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Musée des Confluences in Lyons pays tribute to city’s great collector Émile Guimet

Guimet's collection will be displayed in a new museum, which has 2.2 million objects and space for temporary shows

A spectacular new museum due to open on 20 December in Lyons pays tribute to the Lyonnais businessman, collector and museum founder Émile Guimet (1836-1918). The Guimet family’s fortune was made in chemistry and “le bleu Guimet” (artificial ultramarine), but as well as running the business, Guimet was an inveterate traveller.

His particular interest was the religions of the Far East, and he amassed a huge collection of art from Japan and China, as well as material from Egypt, Greece and Rome. He put his art on display in a Musée des Religions he founded in Lyons in 1879—one of the few private museums to be established in France. But despite his displaying the works with public-friendly lighting, information and context, he was disappointed in the lack of interest and he soon moved the collection to Paris, founding the Musée Guimet, which now belongs to the French state.

With the vicissitudes of history, some of Guimet’s holdings were returned to Lyons and linked with other collections into a Musée Guimet and a Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle: these have all now been transferred into a new glass and steel building called the Musée des Confluences. It stands where the Rhône and the Saone converge, and has been designed by the Vienna-based architects Coop-Himmelb(l)au.

The museum, through the various sources of its collections, has 2.2 million objects ranging from palaeontology, mineralogy and zoology to entomology, ethnology, Egyptology and prehistory. The permanent display is divided into four sections: the earth, life, social sciences and science and technology. Five exhibition spaces will be used for temporary shows, including “The Treasures of Guimet” (until July 2015), featuring some of the major items Émile Guimet collected, lent by institutions including the Musée Guimet and the Louvre.

The Lyonnais have been grumbling for years about the cost of the project, launched in 2000, which rose to around €239m. But Hélène Lafont-Couturier, the museum’s director, says: “My dearest wish is that when it opens the public will have a completely different reaction and fall in love with it.”