Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Musée des Arts et Métiers

Established in 1794, the Musée des Arts et Métiers is France's national museum devoted to the arts and crafts in relation to scientific discovery and technological innovation. Housed in the former priory of Saint-Martin-des-Champs, the museum displays approximately 2500 of the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers' 80,000 objects and 15,000 drawings. It is a relatively small sampling, but still a nearly overwhelming display of everything from scientific instruments to architectural models to early automata to different types of transportation.

Speaking of transportation, the museum is perhaps as well known (if not better known) for its Metro station as for its collections. On the 200th anniversary of the Conservatoire in 1994, Belgian comics artist François Schuiten was commissioned to redesign the station into a Vernian fantasy. Particularly interested in architecture, Schuiten rose to fame with a series of bande dessinée called Les Cités obscures, examining the effects of architecture and civic design on society. In 1994 he was also asked to render a cover for the publication of Jules Verne's lost novel Paris in the Twentieth Century

Within each porthole is a model of some scientific instrument
dating from the Renaissance to the Space Age.
In the museum, one is not struck merely by the volume of technological apparatus, but also by the beauty of them. Certainly there are the pieces of clunking machinery where function prevails. However, far beyond their function, many of these instruments are works of art in their own right. 

Some early experiments with bi- and tri-cycles.

An early toy steam engine.

Being a museum of art and craft, it displays not only the machinery of industry but the products of it. The irony of certain begoggled people opining about the rugged, individualistic, hand-made virtues of the Victorian Era is that the Victorian Era was the beginning of the age of industrial mass production. Unprecedented in history, the mass production of beautiful goods lowered their price and made them obtainable for what was truly the greatest invention of the Victorian Era: the middle class. 

Recalling that technology is always changing and progressing, even the things of a decade ago may be considered museum pieces now. Still, it can be off-putting to see the things you remember from your own childhood under glass. 

For a North American like myself, one of the most potent (and sometimes discomforting) things about France is how steeped it is in the Western historical narrative. At home one may read of Cuvier's work in anatomy in a textbook. In Paris, one can see the anatomical collections gathered by Cuvier at the Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle. It is one thing to read about the Reign of Terror, it is another to stand in the Place de la Concorde where the guillotine was erected that severed the heads of King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and pioneering biologist and chemist Antoine Lavoisier. Speaking of Lavoisier, one can find his instruments at the Musée des Arts et Métiers. His most lasting contribution to science was the discovery and naming of oxygen, determining that water was not an element in itself but a combination of oxygen and hydrogen, helping debunk phlogiston theory, demonstrating the oxygen theory of combustion, demonstrating the law of conservation of mass (which is called "Lavoisier's Law" in France), and helping to establish the modern system of chemical nomenclature.  

Other historically important objects are in the collection of the Musée des Arts et Métiers as well, not merely as examples of a type but in themselves significant. One of those is the Avion III. Designed and constructed between 1892 and 1897 by Clément Ader, this bat-winged, steam-powered craft took its first attempted flight on October 14th, 1897. According to reports, it crashed without leaving the ground. Unimpressed, the military pulled funding on the project. Being suspended in the stairwell of the museum is the closest the Avion III has ever gotten to the sky.  

Before the construction of the main body of the modern museum, the collection was primarily housed in the chapel of the priory of Saint-Martin-des-Champs. The site originally housed a chapel first mentioned in texts in 710 CE. Shortly thereafter a group of monks founded a monastery adjacent to it. After being sacked by the Normans in the 900's, the complex was rebuilt. The church - which is the only extant structure - was completed in 1135. Time and the French Revolution took their toll. The priory was abolished in 1790 under the revolutionary government, who turned the facility into a prison. Shortly thereafter the monastic buildings were torn down, and in 1802 the chapel was turned into the Musée des Arts et Métiers. 

Once more the inescapable the weight of history in the French capital makes for an ambiguous experience. Here is almost a palpable sense of revolutionary attempts to persecute and destroy the Church, only to replace it with ideas of scientific and technological progress as the new religion. At one end, directly over where the altar would be, is Foucault's pendulum. At the other end is Bartholdi's model of the pagan deity he called the Statue of Liberty. Throughout the rest of the chapel are the larger vehicles in the collection. Blessedly, the Revolution could not destroy the Church, and the Musée des Arts et Métiers engaged in an extensive restoration project for the chapel.

