< April Film Roundup
Mad May Beyond Film Roundup >

[No comments] Paris Pictures: Musée des Arts et Métiers: Hey, how's it going? I've got a ton of important stuff to do, but that just means I can procrastinate by putting up pictures from our Paris trip. Today I'd like to introduce you to the Musée des Arts et Métiers, a museum not found in either of our guidebooks but recommended by every French person we talked to. You know how The Da Vinci Code starts in the Louvre? Well, Foucault's Pendulum isn't having any of that mainstream nonsense--it starts off in Arts et Métiers, a museum of Science and Invention with none of that postmodern self-reflection seen in museums whose exhibits were updated after, say, 1995.

That's probably why it's not in the guidebooks; it's kind of old-fashioned and disjointed. You'll walk through a bunch of exhibits that don't seem to have changed since the 1960s, and then suddenly jump forward in museum time to the electronics age (mid-1990s I'd say). You check out some cool old computers and awkard "interactive" exhibits, then you walk through a doorway or around a corner, and you're back in the 1960s with things behind glass in wooden cases.

Nonetheless, if you're reading this weblog, this is a must-see museum when you're in Paris, because the amount and type of incredible stuff they have is off the charts. Here's just a sample to whet your appetite:
I figured out who buys all that Statue of Liberty kitsch in New York —it's tourists visiting from Paris! Parisians love the Statue of Liberty. There's a 1/4 scale model on the banks of the Siene, there's this thing (I think a 1/16) in front of the museum, another one outside the Musée d'Orsay. Look, you gave it away, it's ours now... don't make this weird, France.
This is the sort of thing you come to the museum for: Léon Foucault's 1862 apparatus for measuring the speed of light with a rapidly rotating mirror. To see how it works you can either watch a very slow video or promise yourself you'll read the Wikipedia page later and then never get around to it.
Or how about this wicked bastard? This is a steampunk oscilloscope, made by Rudolph Koenig in the 19th century. On the left is a big stack of Hemholz resonators, each designed to pick up one specific frequency and dampen all other frequencies. Each resonator is attached to a little gaslight. You set all the gaslights blasting away, and when a resonator vibrates it makes the flame of the attached gaslight wobble.

Then you turn the crank on the right to rotate the mirror (everything had a rotating mirror back then), and the resonant frequencies of whatever sound you're playing show up visually as wavy lines across the mirror, versus the undisturbed lines of all the frequencies not present. There's almost no signage on this thing and I had to sit through a slow five-minute audioguide explanation to figure out what's going on here but it was worth it!

Perhaps the plastic arts are more your speed. Here's a show-offy piece by Colville from the 1855 Universal Exposition, which demonstrates all the colors the manufacturer is capable of slapping onto a piece of porcelain. It really reminded me of the DOS color palette the way there are adjacent dark and light versions of the same color.
Or maybe you're too pure, too abstract for such material concerns. Maybe you'd like to take this sample case door-to-door, selling geometric solids to the public? This was briefly a popular business model among the Willie Loman types of nineteenth-century France, who eventually gave up and used the shapes to study geometry. These two pieces are by Louis Dupin (1846) and Baradelle (1805).
You know that the French Revolution gave birth to the metric system and had its own calendar, but did you know they also used decimal time? Tragically, counterrevolutionary clocks, like this two-faced example, made it easy for slackers to continue using the old system, and decimal time was only the law of the land for about a year. Look at it! The decimal time face is the tiny one on the bottom! They're not even taking it seriously!
Sumana with a model of the Jacquard loom, distant ancestor to the mighty general-purpose computer. What we didn't expect was all the other looms that came beforehand! They were all here in one big room that people walked right through, not knowing how cool the things they were seeing are.
Here's an example: a model of an earlier loom controlled by holes punched in paper. Now that's computery! Looks just like 1980s dot-matrix printer paper. (We also saw a full-size loom that basically ran off a player piano roll.) The problem here is that it's one huge sheet of paper. If you want to add or remove an "instruction", sucks to be you. It's like programming in BASIC when you can't change the line numbers. Whereas the Jacquard loom is programmed by small cards that are tied together. It's a lot easier to go in and change something.
There was a whole exhibit hall about keyboards and other input devices, a section I like to call "Telegraphy and Typewriters". The museum is full of unusual keyboard layouts. You'll have to trust me on this because I'm showing you a stenography typewriter, and those still have weird keyboard layouts. The second picture shows the box the stenography keyboard came in, and another, more spidery stenography keyboard in the background.
Here's perhaps my favorie piece from the "Telegraphy" section of that exhibit hall. This brave inventor refused to succumb to Not Invented Here syndrome. In an era when everyone was inventing weird telegraphy keyboards, this person thought "We already have keyboards! The keyboard has been around and successful for hundreds of years! I'm not going to reinvent the wheel!"
I'm going to close with this shot of the classic Minitel terminal. The museum had a very Pavel Chekhov rah-rah attitude towards all things French, and I don't begrudge this attitude—technologically the French have a lot to be proud of. But sometimes it was kind of a stretch. Did you know that the European ground station for the Telstar satellite was in France? I don't really think that's sufficient grounds to display a model of the Telstar in a museum exhibit and do a whole thing about it. You made Minitel! Minitel was amazing! You should do a whole Hall of Minitel! Just a suggestion.

Filed under: ,

Post a comment

Your name:

Your home page:

Remember this information


Allowed HTML tags: <a>, <b>, <i>. Blank lines become paragraph separators.

[Main] [Edit]

Unless otherwise noted, all content licensed by Leonard Richardson
under a Creative Commons License.