Le Musée des Arts et Métiers, Paris: Le Theatre des Automata

Le Musée des Arts et Métiers, Paris contains a wonder: le Theatre des Automata. A combination of automata and musical boxes by craftsmen such as Jacques de Vaucanson, it not only screens a film which describes the underlying philosophy of producing the automata, but also shows the automata themselves working. In addition, several of the 2D images in the showcases are interactive in the sense that you can push a button and a film will start which is projected over the image. It shows how the image would, in fact, move. So, although the image is too fragile to keep operating, a film is projected over it, enabling the original to show through, demontrating how it would appear if working. This brings the object to life – it is no longer static. A number of other cases within this space also have buttons. When pressed, music plays. So, it is possible to listen to the sound of the musical box or automata without the object being damaged.

The staff are friendly and will offer to show the film when they recognise your interest in the subject. As you climb the stairs to this floor, there is a statue of Vaucanson, who not only crafted some of the automata in the Theatre, but also the silk looms and weaving looms in the upstairs galleries. I was relieved to find that, unlike Charles Babbage at the Science Museum, London, his brain was not on display…

Within the museum as a whole, there was also room for reflection and learning. Many seats offered the opportunity to pause; they were there to engage the visitor, not just to rest. They also facilitated conversation, as they were long, comfortable sofas. Other interactive stations offered not just ‘information’ but ‘savoir plus’: more learning. Each interactive station, be it a touch screen, or reading, was in metal, possibly brass, so fitting the industrial aesthetic of the space. There was plenty of wood, carved plaster work, and in the display of Foucault’s Pendulum, a chance to reflect in a converted church, complete with beautiful stained glass windows. Because of the fabric of the building, the temperature was comfortable, even on the hot day that we visited, and it was interesting from a conservation point of view to see how such a space conformed to conservation requirements.

This museum is an amazing space. It is possibly one of the most enjoyable museums I have ever been in. Although the objects are in showcases, they are more accessible than many in UK museums. This may be due to the building, the airiness, the light, the showcases or perhaps the amount of information. The labels typically give far more information than is usual in a UK museum, perhaps a cultural norm in France? This is not to say that the objects are not protected, there are blinds over the windows and in le Theatre des Automata, in particular, the light levels are very low. This does, though, give more of a sense of theatre, with each object occupying its own showcase, bringing it centre stage.

The museum is a showcase for technology, but the presentation is less that of a science museum, rather it is an arts and crafts museum. This, I think, is the key to understanding the difference in approach. For the French, I am guessing, technology, science, is an art. It is presented not as function, but as form, as shape, for what it can offer aesthetically as well as scientifically. The museum is a celebration of what technology can be, as well as what it can do.

After visiting the museum, we went to the Arts and Métiers Metro. I recommend you go to line 11. There you will see how the technology and its aesthetic that is celebrated in the museum, is articulated in the cladding of the walls and ceiling of this station. The look and feel is brass, with gears and wheels in the roof, and portholes along the walls. Within each porthole is an image, which seems to move. The French designers have combined a technological aesthetic with a functioning metro to produce a Steampunk world underground.

I also recommend the cafe across the street from the museum. Also called the Arts and Métiers, the food is excellent, the choice wide, the patisseries divine, and the staff friendly. Enjoy!

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