Though the museum can be a tiring experience of countless devices and objects d'arte in endless cabinets (faithful readers perhaps noticed the paucity of photographs in this travelogue, a consequence of the museum being mostly display cases crammed with objects), attendance is still essential for those with an interest in engineering and industrial development. The Musée des Arts et Métiers preserves virtually every mad idea concocted by inventors, including some that worked.  

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Life Story (2015)

Unlike other geese who have the common decency to build their nests on flat ground near or floating atop the water that feeds and sustains them, the barnacle goose of Greenland lay their eggs high atop cliffs measuring hundreds of feet. Ostensibly this is to protect them from depredation by arctic foxes and polar bears, but it has the side-effect that the goslings are unable to eat. Since geese do not partake in the habit of feeding their young, the only solution is to get the goslings down to the arctic meadows below. At three days old, the goslings have not fledged out their flight feathers. The only way they have to make the perilous descent is by a strong jump, good form in stretching out their arms and legs, and hoping that they hit enough rocky outcrops in just the right way to survive their freefall.

This harrowing drama is the scene that kicks off the BBC's most recent nature documentary series, Life Story, released November 10 on Blu-Ray and DVD. BBC was kind enough to send us a review copy, and with good reason. The great tradition of Victorian Scientific Romances has been taken up just as much by the modern nature documentary as by video games and comic books set in the time period. In some ways, one could argue, nature documentaries have been even truer to the heart of that tradition. Jules Verne explored the possibilities and human ramifications of technology, certainly, but the vast bulk of his work was didactically exploring the natural and cultural world for an information-hungry public without the benefit of the BBC's Natural History Unit. Short of a century later, it was with great wisdom that Walt Disney, Charles Brackett, and Michael Todd filmed their respective adaptations of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Journey to the Center of the Earth, and Around the World in 80 Days on location in the shoals of the Bahamas, Carlsbad Caverns, and literally around the world, from the bullrings of Spain to the Great Buddha of Kamakura. They captured the essential essence that what makes a Scientific Romance is wonder at the world and the beings that live on it. Little wonder that, as he was filming 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Disney was also creating the modern nature documentary with his True-Life Adventures series.

The True-Life Adventures quickly discovered over their run in the Fifties that there seem to be only so many ways to craft the lives of animals into a compelling, cinematic narrative. Their most common trope was the seasonal round: following the lives of animals in one area for one year. The BBC took a similar approach in their groundbreaking series Planet Earth (which Disney in turn repackaged in feature film form as, simply, Earth under the Disneynature banner). Another way to shape the narrative is to follow the life of a specific animal or group. Life Story is instead shaped around the struggle of birth, adolescence, survival, dominance, mating, and parenting, with each episode devoted to one of these stages. A different group of animals is looked at in each episode to give the briefest, barest sample of life's stunning diversity and complexity.

The first episode, on birth and infancy, begins with the trials of barnacle goslings. The celebrated naturalist David Attenborough then navigates us through the young lives of humpback whales, orchid mantis, meerkats, lions cubs, jerboa, an fur seals in New Zealand. Through spectacular high-definition footage, Attenborough's compelling narration, and tense music supplied by composer Murray Gold of Doctor Who fame, Life Story twists and knots the viewer's affections for even the smallest of creatures living out the smallest of dramas - like an orchid mantis fleeing a jumping spider - but doesn't always satisfy with a happily-ever after. Nature just doesn't work that way, and it helps to heighten the drama. One can be assured that Disney's documentaries from 60 years ago are going to shy away from bloodshed. The BBC leaves the question hanging with every segment, because three minutes ago we saw one baby survive and five minutes before then we saw another die. Will the young humpback whale survive the migration to the antarctic? Will the adolescent albatross be able to sustain flight, so as not to fall into the gaping maw of waiting sharks?

