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In the 3rd arrondisement lies what I consider the most underrated and low-key museum in Paris – the Musée des Arts et Métiers, dedicated to invention, science and technology through the ages.

This is where you will find, pristinely preserved and beautifully displayed:

  • Pascal’s original calculating machine (1642)
  • James Watt’s steam engine (1780)
  • Lavoisier’s gasometers (1785)
  • Edison’s phonographs
  • film camera prototypes by the Lumière brothers (1895)
  • a paper-making machine circa 1830
  • a model house to test lightning by Jacques Alexandre-César Charles
  • the Avion Blériot (1909) the first plane to cross the English Channel
  • the Hispano Suiza (1935)
  • “Napier’s bones” the abacus created by John Napier for calculation of products and quotients of numbers
  • wood pole lathe – a “machine to make machines” (19th century)
  • Chinese Abacus – 19th century
  • models detailing the evolution of the Statue of Liberty
  • the original Ford Model T (1908)
  • vintage bicycles
  • Clément Ader’s Avion III, the aeroplane inspired by the design of a bat and test-flown 13 years before the Wright Brothers

And I’m just scraping the surface. The museum is home to 80,000 instruments and machines with the earliest dating back to the 16th century. You should give yourself at least half a day to browse the displays spread over three floors bathed in natural light. This being a science museum, things are displayed and arranged in a very organized manner. These are the exhibits: Scientific Instruments, Materials, Communication, Mechanics and Construction, Energy, and Transportation.

The beginning and the end of the experience of the museum are really quite extraordinary. The journey starts not at the museum but when you get off the train at the metro that exits near the museum. On line 11, alighting at the Arts et Métiers stop releases us into a copper tube decorated with giant gears in the ceiling and lined with recessed displays that instantly sets the mood for what you are about to experience. It is starkly different from the poster-covered, tiled-wall stations of the other metros. The gleaming copper features port holes at regular intervals with examples of machines found in the museum.



The end of your Musée des Arts et Métiers experience takes place in the abbey adjoining the main building. The medieval priory of Saint-Martin-des-Champs is where you will find a working model of Foucault’s Pendulum, used by the scientist to demonstrate the rotation of the earth in 1851. How does it work? You can see a demonstration of his experiment by museum staff twice a day – at noon and 5 pm. Gather a little early around the pendulum so that you have a good spot to watch the demonstration of the way the world turns.
The museum also hosts temporary exhibits that run for limited durations. The exhibit we saw was called “Et l’Homme…Créa Le Robot” (“And Man Created…Robot”), which is an evolutionary look at robots through the ages. This exhibit is housed in the same main building as most of the other displays but the change in atmosphere began at the entrance to the exhibit area itself as you made your way through a futuristic walkway (recalling Stanley Kubrick no doubt). There was no trace of the wooden-floor, warm lighting and formal European display of the other rooms holding the historical exhibits. ‘…Robot’ was all slick, shiny, futuristic and it set the mood for a display engaging enough even for people who may or may not be interested in robotics or science fiction.



Highlights of this exhibit were models (some original, some replicas) from popular culture like R2-D2 and C-3PO from Star Wars, Robotrix from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the T800 from Terminator 2: Judgment Day and an original NS-5 robot from I, Robot. The submarine robot section allowed visitors to use gaming controls to navigate an underwater simulation of the robot on display. The exhibit runs through March 2013.

The museum is very visitor friendly, starting with the prices. The combined price for the permanent and temporary visit was Euro 7.50 (There is a reduced tariff for senior citizens, members of the EU and some other categories as well, all of which is detailed on the web site.) The staff is very helpful and polite. They allow photography but ask only that you don’t use flash. (Which you just shouldn’t as a rule.) The display cards are in both French and English which is great if you don’t want the bother of an audio guide (also available though, in several languages). Being a museum about how things work, it really helps that some of the displays are interactive. Check the exhibit in the Power section for the working of a nuclear plant whose different sections light up when you press buttons.

Since the place is so low-key you don’t have to battle crowds and you can wander at your leisure. The most you will come across are school groups often found seated on the floor as a teacher explains the exhibits in detail. Make no mistake though, this is not some kiddie museum. If you have even the slightest interest in the history of science and technology and how so many modern conveniences that we take for granted came to be, you have to visit the Musée des Arts et Métiers at least once and mentally slap anyone who ever made science seem boring when you were a kid.

Finally, if you’re curious, you can start your visit to the museum right now. Remember I said the museum was very visitor-friendly: evidence of that can be found in the excellent virtual tour on the official website. It takes only a reasonable time to load, is light on the browser and contains images of a very high quality to give you a good sense of what the museum is all about.

Address:
Musée des Arts et Métiers (www.arts-et-metiers.net)
60 Rue Réaumur
75003 Paris
France

How to get there:
Métro : Arts et Métiers, Réaumur-Sébastopol

EXPERIENCE BONUS:


After we were done with our morning at the museum we had very little time to grab lunch before meeting the rest of our party on the other side of town. So we hopped over to a restaurant across the street from the museum – one which shares its name – and had the best meal of our trip. At the Café des Arts et Métiers, E had an excellent Duck Confit and I had Chateaubriand with pepper sauce and a side of green beans. The service was excellent and the food was absolutely outstanding. We ate slow and were late for our meeting. We took the others back to eat there on our last night and made up for it.

Address:
Café des Arts et Métiers
51, rue de Turbigo
75003 Paris
France