Back during the bloodiest days of the French Revolution, as dozens of the country's most illustrious scientists were sent to the guillotine, a member of the constituent assembly, the National Convention, tersely claimed that "The Republic has no need of savants." But another Convention delegate thought otherwise. Abbe Henri Gregoire, who was also instrumental in obtaining citizenship for French Jews and agitated for the abolition of slavery, was the driving force behind the founding in 1794 of the Musee des arts et metiers in Paris, probably the oldest science and technology museum in Europe.
In an era of increasingly complex technical and scientific diversity, all nations are more dependent than ever on scientists and the increasingly sophisticated tools of their trade — the electron microscope, the computer with almost infinite rapidity and memory, the synchrotron whose powerful beams probe the inner recesses of matter. And just as in Gregoire's time, scientific machines and instruments retain the power to fascinate the layman because they are works of art in themselves or because of the place their creators carved out in history with them.
For the past decade the pioneering objects that science and technology have created over the last 450 years have been out of public view as the Musee des arts et metiers underwent massive renovation. But now some of the most celebrated scientific devices ever invented can once again be viewed. The results are dazzling.
The collection is housed in what remains of the splendid medieval Priory of Saint-Martin des Champs on the Right Bank near the Marais. More than 3,000 items from its unique collection of 80,000 objects and 15,000 drawings are exhibited and classified into seven "domains": scientific instruments, materials, construction, communication, energy, mechanics and transport. Perhaps the most stunning objects are exquisitely crafted machines and models of machines. For the uninitiated contemplating these mostly mysterious objects, major exhibits have been equipped with electronic panels explaining their functioning or the historical context of their creation.
A visit to the museum begins in the Priory attic and ends in its 11th century chapel, where the museum's largest objects are on display. A felicitous combination of old and new materials creates vast, airy rooms throughout. The handsome antique wooden display cases have been retained and restored to their original settings, while new glass and brass cabinets complete a modern mise-en-scène in which old-fashioned clutter has been banished without significant loss of charm. The flamboyant, polychrome chapel has been invested with a spectacular sloping metal and glass walkway with tiny red spotlights on the floor that seem to repeatedly signal, "Stop and look," ending with a series of intersecting staircases.
The highlights of the museum collection provide a short course in the history of science. On view is Blaise Pascal's calculating machine, perfected in 1642 by the then 19-year-old mathematician and philosopher, with its eight tiny wheels adding and subtracting while carrying over automatically. Antoine Lavoisier's laboratory, worthy of Dr. Frankenstein with its spider's web of glass vials connected by copper conduits, includes the large but precise copper scales on which he carried out the experiments that established him as the father of modern chemistry just before the French Revolution. Leon Foucault's 1851 steel, brass and lead pendulum to demonstrate the rotation of the earth — and recently given a popularity beyond science in Umberto Eco's novel Foucault's Pendulum — hangs suspended from the vault in the priory chapel.
The museum boasts the Lumière Brothers' first cinematograph, a square black box with protruding lens that marked the beginning of the film industry with its first public projection in 1895. Also in the realm of entertainment is one of the largest collections in Europe of androids, automatons, mechanical musical instruments and toys. Adding an air of aesthetic ephemera Clement Ader's flimsy, uncertain 1897 flying machine "Avion 3" gracefully hovers over the main staircase, its diaphanous wings of silk and bamboo poles resembling an enormous bat whose morphology in fact was its inspiration.
Albert Einstein once wrote, "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious — it is the source of all true art and science." Even though the well-crafted explanations of the exhibits take some of the mystery from these historic objects, a visit to the Musee des arts et metiers remains a wondrous experience.