The Musée des Arts et Métiers houses one of the world’s most outstanding collections of scientific and industrial instruments.
Founded by anti-clerical French revolutionaries to celebrate the glory of science, it is no small irony that the museum is now partially housed in the former abbey church of Saint Martin des Champs. The museum’s collection originated with a selection of mechanical contraptions bequeathed to Louis XVI by the mechanical engineer Jacques Vaucanson, inventor of the most renowned automaton of the 18th century, a talking, flapping, defecating mechanical duck. (The duck is no longer in existence, though a modern replica exists in the Museum of Automatons in Grenoble, France.)
The Arts et Métiers collection soon grew to include machines of industry like the Jacquard loom, chronometers, the first steam-powered automobile, the chemist Antoine Lavoisier’s laboratory, calculating machines, and other marvels of the Enlightenment.
The recently renovated museum is broken up into several sets of exhibits: scientific instruments, materials and their fabrication, construction, communications, and energy. One darkened room hosts a theater of automata, including one that once belonged to Marie-Antoinette. There is even the original model of the Statue Liberty on which the sculptor Frederic Bartholdi based its much grander New York counterpart.
The museum’s final exhibit is housed in the grandiose Saint Martin des Champs, and features early automobiles and aircraft, including Marcel Leyat’s “Hélica” airplane car, as well as one of Foucault’s pendulums, which the scientist used to definitively prove the rotation of the earth. Another in the museum’s possession once hung from the dome of the Pantheon. Several times a day, museum staff members gather groups of curious visitors around the pendulum to explain exactly how it works, and how Foucault used it to prove what he did.