Thursday, May 15, 2014

Night at the museum

La Rochelle's Lantern Tower
International Museum Day is on Sunday. One of the great things about Museum Day, especially in Europe, is the European Night of Museums. There’s more about it below. So if museums are your thing and you’re in Europe this weekend, check out a museum or two. The French site has a database of all the institutions that are participating this year, from 30-plus countries.
A version of this is in this month’s issue of National Geographic Traveller India.
On a cold and wet spring evening in La Rochelle, a town on France’s Atlantic coast, I set out for a night at the museums. I was not daft to head out on a museum crawl in such disagreeable weather, but I just couldn’t resist the spirit of La Nuit Européenne des Musées (European Night of Museums). It would have been hard to ignore the event for I’d heard about it from friends and also seen an announcement in La Rochelle’s city guide.
Held on the Saturday closest to International Museum Day (May 18), it is a one-night-only event when museums and heritage sites stay open until around 1 a.m. In addition, the entry fee to many institutions is discounted, if not waived altogether. Meant to encourage people, especially youngsters, to visit museums and other cultural sites, the Night of Museums also includes an array of concerts, themed guided tours, installations and other special events at participating institutions.
Created by France’s Ministry of Culture in 2005, the European Night of Museums is now a continent-wide celebration with institutions from Spain, Italy, Belgium, Romania, Moldova, the UK and other countries taking part. In the UK though it’s called Museums at Night and is spread over several days.
Graffiti on the walls of the Lantern Tower
On that evening in La Rochelle, it seemed as if half the town was participating in the event. As I discovered, queues at the more popular museums and monuments can be long. So at the Lantern Tower, once a lighthouse, watchtower and prison, it took me about half an hour to get in. The wait, though, was worth it, particularly for the centuries-old graffiti etched onto the tower’s walls by the Dutch, English and French prisoners who have passed through its dungeons.
At my last stop for the night, the La Rochelle Museum of Protestant History letters, documents and engravings offered me a fascinating glimpse of the town’s past as a 16th Century Protestant stronghold in Catholic France. And as I explored the museum’s collection, it struck me that Night of Museums is the perfect time to explore the smaller institutions, which are usually less crowded but equally captivating.
This year’s Night of Museums is on 17 May ( The U.K.’s Museums at Night is from 15-17 May ( 

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