You stumble into a room, by chance, and before your eyes appears a wondrous display. As you get closer, amazing events start to unfold. You savour the sounds, words, images, and when they seem wind down you think the curtain is about to fall. But no, the scene just shifts, and new marvels materialise. And all this happens not once, but several times over, each unlike the others.

Fragment of an engraving by John James Audubon

This is how I felt last night when I discovered this site (thanks to soc.motss’s Corry W.). It belongs to the Musée de la civilisation in Québec. It’s bilingual. And it’s astonishing.

(Notes: You need Macromedia Flash to view the site. Without Flash, you’ll still be able to look at John James Audubon’s 435 magnificent engravings. The image on the right is a very small portion taken from one of them, © Musée de la civilisation. I use it in the same sense and spirit in which I would quote from a text.)

If you live within regional public transport distance of Paris you can visit the Louvre the way you would explore a town or, if that is more to your liking, a shopping neighbourhood: just agree on a meeting place and time and decide on the spot what to do.

This is a great privilege. Feeling down? Go to the Louvre. Seeking inspiration? Go to the Louvre. It’s a rainy Sunday afternoon and your summer holidays have just begun? Go to the Louvre. It is adviseable to go among friends if you have compatible museum-visiting styles, for otherwise you will always want to drop by the departments you visited before, all too aware of how much you have missed.

This, then, is what a friend and I did yesterday. We were heading vaguely towards French 19th-century sculpture, which I am not particularly interested in but my friend had not seen yet. But before getting anywhere close, we drifted into the temporary Islamic Arts exhibition. And what a stroke of luck this turned out to be. It was an outstanding, sublime, glorious experience. It blew my socks off. Not chiefly due to the presentation: we could have found a few points to criticise (e.g. the lighting, which produced a lot of glare on some of the glass-paneled cabinets, the lack of written notes elucidating the various periods and styles; the fact that it was the first Sunday of the month, when admission is free, didn’t help either). But we didn’t feel like quibbling.

I have always snubbed Decorative Art. But we all have to eat our words at one point or another. Those artists achieved a level of artistic expression I would not have imagined possible. I am talking about crockery and other household items, paneled surfaces, lamps … Starting from the 9th century, they were able to produce blown-glass vases and lamps of prodigious delicacy and craftsmanship. As for science, just look at this mid 12th-century engraved and silver-incrusted celestial sphere and tell me you are not speechless.

Owing to the crowd of people, I tired out quickly, and we stayed for only just over an hour. I’m definitely going back with my camera this week. The Louvre, thankfully, allows photography.

You can see a very small number of the exhibits through the Louvre link above (choose “Selected works”) or in this slideshow. The image file of the panel depicted there – the photo is very far from doing justice to the original – was subjected to a quick and dirty gimp job to create this site’s present background. Yes, it is a sacrilege and clashes with whatever design idea I may have had in mind. (Feel free to steal, change and use it, or leave a comment if you want me to send you the file.)

President Chirac demanded last December that the Louvre open a permanent Islamic Arts department, so we are going to get one in 2009. It might be the only time I say this, but he has my unqualified approval. The temporary exhibition runs until April 2005.