On Saturday Paris celebrated the “Nuit Européenne des Musées“, which meant that museums across the city were free and open to the public until midnight (or later). While not a conventional museum, UNESCO was also participating thanks to its impressive art collection, and I got to serve as a volunteer!
The other volunteers and I arrived around 7 p.m. for our final briefing and to receive our official name tags and scarfs, which were donated by one of the artists featured in UNESCO’s special exhibition, “Art for Peace”, which includes Chinese and Belgian artists. The scarfs had little red, white, and blue giraffes on them and made us all look like flight attendants, which I thought was pretty adorable.
As volunteers we were an eclectic mix of interns and long-time employees and it was nice to meet people from other sectors (such as Sciences and Youth and Sport) that I would never have met otherwise.
The Night of the Museums lasted from 8 p.m. to 12 a.m. (with some stranglers remaining until around 12:45 a.m.) and I spent almost all of that time stationed at the front door, greeting and handing out programs to our more than 600 visitors. I totally underestimated how tired I would be from all that standing, but it was so worth it!
Everyone seemed genuinely excited to see the inside of UNESCO – which normally is not open to the public, except by invitation (UNESCO does hold regular concerts and conferences). One American man, who was visiting with his young son, came in and said “So now we’ve technically left France, right?” And I said, “Yes, you’re on international territory !” And his son was like “Woah, I cannot beliiiieve that!” Another woman took her program and said, “Wow, what a great job you have!” It was so sweet and I have to admit, I agree! There is something special about interning at a UN organization – especially one which is largely dedicated to art, culture, and heritage – and last night gave me a chance to see all of this with fresh eyes.
Volunteering was also excellent opportunity to practice my French, while making friends with UNESCO’s team of burly security personnel. With the visitors I mainly stuck to “Bonsoir!” and “Bienvenue!” but a few wanted to know where the bathrooms were, or whether I had a version of the program in Arabic (the answer was “Non…”), or just wanted a general overview of how the event would work. I did my best to answer their questions and most people seemed very accepting of my American accent! A few visitors asked where I was from and welcomed me to France, and I only had one elderly lady roll her eyes at me, which is quite the accomplishment!
The security personnel were constantly coming over to check on me and I was quite pleased with myself for being able to carry on real conversations with them; for instance, I learned that one of them has inexplicably memorized all the state capitals in the United States – he recited most of them to me! I also made friends with a very attractive fireman named Thomas (so if I get fired for starting a small fire in my office this is the reason why :P).
Around 11:45 p.m. the volunteer coordinator demanded that I take a break, so I had a chance to walk around and take some photos! It was so nice to just stroll around the grounds of UNESCO in the moonlight, it was like seeing the building for the first time all over again.
Although UNESCO was founded in 1945 to “build peace in the minds of men and women”, the headquarters wasn’t constructed until 1958. It was designed by a team of three architects – Marcel Breuer (from Hungary), Pier Luigi Nervi (Italy), and Bernard Zehrfuss (France) – and includes the Y-shaped Secretariat building, a cube-shaped World Heritage Center, a Japanese garden, and an art collection which contains over 700 works, including sculptures, paintings, mosaics, and mobiles by artists such as Picasso, Calder, and Giacometti.
Some of this art was commissioned just for UNESCO, including the “The Fall of Icarus” by Pablo Picasso. This is the largest Picasso mural in the world but also one of the most controversial; Picasso angrily refused to sign it after he saw that a cement walkway obstructed the view of the piece. Moreover, although Picasso probably intended it as a scene of bathers on a beach, the art critic George Salles later recast it as “The Fall of Icarus”, perhaps finding the original subject-matter to be inappropriate for the setting.
Another one of UNESCO’s most famous pieces is Alberto Giacometti’s “Walking Man I”, which UNESCO acquired in 1970. Giacometti conceived the “Walking Man” as a symbol of the 20th century, with man surviving a “century of war” and walking “hopefully” towards the future (although his skinniness also “evokes the fragility of his fate”). It is apparently worth millions of dollars and a little alarm goes off if you get too close, so it’s definitely fragile!
Once all the visitors left, the volunteer coordinator brought out some sandwiches and champagne for all 30 of us to celebrate with, and afterwards I treated myself to a taxi ride home. 🙂 If I’m around next year I would love to volunteer again and actually help to explain the artwork to visitors (that’s what most of the other volunteers did last night). All in all, it was definitely a memorable night of art, flight attendant scarfs, and new friends!