Much of the footage captured by the BBC is not only dramatic, but enlightening and often heretofore unseen. The third episode, "Home," features footage of hermit crabs lining up in an orderly fashion from smallest to largest, so that as soon as the largest makes his move into a fresh shell, the rest can slip easily into a vacated shell the next size up. The same episode has a chimpanzee troop digging pits in a dried up riverbed to reach groundwater during the harshest part of the dry season in Senegal. A later episode captures a pack of wolves chasing bison in Canada, with the bison mother weaving from side to side to act as a furious, furry wall between them and her calf. For the first time, a troop of bonobos was filmed harvesting the roots of water lilies for nutrients. In one of the most astonishing segments, a Japanese pufferfish was filmed creating a beautiful "crop circle" in the sand to attract a mate. The circles were first discovered in 1995 and the identity of the circle-maker was not determined until 2011!

Some locations might be familiar to locals or the well-traveled. The segment on mountain goats in episode three was filmed in the area of Logan Pass in Glacier National Park, Montana. The vista of Hidden Lake was unmistakable. The sequence on pikas, the most adorable rodent of the alpine landscape, was clearly filmed somewhere in the Canadian Rocky Mountains (though my wife and I were debating where exactly). Nevertheless, like Planet Earth before it, the BBC does an excellent job of avoiding the tell-tale evidence of humanity wherever it can. The dramas it presents are timeless, though as Attenborough reminds us, the life story of each of these animals is as unique as our own.

A bookshelf that only has League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, BioShock Infinite, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and the collected works of Jules Verne, only has half of the genre of Scientific Romances. The more rounded collection should also take pains to have programs like Life Story there as well. Life Story is currently available on DVD and Blu-Ray.     

Sunday, 15 November 2015

La Marseillaise (1907)

In light of recent events, we felt it appropriate to post this 1907 film rendition of the French national anthem once again.

La Marseillaise from 1907 is an fantastic and charming example of early synchronized sound. Unlike those films from the 1920's which used sound-on-film processes, a separate gramophone record would be played alongside La Marseillaise to give the illusion that the revolutionary gentleman was singing.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

France holds a special place in our hearts, not just for the theme and content of this blog - which is largely a celebration of what Jules Verne and Georges Melies created - but also for us personally. Ashley and I were engaged in Paris. With Paris in our hearts, our hearts, thoughts, and prayers now go out to Paris.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Muséum national d'histoire naturelle

When most people think of the great museums of Paris, the list is always topped with the Louvre. Understandably so, as it contains some of the most famous paintings in the world, as well as extensive collections of Egyptian, Roman, and Mediaeval European antiquities. They might also think of the Musée d'Orsay, housed in a former train station on the Left Bank of the Seine and exhibiting the works of the great Impressionists. Or the very modern Centre Georges Pompidou with its Musée National d'Art Moderne. Or the Musée national du Moyen Âge, also known as the Musée de Cluny, dedicated to the Middle Ages. Or the scientific and technological collections of the Musée des Arts et Métiers.

Oddly left off most lists is the sprawling Muséum national d'histoire naturelle in the Jardin des Plantes. Off the beaten path, the Muséum national d'histoire naturelle is a gorgeous complex of museums, gardens, and a menagerie covering 28 hectares. Like the more famous Louvre, appreciating its breadth of collections requires a full day, at minimum, and could easily benefit from more days than one.

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck welcomes you to the
 Muséum national d'histoire naturelle

Known originally as the "Jardin du Roi", the gardens were founded in 1626 by King Louis XIII. In 1635, the king's physician Guy de La Brosse established a medicinal herb garden there. Then in 1640, the grounds were opened to the public for rest, contemplation, and education. A Labyrinth was added when the Comte de Buffon was appointed curator in 1739. In the furor of the French Revolution, the royal menagerie at Versailles was displaced to the Jardin des Plantes.

In 1793, the same year that the menagerie was moved to the site, the Muséum national d'histoire naturelle was created. Some of the greatest and most historic names in French science held chairs there, including Georges Cuvier, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Michel Eugène Chevreul, and Henri Becquerel. The entire site, comprising six institutions on the grounds (the Muséum national d'histoire naturelle includes several other museums and zoos across Paris and France), is itself an historic site as well as a place of education. This can make for unique challenges, as in the case of menagerie. As the second oldest civic zoo in the world, nearly all of its buildings are registered heritage resources, which is awkward when taking modern standards of animal care into consideration.

