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Painting of les blanchisseuses from the Musee Petiet in Limoux France

Les Blanchisseuses, Musée Petiet, Limoux France

About 30 minutes outside of Carcassonne, the well-preserved medieval town of Limoux may be best known for it’s sparkling wine and three-month long carnival celebration. But in the heart of the town at the small, local musuem, I re-discovered my sense of wonder and awe.

Museums, think Louvre or Musée d’Orsay, can be overwhelming. Stop in one room, walls covered with paintings and you feel almost assaulted by the beauty. Without a plan or deep knowledge of art, the colors begin to just swirl around uncomprehendingly and you make a beeline for the door to try another time.

The Musée Petiet in Limoux gives you an opposite experience. It’s small and specializes in local, (unkown at least to me) artists. There are no crowds nor are the walls loaded with pictures. But since I didn’t know too much about any of these artists or time periods, i found myself walking quickly through the rooms. Until…

…I saw the painting pictured above. I walked over to look a bit closer at the painting and noticed a few colorful notebooks piled up on the table that was pushed up against the wall underneath the canvas.

I picked up a notebook and began to read the handwritten French. It was a story. A story about the girl who is whispering in one of the other girls ears. The writer identified the girl as his great grandmother. And he began to tell her story. She didn’t get to go to school but had started work when she was 11. She had to work hard to help her family because her father had died in the war.

I picked up the next story, then the next. They all told a story of one of the girls in the painting, some happy, some sad, some so very normal. As i read the stories, I started to look closer at that painting. Each time it changed just slightly as the women in it came alive through the stories in the notebooks.

An hour later, i returned to the front desk and asked about the stories. The young woman at the desk explained that they had all been written by the 10-and 11-year olds at the local school. They had come to visit the museum and the teacher had asked them to think about the painting, to look closely at the women and to imagine what their lives might have been like. Then write about their lives.  They all succeeded fabulously.

I would have liked to visit that school and thanked the students and the teacher. Never again, will i skim through a museum on auto-pilot. Those 10-and 11-year old students gave me back my sense of wonder and curiosity. Merci.  ~DF