Monday, March 16, 2009

Review: The Museum Vaults: Excerpts from the Journal of an Expert

The Museum Vaults: Excerpts from the Journal of an Expert, by Marc-Antoine Mathieu, 2008, NBM, 62 pages, $14.95

Whenever I visit a museum, I get distressed by my inability to see everything on display. I simply do not have the time and energy to take it all in. Do I spend time in each room, reading about every piece of art on the wall, or do I race from room to room to try to see as much as possible? By the end of my day at the museum, I'm typically exhausted and ready to head home, and have only seen a fraction of the museum.

But what if I had nothing else to do for the rest of my life but explore the museum? Would that feeling of being overwhelmed ever dissipate? Could I catalog and internalize it all?

Marc-Antoine Mathieu's excellent The Museum Vaults is part of a comic book collection co-published in France by Futuropolis and the Louvre museum. The other books in the series are Nicolas De Crécy's Glacial Period, Éric Liberge's Odd Hours, and Bernard Yslaire and Jean-Claude Carrière's The Sky Over the Louvre. NBM has published Glacial Period and The Museum Vaults in English; hopefully the others are coming soon. The collection was produced as part of the Louvre's exhibition on comic books that will run until April 13, 2009. (Thanks to Heidi MacDonald at The Beat for the link.)

The story concerns Monsieur Volumer, an expert tasked with evaluating and indexing the collections of a museum so ancient that the original name has been forgotten. Volumer, accompanied by his assistant Leonard, soon learns that the subbasement area housing the collections is enormous almost beyond comprehension. As his days underground become months and then years, Volumer visits room after room filled with the odds and ends of the museum, always learning, searching, and cataloging.

Each chapter opens with a splash page and a caption stating the name of the particular location and how long Volumer has been underground ("Day Thirty-Three: Technical Galleries"; "Day Forty-Six: The Flooded Gallery"; and so on). A helpful staff member typically appears to guide Volumer through the gallery and explain what makes that room unique and important. In the scene excerpted below, Volumer (in the hat) examines "The Repository for Molds," located in the eighth subbasement, on Day Two Hundred Twelve of his journey:

(click to enlarge)

This is one spooky museum, if you ask me. Thank goodness each area contains a member of the staff to show Volumer around. Because of the style of the art and the oppressive, dark setting, I almost wondered if Hellboy was going to pop up. But we never meet an antagonist, never encounter any dangerous beasties -- this place is just huge, like an ancient wonder of the world, something beyond the ken of modern men and women. That in and of itself is kind of terrifying.

The art does a terrific job of conveying the scope, as well -- some of these underground chambers are stories tall. Here is one of my favorites:

(click to enlarge)

Volumer learns that the eye "constitutes but one part of an ensemble the size of which we cannot fathom. The fragments stored in the storage areas 11 and 12 correspond to a hand. Storage 9 contains fragments of a shoulder, and so on."


Beyond the exploration of this fantastic world, the book clearly has something to say about the nature of museums. Many of the galleries that Volumer visits involve the theme of the importance of original art: in the restoration workshop, the staff acts like surgeons, delicately touching up a painting; the staff member in the department of copies discusses the once prized practice of copying and laments the debasement of the genre. Mathieu is raising the question of why museums exist. Why is it important to see original art? Why not just view a copy? Why collect pieces of art and put them on display for the public? It's an interesting undercurrent of the book.

I thoroughly enjoyed getting lost in this book. Track this one down.

Here is a preview. You can buy it from NBM here or from Amazon here: Museum Vaults: Excerpts from the Journal of an Expert

[edited to add:]

I just found this interesting interview with Mathieu. It mentions his sense of humor, which I neglected to discuss in my review -- I should have mentioned that there are parts of this book that are funny and playful, in the midst of all the oppressive weighty stuff.


  1. I think my library has this one; I need to check it out and give it a read.

  2. That's where I found it. Libraries rock.

  3. This one looks really cool....