A unique place
The office of Marie Curie is an original place which attracts many visitors from around the world: it is the historical heart of the Musée Curie. This room, plain but functional, is the last remnant of a unique laboratory. The furniture and the collections displayed in this space are living memories from the Radium Institute of Paris. They invite the public to envision a rare, little known aspect of the great scientist’s life, away from the experiments that shaped the history of radioactivity.
Marie Curie (1867-1934) was born in Varsow 150 years ago. She became professor in 1908 and as such, she got the chair of physics at the University of Paris, succeeding to her husband Pierre Curie (1859-1906). Besides being a scientist already rewarded with 2 Nobel prizes, she was also the first director of a research laboratory at the Radium Institute of Paris, an institution built jointly by the University and the Institut Pasteur for studying radioactive rays and their applications.
The making of a place
“Dear Madam, I hereby send you the laboratory project you’ve been asking from me. […] It is composed of 2 buildings taking 500 square meters of space, with a courtyard between them. […] My opinion is that the creation of a radioactivity laboratory would be very useful and would find a great purpose.” Letter from Marie Curie to the Comtesse Greffulhe, patroness. February 11th, 1908.
The Radium Institute of Paris (1923) by Le JournalMusée Curie
The Radium Institute consisted of two laboratories. One was dedicated to the research on radioactive rays under the supervision of the University, while the other concentrated on biological and medical studies under the tutelage of the Institut Pasteur.
Henri-Paul Nénot (1853-1934), the architect of the well-known Sorbonne, oversaw the project. The buildings were classical in shapes, but the laboratories were modern and well fitted. Marie Curie settled in the Curie Pavilion in 1915.
Inside the laboratory, the director Marie Curie was provided with a personal area separated from the other rooms: a private entry, an office, personal physics and chemistry labs and a leisure room... The office of Marie Curie is the only genuine room that was preserved, along with her chemistry lab that was rebuilt after decontamination in 1981.
The original and preserved furniture made from oak was functional and the accommodations corresponded to the French academic standards of the time.
The whole construction was planned beforehand by the architect and the craftsmen who furnished the Universities.
Marie Curie's office (circa 1934) by Source : Musée Curie (coll. Institut du radium)Musée Curie
“Marie, to read her papers, gets to a very bright but plain, narrow room that a layman would hardly associate with the office of a famous scientist. An oak wood executive desk, a filing cabinet, bookshelves, an old typewriter, an armchair like a hundred others all convey a sense of anonymous decency. (…)”
“(…) On the worktop, a marble inkwell, piles of booklets, a cup filled with fountain pens, a “piece of art” offered by some students’ group…”
Description of the office by Eve Curie, in the biography of her mother: Madame Curie
The desk was adorned with trinkets, gifts and memories of her life which have been preserved by the musée Curie until today.
Despite her two Nobel prizes and her international fame, the office of Marie Curie remained sober in style, stripped down without any moldings or paneling.
The windows were high and bathed the room in sunlight. A table lamp lit the worktop, bringing the backup light precious to Marie Curie whose vision was struck with cataract in the early 1920s.
A french window led directly to the balcony overlooking the garden, this green area that was dear to her.
'If I purchased “my” plane and basswood trees right away, I could save two years. As soon as we open the laboratory, the trees will be grown, the flowerbeds will blossom. But l did not tell anything to Mr. Nénot!'
Words of Marie Curie as told by Eve Curie.
Marie Curie on her laboratory terrace (1923) by Source : Musée Curie (coll. ACJC).Musée Curie
The whole setting gave Marie Curie the comfort she needed to see her experiments through.
'This unique place of work and meditation, isolated from the rest of the world, in which she gathered and welcomed everyone she regarded as fellow workers whatever their field – be it advanced research, internship, or technical labor.'
As told by Marcel Guillot, chemist at the laboratory from 1927.
A working place
From her desk, the scientist and director wrote reports and her extensive correspondence. Marie Curie assembled many papers and manages the scientific and administrative activities of the laboratory. She was helped in her task by her secretary Léonie Razet (1884-1950), in order to deal with this heavy workload.
