Sunday, May 29, 2011

Musée des Arts et Métiers

Yesterday I visited the Musée des Arts et Métiers. It's a kind of "History of Science and Technology Museum" that's just around the corner from me. Like so many French museums, it's located in this amazing building, the former Saint-Martin-des-Champs abbey. It houses the collection of the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers.

Though Arts et Métiers is sometimes translated as "arts and crafts", the collection really focuses more on the history of technology, and houses a huge collection of gadgets and technical instruments from times gone by such as clocks, measuring devices, mathematical and scientific equipment, and the like. It's huge. The permanent collection is organized under the following rubrics: Measurement, Materials, Construction, Communication, Energy, and Transportation. From a scientific perspective, the emphasis is definitely on the physical sciences, with little or no attention paid to biology, and there is a distinct focus on technology, rather than pure science. In other words, it's an engineers' paradise. Something which was entirely evident by listening in on some of the other visitors - there seemed to be a huge number of very geekish German-speaking engineers. Sheldon from "The Big Bang Theory" would have felt right at home; in fact, he may have a French doppelgänger.

Despite the museum's enormous size, it was no Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature. There was far too much of this kind of thing:

Whole hallfuls of cases of different kinds of gears - who could possibly find this kind of thing exciting? My other criticism of the museum is that, despite its potential, there was little there that would excite a kid, or spark an interest in science. Indeed, the few kids that were there seemed uniformly bored out of their gourds.

But the afternoon was not a complete loss. There were some definite highlights. One could see the original equipment from Lavoisier's laboratory:

Given that he met his end during Robespierre's "Terror", it seems harsh that his equipment was ultimately treated with more care than the man himself.

The history of computing was well-represented:

It seems possible that your cellphone now has greater computing power than that Cray supercomputer. Even if that's not the case, it surely outstrips this:

Domestic gadgets were not forgotten:

Shamefully, this is how some of us still believe the ideal telephone should look!

The transportation section was also pretty decent. I have uploaded some photos here.

My favorite part was probably the "Cabinet des Automates":

More photos are available here

But the clear high point was at the end of the exhibit. Foucault's pendulum!

Located in the church of the former abbey, it was quite impressive, despite the fact that it is no longer the original pendulum bob that is on display. According to Wikipedia,
on April 6, 2010, the cable suspending the bob in the Musée des Arts et Métiers snapped causing irreparable damage to the pendulum and to the marble flooring of the museum.

To read more about Foucault's pendulum, here is a link to the Wikipedia article: Foucault's pendulum .

I wish I could say that I stuck around long enough to witness the precession at first hand, but the museum closed at six! I did score some nice refrigerator magnets in the giftshop, though.

All in all, despite the interminable gearbox displays, it was a fun afternoon!


  1. I loved the astrolabes and clocks the most.

  2. It's where the main scene from Umberto Eco's "Foucault's pendulum" takes place. I love that book.