Up until the end of the nineteenth century, the City of Paris did not own any museums: since 1797, the major part of national collections were presented to the public in the Museum, today the Louvre Museum. Another part of the collections was given to the art museums of large provincial cities.
Under the Second Empire, the era in which Haussmann was overturning the old Paris, the parisian administration conceived of the project of a museum consecrated to the history of the city. Thus was born the Carnavalet Museum. Inaugurated in 1880, it is the capital’s oldest municipal museum. Since then, the sculptures, canvases and murals have spread into the Hôtel de Ville and various municipal institutions, including churches. In order to support artistic creation, the City would also buy paintings, sculptures, prints, decorative works, and other art objects in Salons. These works, kept in storage, were inaccessible to the public.
The World Fair of 1900 was an opportunity to present one part of these collections in the building of the Petit Palais, built for the occasion. After the exposition, the city decided to transform the edifice into a permanent museum, the “Palais des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris.” Thanks to a donation from the Dutuit brothers in 1902, the museum extended its collections to include ancient art. Later, Tuck in 1930, Zoubaloff in 1935, and Maurice Girardin in 1953 - contemporary art collectors - also enriched its collections.
Already in 1896, Henri Cernuschi had gifted his collections of Japanese and Chinese art to the City of Paris, as well as his mansion, constructed to house them (7 avenue Vélasquez, Paris, 8th arrondissement). In the beginning of the twentieth century, the City thus possessed three museums: a historical museum (Carnavalet), an art museum (the Petit Palais) and a specialized museum (Cernuschi).
In 1901, the City received from Paul Meurice, close friend of Victor Hugo, a house on the Place des Vosges in which the poet lived for a long time. Along with this donation soon came the touching heritage constituted by the house where Hugo had spent his years of exile, in Guernesey; his heirs offered it to the City in 1927.
In 1929, the City received from Ernest Cognacq his collection of artworks from the seventeenth century, housed in the very store of la Samaritaine, boulevard des Capucines. Two new categories of museums thus appeared: the collection-museum (Cognacq-Jay) and the house-museum (Victor Hugo).
For a long time, the City wanted to divide the collections of the Petit Palais to create a museum of modern art, dedicated to the artistic movements of the twentieth century. The state engaged the same idea for the Musée de Luxembourg. This idea gave birth to the joint project of the Palais de Tokyo, built in 1937. The state installed in it the National Museum of Modern Art in 1947 (before transferring it to the Centre Pompidou in 1977), while the City of Paris formed the Museum of Modern Art there in 1961.
In the same period, the costume collections of the Carnavalet Museum were removed to form a distinct collection, assembled after 1985 at the Galliera palace, a gift of the Duchess Glliera, where the City previously had a temporary museum of decorative arts.
The acquisition of the Balzac House in 1949 and the Museum of the Romantic Life (Musée de la Vie Romantique) by the Renan-Scheffer donation, was the fruit of an agreement with the state that augmented the number of house-museums in the City’s possession.
The Antoinette Sasse bequest created, with the Memorial of Maréchal Leclerc de Hauteclocque and of the Liberation of Paris, for the fifteenth anniversary of the Liberation, the Jean Moulin Museum.
Two great sculptors of the twentieth century gave to the City of Paris the important parts of their workshop funds: Bourdelle (1949) and Zadkine.
Today, each municipal museum continues to enrich its collections by buying works and objects on the market and by accepting new donations.