France: Musée des Arts Forains – Fairground Attractions

What?
Europe’s only museum of old fairground attractions.

Why visit?
How often do you get the chance to ride a 100 year old bicycle carrousel? Me, not very often, but at the Musée des Arts Forains it is all possible.

This unique private collection of fairground art brings together old merry-go-rounds and other fairground attractions.

Kids young and old will be delighted by this eclectic, unusual, hands(and-feet)-on museum in a beautifully preserved set of old buildings.

Where?
At the Cour St Emillion in Bercy Village, in the 12th Arrondisement. Map.


HAVE YOU EVER wondered why so many Parisian merry-go-rounds have the same faux-Belle Epoque look? Well, it’s because these children’s contraptions were more or less invented during the Belle Epoque- but not as children’s entertainment, but as a fun night out for adults.

The tradition of wandering fairs goes back many centuries, but they came into their own towards the end of the 19th century, when European cities boomed as a result of the industrialisation, and the newly affluent middle-classes were looking for fun ways to blow their hard-earned cash.
Fairs were events that attracted lots of people looking for the latest and greatest in entertainment,  like merry-go-rounds, which were built with adults in mind, not kids. Ostentatious decoration created a magical wonderland that people hadn’t seen before- and that they were happy to pay for. Because, as the guide will clearly explain to you when you visit the Musée des Arts Forains, the fairground people were not artists- they were first and foremost business people whose overriding objective was to part you and your money- but in a way that left both parties happy.

In the middle of the 20th century, something changed: plastic arrived on the scene. Many of the attractions, made from wood, plaster or metal, were slowly replaced by shiny, colourful new plastic tools whose durability was deemed proper compensation for their diminished old-fashioned charm.
The owners of the Musée started buying up these antiquated pieces and saved them from destruction. And in the old wine depot of Bercy, beautiful old warehouses that had become equally obsolete, they found the perfect place to put them on display.

















But you can’t just walk up and visit: you need to contact the Musée in advance and book one of the daily tours. Most tours are in French, but English-language tours are available as well. And during your visit, in a group of 10-20 people, you will have the chance to try some of these antiquated rides yourself- including the pedal-powered bicycle carrousel that provided such a memorable backdrop for one of the scenes in Woody Allen’s 'Midnight in Paris' (click here to watch it.) The movie was partially shot on site.
Pedal to the metal!
Kids young and old alike will enjoy the rides- although it’s probably fair to say that kids too young (6 and younger) are likely to be bored quickly by the guide’s detailed historical explanations between rides- this is still a museum after all.
There are several large halls, each dedicated to a different form of entertainment. One of the highlights is the Venetian-style opera house which uses singing life-like robots to perform a ‘greatest hits’ of Venetian operas.
Another hit is the Waiters’ Game- a multiplayer game that is surprisingly addictive and surprisingly sophisticated, yet entirely without LED screens, electronics or other modern wizardry.
'Garcon! Du vin, s'il vous plaît. Vite, Vite!'
All in all, this is a unique, beautiful and delightful experience- only in Paris, and not just at Midnight...

Getting there:
The old wine depots, now called Cour St Emillion, have their own stop on Line 14. If you are travelling with kids, make sure you sit in the front carriage of the driver-less metro for some first-class pretend tunnel racing.
Visits must be booked in advance- here’s the website. Visits are in French, but call them for their English visits. Anglophone visitors have reported back that even the French tours are fun, as the material is just so brilliant to look at, and staff will make an effort to accommodate non-francophones.

Useful links:
Official museum website, which is also the best place to book tickets.




2 comments:

  1. A very well-written post about a unique and little-known Paris highlight. Your photos really capture the atmosphere of the place. Highly recommended and a welcome change to the usual Parisian visitor attractions.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Duncan! Your 'Only in Paris' Guidebook played a role in my discovering this place!

      Others may want to check it out: http://www.amazon.com/Only-Paris-Locations-Corners-Unusual/dp/3850337103

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