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.