As light necessarily brings shadow, so it must follow that the city of light should also have its dark side. Behind the Paris illuminations, a small museum takes visitors to this côte obscure, guiding them through some of the more sombre chapters in the city’s history, with photos and recreations of executions, poisonings and massacres. If you have a strong stomach, let me take you on a guided tour!
The Musée de la Prefecture de Police is probably the most difficult museum to locate in the city. X marks the spot on the map, but following the instructions leads to a building that looks like it belongs in Stalinist USSR. From the outside you would be hard pressed to find a single clue that would signal that there is a museum inside, but fortunately when you are lost here you can always ask a Policeman.
A uniformed arm points towards a temporary staircase that sends you clanking through the scaffolding on the outside of the building and suddenly you find yourself alone inside a working Police station. A piece of paper on a notice board says ‘Musée 2eme étage’, but nothing or no-one is around to stop you from setting off and exploring the entire building. The corridors are dimly lit, and echo with the dull banging of hidden construction sites, whilst the staircases unnervingly feature the staring faces of the 167 policemen who were killed during the liberation of Paris. Scampering up the stairs, it is relief to see the mounted sign that announces the entrance to the museum.
A large notice points out that photography is not permitted, so you will have to make do with just my words on this visit. The museum is apparently 100 years old this year, but in reality it looks more like something that was put together in the 1960s or 70s. There is a selection of moth-bitten costumed models, exhibits described by fading typewritten notes and not a whiff of multimedia in sight. This though all adds to its charm!
Unless you are fascinated by uniform and medals you can probably skip the first part of the exhibition. At their origins in the 17th century the police were little more than groups of militia, nicely dressed but with few responsibilities (their mission was resumed in three words: “netteté, clarté, sûreté”), and necessarily little of interest concerned them in this period. The story warmed up during the French Revolution when groups of people spontaneously organised themselves into a makeshift police force, but there was still no official service until the 19th century when the “Sergents de ville” were created in 1829.
The first item of interest is a reconstruction of Giuseppe Fieschi’s “Machine infernale”, a kind of homemade machine gun with two dozen or so barrels that the Corsican used in an attempt on the life of the Roi Louis-Philippe on July 28th 1835. Louis-Philippe survived but 18 others were killed in the incident. Fieschi himself was severely wounded by his own machine, and was saved from death purely so that he could later be tried and executed!
Later in the 19th century comes a page in the history of the city that the museum quickly turns over. In many respects, the museum, run by the Police and largely about the Police, finds itself in a tricky position. How can an organisation that has been implicated in some of the greatest crimes during the period covered by this museum present itself in a fair-minded way? Many questions are simply swept under the dusty rugs, and that is certainly the case with the massacres that marked the ending of the 1871 Commune uprising. Indeed, the impression one gets is more of the police as victims, with a large painting showing the burning down of their headquarters earlier on in the uprising.
At the end of the 19th century, photography began to become an important aspect of police work and the museum gets more interesting! A photo-montage highlights the actions of a group of anarchists who terrorised the city in the 1890s, leading us into the most important room in the museum; crime and criminals in the 20th century. This long room hosts a series of glass cases organised by individual crimes. Often there is the original murder weapon with dubious stains and gruesome archive photos, and details on how the crime was solved. It’s a procession of ten inch spikes, serrated knives and crushed skulls!
The museum finishes with documents relating to the Second World War. Once more a very tricky subject for the Police, an organisation that was absorbed into the machine of the Nazi occupiers. A small display shows how members of the police force were responsible for the persecution of Jewish members of the community and for the rounding up of many of these people, but again here the focus is more on the policeman as victim. Larger cases and the photos that line the staircases highlight the individuals who fought for the resistance or who died during the liberation of the city, but how many of these had also been involved in the crimes against innocents beforehand?
Arriving at the end of the visit, this leaves a slightly bitter taste in the mouth. The police play a key role in the life of any city, but in the city’s darkest moments, the role of the police has not always been to bring back light. It’s a relief to leave the building and see the sun again, but since I have discovered the museum, morbid fascination urges me back from time to time to taste the dark side once more.