We went down to both to see what they offer visitors, and it turns out that the experiences are very different indeed. Check out our photos…
France is known around the world for our expertise in perfume making. Famous French brand Fragonard opened their museum a few years ago, offering free guided tours in eleven languages (book in advance).
Their venue is close to Opera, in a new space that they opened in 2015, and the story behind it – also the first part of the tour – is fascinating.
The building was originally a theatre that was later transformed into a basement bike racing venue (all the rage back in the day, apparently). It next became a Maple furniture store and remained so for 118 years! Only in 2014 did this close and the space was bought by Fragonard.
In the building’s basement, you’ll learn the history of perfume and the stages of its creation. The guides have lots of stories to tell, and while you’ll be kept close to them for most of the 30-minute visit, towards the end you’ll be able to wander a little and check out the exhibits, including lots of beautiful perfume bottles.
The guide explains how the stills and presses are used to isolate the various ingredients used for perfume, how the perfume is actually composed and how marketing and packaging become increasingly important over the years.
When this part of the tour is ending, and you are about to go up a few stairs to the next room, you might see other groups being taken around as well. The museum is cleverly set out so that several tours can be held at once, with two copies of key pieces so that groups don’t bump into each other.
We were sped round, narrowly missing a group from China, and whisked on to the next section all about perfume labels. This part was very beautiful and quite fascinating.
However, you’ll only be left a few minutes here before being moved on upstairs, past a large poster explaining the history of the company. The emphasis is now shifted firmly towards Fragonard, and you’ll soon find out why…
Here we all are then in the biggest Fragonard shop you have ever seen!
This is partly why the visit is free. Although there is no obligation to buy anything, the temptation is very much there. Every kind of perfumed product is available. As long as Fragonard makes it.
A very clever ploy indeed! It is nonetheless a very interesting visit, and you can’t really complain for zero euros.
To check out all our photos of the Musée Fragonard, simply click here.
The Grand Musée du Parfum not too far away has a different approach, mixing perfume and modern art, and is not run by a perfume brand.
In a freshly-renovated building on rue Faubourg Saint-Honoré, not far from the Champs Elysées and opened in December 2016, the visit starts in the basement with lighting so low that we witnessed certain visitors using their phones as flashlights in order to read the texts.
The first room has images of famous couples through the ages with supposed links to perfume, and an animated floor that is supposed to show real-time interaction with the museum’s social media accounts.
The images change slightly when you move form side to side, which is at least initially amusing, but some parts of the illuminated texts are difficult to read. As for the floor, it’s more of a gimmick than anything else.
In addition to the low lighting, the lack of space in these first rooms makes viewing difficult. People pass in front of you incessantly and some animated screens for kids are at adult height – a strange decision.
It’s a shame, as the way everything is set out is quite innovative…
The next part of the visit is a corridor with a little more room, several displays that are easier to see and a couple of large animated screens telling the story of perfume in France.
For example, we learned that there is a place called the Osmothèque in Versailles which preserves perfumes and their recipes so that they are not lost, even once they are no longer sold.
It’s now time to go up two floors (from the basement to the first floor) for the next part of the visit. Nice staircase!
Mixing educational presentations with a modern art approach is a tricky approach, and we didn’t feel it always worked.
There’s a big machine supposed to let you smell pheremones and then click on a touchscreen to say whether you could smell them or not (we couldn’t), a bouquet of roses that didn’t smell of anything either, three perfume bottles with no smell… and a roll of information comparing the smelling capacities of humans and animals that had already shifted to one side and was rubbing on its frame.
The next room is spectacular, but there’s no real explanation for the giant ‘flowers’ in it. The seem to light up randomly, with images inside them, but why? Are they supposed to smell too?
Here, it’s written on the floor that visitors are not to stand on the display, but the sign is already broken, and no-one appears to notice is. We saw a lot of people leaving dirty foot marks on the white floor as they bumbled between through the exhibit.
The next room is a little better and fun, with coloured alcoves with different odours to experience, and an interactive installation that shows just authentic synthesised fragrances can be. There’s also a love seat with screens for another smell test.
Up on the next floor, some surprises await – both good and bad.
An installation in the shape of a stylised flower is supposed to give you different takes on rose perfume, as conceived by different designers, but parts of it are already broken.
Another installation fills the room and holds little globes that you are supposed to smell and then put to your ear so they can tell you what you just smelled. It’s an odd concept, and the idea of putting something to your ear after it has been in someone’s nose is a little bizarre.
More importantly, half of the orbs are already missing. Have they been stolen already? Very odd…
The other rooms on this floor are filled with TV screens showing reports on various people from the world of perfume making (why not?), and a small darkened room has an installation like something out of an 80s Jean-Michel Jarre concert, with lasers playing ‘notes’ that are projected onto a perfume bottle. Frankly strange.
As the third floor is reserved for ‘events’, that’s the end of the visit! Or almost.
Once back on the ground floor, you’ll emerge in the gift shop. This is a wonderful space, much bigger than many of the exhibition rooms, and every object imaginable linked to perfumes is available here, from books to scented candles and games…
And of course perfumes! Loads of them.
There are selections made by creative people from other disciplines (like chocolate-maker Patrick Roger), and some perfumes have notes saying who actually created them (for exmaple, you might be surprised to learn that Francis Kurkdjian made Le Mâle for Jean-Paul Gaultier and Givaudan does work for Tom Ford).
It’s a great presentation, and perhaps our favourite part of the visit! We spent a while looking round and smelling everything, but managed not to spend any money…
The Grand Musée du Parfum is perhaps a victim of its success (and youth) for the moment. We felt that the lighting needed a bot of a tweak, and were saddened to see so many installations already broken after just a week. We’ll see how the place ages.
Meanwhile, the Musée Fragonard may be less ‘hip’ with a visit that leaves you in their giant store, but at least it’s free. Try both and see which you prefer!
To check out all our photos of the Grand Musée du Parfum, simply click here.
Le Musée Fragonard (here) is open every day except Sundays from 9am-6pm
Entrance and guided visits are free!
Le Grand Musée du Parfum (here) is open every day except Mondays from 10.30am-7pm (10pm Fridays), but also open Mondays during Paris school holidays and all public holidays, including those that fall on a Monday
Admission: 14.50€ / 9,50€ (list of rates here)