Overhead costs of the Curie laboratory (1924) by Marie CurieMusée Curie
A great number of documents written and signed by the hand of Marie Curie let us catch a glimpse at the wide range of her activities…
Some works from the laboratory, like those from the radioactive measurements service , had to pass through her validation…
She managed her staff, whose numbers met a steady increase…
As a professor, she assessed her students’ works, wrote thesis reports and compiled demands for scholarships…
Most of her writing set and accessories have been preserved: wooden file box and pencil cases, a penholder, a silver inkwell…
The office in Marie Curie's time (1928) by Source : Musée Curie (coll. Institut du radium)Musée Curie
The modernity of the laboratory was partly conveyed by another working tool: the telecommunication and intercom system.
Marie Curie was provided with one of the six devices of the laboratory’s intercom network, allowing her to freely communicate with her colleagues.
Outside communications relied on the telephone located on the left-hand corner of the fireplace. At the time, technically, phone calls had to be forwarded by a mandatory switchboard operator. Hélène Bardinet filled this role at the Curie Laboratory, while monitoring the entries and organizing visits.
Along with Marie Curie’s secretary, she played a great part in the laboratory’s life.
The two women supported the scientist’s work and they were capital to the organization of her activities.
Marie Curie in her office (circa 1928) by Source : Musée Curie (coll. ACJC)Musée Curie
A living space
of Marie Curie was a working place, intimate and confidential. It was also a
place of privileged meetings and conversations. At the heart of the laboratory,
it illustrates the life stories and memories of the women and men who got to
know the great scientist.
After obtaining an appointment from Mrs. Razet, visitors were expected at the laboratory on Tuesdays and Fridays only: as she sat behind her executive desk, Marie Curie’s charisma often made a strong impression, yet in this plain environment.
At the foreground, the typewriter reminds us that Marie Curie used to work with her secretary in this place, and not necessarily alone. There, she would help her with her many letters.
Six wooden and leather chairs draw a picture of busy sessions in this office, with her coworkers or any other people asking for a private meeting…
She could receive members of the laboratory’s staff…
… Or outside personalities such as the American journalist Mary Mattingley Meloney (1878-1943) who helped her obtain a gram of Radium in her country.
Coworkers of the Curie Laboratory (1930) by Source : Musée Curie (coll. Institut du Radium)Musée Curie
Marie Curie saw a total number of 62 coworkers in her laboratory between 1914 and 1932. They would make the Curie Pavilion a lively place and would keep great memories of it, under the supervision of the one they called “the Boss”.
After Marie Curie
André Debierne (1874-1949), the chemist who discovered the actinium and worked closely with Marie Curie, succeeded to her at the head of the Institute after Marie passed away in 1934. Between 1946 and 1956, Irène Curie (1897-1956) took the directorship before her husband Fréderic Joliot (1900-1958), who only remained director for 2 years. He was the last occupant of Marie Curie’s office.
Irène Joliot-Curie at her desk (1947) by Source : Musée Curie (coll. ACJC)Musée Curie
Irène Joliot-Curie customized and occupied the office for 10 years, between 1946 et 1956. She made small adjustments to the furniture, while keeping some items displayed in the memory of her parents.
Some of these items, such as the cup that was offered to Marie Curie during her first trip to the USA, or a statuette offered by a students’ group in 1923, still occupy a great place in this site of Memory.
The office of Marie Curie was preserved after 1960, and lies at the heart of the permanent exhibition in the Musée Curie, in the historical building of the Radium Institute.
The items and the physical memories of this place still bring up the daily life of Marie Curie, the laboratory and the great scientists that succeeded to her. This historical room is opened to guided tours, allowing the public to impregnate themselves with the atmosphere preserved between these walls: an “office of figures”.
Arthur Theallier : Exposition curator
Under the supervision of :
Adrien Klapisz, collections curator
Renaud Huynh, Director of the Curie Museum and publication manager
Thanks to :
Natalie Pigeard, head of the historical resources
Anais Massiot, archivist
Xavier Reverdy-Theveniaud, museography task officer
Camilla Maiani, museum studies intern