and adored, so clearly it’s just me.

I’d be very interested to know if anyone agrees with me on this.

Further Information

The museum has a website with information in English – but not the full website:

One other little curiosity: the museum is, in some ways, aimed at children.  The first big display is of dinosaurs – which is awesome and clearly a child-pleaser, with plenty of objects you were allowed to touch.  But on the whole the mood is quite adult.

The museum hosts many exhibitions during the year – when I went, there was one on the Spirits of Japan, which you can find out more about here:

How To Get There

There is a tram stop just outside the museum, which makes it handy to reach from around the city.  Helpfully, the transport website is available in English:


No Comments

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: