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A dummy postman with bike
Musée de la Poste
By Paul Nolan

France's post office is often held up to illustrate what's best and worst about state ownership. But La Posteis about much more than banking and delivering letters. It is also an important patron of the arts.

The postal museum in Paris's Montparnasse district was inaugurated shortly after World War II. It has become not only a museum of the history of the county's postal services but also a major cultural institution offering world-class exhibitions.

"Ask a curator" will be taking place on 1 September in Paris and across the world.

The museum has also been at the forefront of new technologies. It uses social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare to raise its profile and publicise its collections.

It was a posting on microblogging site twitter about its participation in an initiative called "ask a curator" that tweaked my curiosity.

"Ask a curator" is a purely web-based initiative that aims to provide a direct link between the gallery-goer and the curator in an event scheduled to take place on the 1 September.

The brainchild of Newcastle-based Jim Richardson, it involves hundreds of galleries and museums around the world. London's Tate Gallery, the Guggenheim in New York and Sydney's Powerhouse museum are involved.

The only Parisian gallery to be taking part is the French postal museum.

Curious, I went along to visit the collection and was given a personal guided tour by Patrick Moreau, a curator at the museum.

He told me about the history of the collection including the Penny Black, the first stamp in mass production, the boots that inspired French fairy-tale author Charles Perrault to pen Puss in Boots and a most fascinating device called the "phonopostal".

A phonopost machine from the museum's collection
A phonopost machine from the museum's collection
Musée de la Poste

The L'Adresse La Poste museum is at 34 boulevard de Vaugirard, Paris

The strange hand-held gramophone enabled people to record sound by an engraving process onto small cards that could be sent in the post. Even though the experimental device did not take off, it was testament to the French creative and innovative spirit.

And, if it wasn't for the postal museum, it could easily have been forgotten.

The permanent collection also probes the way that we communicate and includes a model of a pretelegraph system that enabled the French to relay messages between Paris and Calais in just over an hour. It involved a series of man-operated towers built on raised land and spaced out every 10 kilometres. Using a series of pulleys and telescopic lenses, signals could be sent from tower to tower.

The collection also includes some war-time Morse code devices.

Strategic development advisor at the museum Laurent Albaret said the postal service's use of new technologies and social networking sites such as Twitter was part of this age-old tradition of looking at new and more efficient ways of communicating.

He said that he hoped that such tools and the initiative 'ask a curator' would enable the museum to reach out to the French public and increase awareness of their collections.

An exhibition on poet, novelist and intellectual Louis Aragon which runs until 19 September was indicative of the museum's agenda, said the show's curator Josette Rasle.

The exhibition charted the life of the seminal figure in 20th century French cultural life who was one of the founders of the surrealist movement (though he ended his days as a realist). His entourage included poets, writers and artists and the exhibition has works by the likes of Picasso, Miro and Braque and some fabulous drawings by Matisse.

But how successful can an initiative such as "ask a curator" be? Although social networks such as Facebook have been adopted by the vast majority of French people, Twitter has been slower to take off.

But an initiative that is location independent and increases access to collections can nevertheless help to increase cultural awareness.

The French art scene is often viewed as an elitist institution and "ask a curator" could be seen as a way to break down barriers.


Source: Paris postal museum takes to Twitter http://bit.ly/a4pK8B


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