Last spring, before the final mad rush to finish my thesis, my spouse quietly shut my laptop, took away my books and took me to Paris for a week. It is hard to say if it was for my sake, or an act of self preservation on his behalf. But I have to tell you, April in Paris lives up to the hype. I haven’t yet had a chance to write about our trip because, well, life happened. But I wanted to share a few highlights!
The Musée des Arts et Métiers is housed in the priory of Saint-Martin-des-Champs in the 3rd arrondisement of Paris. The museum displays about 2,500 of the over 80,000 objects and 15,000 drawings in the collection of the Conservatoire national des arts et métiers. Founded in 1794 by Henri Grégoire, the Conservatoire was based on an idea by Descartes- to make technical knowledge available to all classes. The displays are broken down into seven different collections: Scientific Instruments, Materials, Energy, Mechanics, Construction, Communication, and Transportation. In the priory itself, early vehicles including motorbikes, cars and planes are located along with the Foucault Pendulum and a model of the Stature of Liberty. The museum also hosts temporary exhibits and last spring we enjoyed an art exhibit entitled e-mC125. It exhibit was filled with the work of artist C125, which combined his famous stencil art with science and pop culture. You can get an excellent idea of the layout of the museum by taking the virtual tour.
The fun actually begins when you step off the metro at the Arts et Métiers stop. Like most metro stops it features a white tiled wall, but multi colored lights shine off the ceiling. When we made our way up from the Metro, we found that the grounds outside the Musee were open to the public. It was a lovely spring day when we were there, and there were quite a few groups of people, students and professionals, enjoying lunch in the sunshine. We decided to admire the afternoon later and hurried inside. Of course my spouse being in radio transmissions for a living found the Communications collection really interesting. But you know this building hugger- I went straight for Construction! The displays were great, with some really neat building and structure dioramas.
What makes the Arts et Métiers even more interesting is the building that all of this is housed in. The current structure dates back to the 12th and 13th century, though the site was home to a chapel dedicated to Saint Martin of Tours as early as A.D. 710. According to tradition, the site is where Saint Martin stopped outside the gates of Paris to cure a leper by holding the man to his breast. Because it was located outside of the city walls when King Henri I of France ordered it rebuilt following the Norman invasion, it was designated as des champs (in the fields). This was one of many projects taking place in and around Paris at the time, part of a larger building boom. Because it was outside the city defenses, the monastery was enclosed within its own defensive wall. The last remaining evidence of this structure is a single tower located near the museum- the rest was dismantled in 1712.
The building is admired because it illustrates the transition from Romanesque to Gothic architecture. It has been noted that arches flirt between the rounded shape of Roman design and the pointed shape of Gothic. It has been argued that this church very well may have been the first example of Gothic architecture in Paris. And there is something oddly compelling about the displays of early motor cycles, automobiles and aircraft filling the once ecclesiastic space.
Prior to the French Revolution, France was officially a Catholic nation. The French Revolution however brought about considerable changes. A few reasons for the stripping of the Church’s power could have been the material wealth owned by the Church in face of great poverty in the nation (which may be have exaggerated), the perception of corruption and the desire of philosophes of the school of Enlightenment to promote reason as the grounds for social structure. The lack of tolerance for religious minorities in the country certainly didn’t help. In any case, by 1790 the suppression of religion in France was under way. The priory, like many religious monasteries, was closed and the building went into secular use. The Conservatoire national des arts et métiers gained the building in 1798 and the museum was opened in 1802.
The museum was not very busy, which is almost too bad considering just how great it was. However, you are able to really take your time and absorb everything. We did see a lot of great family learning moments, with mom or dad explaining something about a machine or display to a fascinated child. I think that was the best part of the museum- every patron seemed really engaged.
If you find yourself in Paris, don’t miss the Musée des Arts et Métiers.