Le Rotonde, current home to Giant Tortoises.
An aviary.
Red Panda.
Asian Wild Horse.
The Galerie de paléontologie et d'anatomie comparée was built in 1898 as an extension of the 1900 Exposition Universelle, which also saw the construction of the stunning Grand Palais, Albert Robida's Le Vieux Paris, the innovative L'Aquarium de Paris, and Le Globe Celeste flanking the Eiffel Tower. A classical museum in the best sense, Galerie de paléontologie et d'anatomie comparée displays a seemingly endless legion of skeletons from modern and prehistoric animals. The first floor has everything from whales to bison to the Rhinoceros of Versailles, part of the royal menagerie that was executed by revolutionaries rather than moved to the Jardin des Plantes. The Rhinoceros articulates how the Muséum national d'histoire naturelle is not just a museum of history but in itself an historical site. You find things like the Rhinoceros or specimens collected by Cuvier himself in its walls.

A Stegosaurus outside the Galerie.
Man triumphant, flayed.
An likely unintentional commentary on
human achievement and the natural sciences.
The Rhinoceros of Versailles.
A bust of Cuvier with whale skeletons.
Baleen whale skeleton.
The second floor Galerie de paléontologie et d'anatomie comparée holds the fossil specimens, and highlights the challenge of trying to stay current in such an historic building. A Victorian presentation might inadvertently communicate a Victorian idea of dinosaurs. The Galerie balances this as well as one might hope. There are amazing things there, like mummified Woolly Mammoth remains, but the real attraction is its historicity. The building itself is artful and beautiful. The skeleton-like cast iron decorative elements are as captivating as the skeletons of ancient life.

A sauropod welcomes you!
One of the Bernissart Iguanodons that helped to
revolutionize the conception of dinosaurs in the
Victorian Era.
Giant sloth.
Woolly Mammoth.
Adèle Blanc-Sec keeps a watchful eye.
Artist Jacques Tardi set the beginning of his first
comic story in the Galerie, and it was filmed on location
in the movie adaptation.
Adèle oversees cases of Ammonite fossils.
View of the whole gallery.
Allosaurus seeks its prey.
The lobby of the Galerie de paléontologie et d'anatomie comparée holds a bizarre sculpture of a battle to the death between an Orangutan and a native of Borneo. A quick survey of statuary around the Jardin des Plantes sees a recurring theme of man's conflict with and violent subduing of nature. Such was the dominant, competitive Victorian conception of the world, presumably understood to have been conquered with the hand-in-hand spread of colonialism and scientific inquiry.

Several greenhouses dot the Jardin des Plantes, each with different themes. One has a particularly excellent display pairing fossilized plants with their modern counterparts. For those interested in the aesthetic values of Victorian greenhouses, they are a particular treat unto themselves, beyond their contents.

Not only the greenhouses, but the archtecuture throughout the site is beautiful in the best French Beaux Arts style.

Hôtel de Magny, former residence and now a
museum dedicated to the development and history
of the Muséum national d'histoire naturelle.
Mineralogy building.
Gigantic crystal boulder at the entrance of the mineralogy gallery.
The clearest expression of the challenges faced by the Muséum national d'histoire naturelle is the Grand Gallery of Evolution. The dominant structure on the site, it was designed by Jules André in 1889. Originally much like the Galerie de paléontologie et d'anatomie comparée, this grand Victorian edifice used a tremendous skylight to provide visibility for its collections of stuffed and mounted animals. In 1994, the building was extensively renovated and rechristened for a new role of teaching about evolution, extinction, and conservation. Unfortunately the interior feels much more like a nightclub than a museum, to the point of distraction. Nevertheless, parts of the gallery are powerful, such as an exhibit of animals made extinct by the hand of man.

Grand Gallery of Evolution.
*oontz oontz oontz oontz*
Overview of the gallery, full of motion and screaming children.
The original skylight now radiates different coloured lights.
A Giraffe looking up...
While this Giraffe is trying to get a better look at
what is below. One of the more whimsical displays.
Gallery of extinct and endangered animals.
The extinct Great Auk.
A visit to the Muséum national d'histoire naturelle can be an ambivalent experience when considering extinct animals and Victorian colonial ideas of nature. That is the challenge of many museums in France - the Louvre would have no Egyptian collections if not for Napoleon - and, one could argue, France itself. Nevertheless, for the aficionado of the natural sciences, beautiful architecture, and the history of life on Earth, there are few institutions with the scope and heritage of the Muséum national d'histoire naturelle.