Pour l’Amour de Lavoisier

What happens when you put scientific instruments inside a former monastery? A museum to rival any other in Paris.

By Gigi Naglak | April 13, 2014
Musée des Arts et Métiers

Musée des Arts et Métiers, Paris.

Musée des Arts et Métiers
60, rue Réaumur
75003 Paris

Most tourists making a pilgrimage to Paris will track the ancient streets to Notre Dame, the Louvre, and even Louis Vuitton. But how many lovers of the City of Light will count as one of their fondest memories a meditation before the re-created lab of Antoine Lavoisier? I had that pleasure, and for those who share an interest in the history of science, the Musée des Arts et Métiers is not to be missed.

The museum was founded in 1794—the same year Lavoisier found himself tied to the guillotine—to preserve scientific instruments and records of invention. This former monastery with sweeping stone architecture and high ceilings now houses Lavoisier’s instruments. How appropriate—I went to a monastery to find a god of chemistry. But I didn’t expect to find a place that felt more like an art museum than a science center. Warm wood floors and whitewashed walls provide a gallery-like backdrop for instruments displayed as sculptures. Rooms are set up around technological themes—energy, materials, transportation, communication—just as an art museum might group art movements.

While I was struck first by the beauty of the gleaming metal and shining glass, I was overcome by the sheer scale of many of these instruments, the opposite of today’s increasingly miniaturized world. Suspended from the ceiling is Clément Ader’s Avion III (built between 1892 and 1897), an early steam-powered aircraft. In an adjacent room an enormous steam engine sprawls over half the space. Jacques de Vaucanson’s loom, located nearby, dwarfs the average-sized woman. Created in 1745, this loom was the first fully automated machine of its type. Together these exhibits made the grandness of technology palpable—an awesome achievement and one that conveys the history of progress in a sophisticated manner. Nearly all the instruments are displayed in the open rather than behind glass, which allowed me to look closely at their intricate inner workings.

I stood in the priory and watched the movement of Léon Foucault’s pendulum, a meditative experience. This pendulum is the original, first used in 1851 at the Paris Observatory (only two miles from the museum) to demonstrate Earth’s rotation. Other highlights include Blaise Pascal’s first mechanical calculator and the original model of the Statue of Liberty. I could list three equally significant objects, but any list I might make would not do justice to the sheer volume of important instruments and artifacts on display.

Galleries are laid out chronologically, marking technological progress; the transition between earlier instrumentation and later electronics flows seamlessly. For example, an exhibit on cameras takes the visitor step-by-step through the evolution of this technology, from the camera obscura to the daguerreotype, moving on to a selection of cameras from the 1950s through the 1970s, and concluding with cameras used in film and television today.

The Musée des Arts et Métiers is in part a traditional science center, but its educational displays consist of more than a mishmash of blinking lights and push buttons. Digital displays are well integrated into exhibits; videos show machines in motion or re-create historical experiments. I was particularly entranced by a video showing a 19th-century mechanical loom weaving a rug. Another video brings to life a prototype Mars rover from the 1990s, showing the machine roaming across a copy of the red planet’s surface. A significant portion of the museum’s exhibit text has been translated into English, albeit inelegantly.

My quest for Lavoisier’s lab took me to the very top of the building, and I’m happy to report that the exhibit did not disappoint. Rather than duplicate the lab as it would have existed in the 18th century, the museum instead focuses on the instruments most significant to Lavoisier’s work, many of which he invented or perfected. The display features gasometers and calorimeters, foundational instruments for Lavoisier’s precision work in chemistry and heat. Surrounding this central display are cases of smaller instruments and equipment—glassware, barometers, rulers, and, of course, many balances. There are nearly 100 objects on display, only a fraction of the extant artifacts, but nonetheless a fitting tribute to the “father of modern chemistry.”

I have no desire to denigrate the extraordinary artistic achievements housed in the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, or any of the other museums that draw people to Paris. An object, however, transcends a simple definition of beauty when its function meets its form. That transformation is at the heart of why so many have visited the Musée des Arts et Métiers over the past two centuries.

Located in the heart of Paris’s 3rd arrondissement, the museum is less than half an hour’s walk from the Louvre. Go on Sundays, when the surrounding streets fill with vendors, and enjoy the best of Parisian street food on the steps of the museum.