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Ultimate Combat – A Journey into Asian Martial Arts

I love museums. Anyone who is a regular reader of Story of a City is probably tired of hearing me say this, but I can’t help it. I love museums. I love standing in front of works of art and just taking in their beauty. And I love learning about the history and culture of other countries. All of this is to say that I could quite easily spend hours in a museum. That being said, my museum stamina was put to the test during a recent visit to the Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac. Their latest exhibition, Ultimate Combat: Asian Martial Arts, is probably one of the best exhibitions I’ve seen in Paris. It was also the most extensive. I can’t recommend it enough, but fair warning. You’ll need several hours to get through it all. Not that I’m complaining about that.

Ultimate Combat was one of the exhibitions I was most looking forward to this fall. I’ve heard the term “Martial Arts” countless times in the past. But upon reflection, I realized that I wasn’t exactly sure what was meant by that term. Meaning I was eager to learn more. Thankfully, Ultimate Combat did not disappoint. It traces the history of martial arts from their origins in India, straight through to today’s contemporary films. And no, it’s not just you. I had no idea that martial arts originated in India either. It then goes on to chronicle the evolution of the genre across centuries and countries, and it explains the history of martial arts across a wide range of mediums.

A photo of a display at Ultimate Combat. The display is of several statues depicting gods in the mythology of martial arts.

Needless to say, I quickly discovered that it was not just the origins of martial arts that I had no idea about. I had no idea that many action stars of martial arts films start out as dancers. I had no idea about the political history of the martial arts training schools in most countries. And I certainly knew shockingly little about Bruce Lee’s cultural and social importance and legacy. I really could go on and on about what this exhibition taught me. There were over 300 works on display, including dozens of screens that showcased the visual history of marital arts. And every time I thought we were getting to the end of the exhibition, I would turn a corner and another whole room of wonder was waiting for me. I know that sounds melodramatic, but the vast scope of this exhibition was truly astonishing.

So much so, that Ultimate Combat nearly bested me. I don’t often run out of steam in museums, but I very nearly did in my quest to take in everything this exhibition had to offer. My ticket included access to the rest of the museum’s permanent collections, but I never made it that far. There was just too much to see in Ultimate Combat alone. Thankfully, I found a fantastic solution. As soon as I (finally) exited the exhibition, I headed straight to the memberships desk and purchased an annual subscription to the entire museum. I now have a whole year to discover the permanent collections of the Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac.

I also have a feeling I’ll be paying a second visit to Ultimate Combat at some point before it closes in January. I’ve never visited an exhibition twice before, but I will happily make an exception for this one. There was just so much to see. So much, in fact, that I know I missed something important. But now that I have my annual pass, I don’t have to miss a thing.

Ultimate Combat: Asian Martial Arts is running at the Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac until January 16th, 2022.

Laura Moore is a professional storyteller who loves history and the many stories that make Paris one of the most fascinating cities in the world. Join one of her signature tours to learn the story of a city.


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