An Unusual French Museum: St-Martin-des-Champs – aeroplanes in a church

Another gem from Vivienne Mackie

Man’s Dream of Flight and a Wish for Angels

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Museum entrance courtyard

You’ll find these two juxtaposed at the Musee des Arts et Metiers in Paris. This wonderful museum is not obviously listed in most guidebooks (even Rick Steves). If it is, it might be listed as ‘Musee National des Techniques’ or ‘Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers’. This omission is a shame as it’s a really great museum housed in a former Priory, so the setting itself is worth a visit. We found out about it in the current Greater Paris magazine the last time we were in the city.

At the time of our visit there was a special exhibit on the Development of Radio in France, for which you pay extra, but we didn’t go to that, because we’ve never been to this museum before and wanted to see the regular permanent exhibits—-which takes time.

*Note: The special exhibit “Radio: Ouvrez Grand Vos Oreilles!” (Radio: Open your Ears Wide, or Radio: Listen Up!) is on from February 28-September 2, 2012.

The museum is in the former Priory of St.-Martin-des-Champs, originally founded in 1060 by Henri 1, and given to the Abbey of Cluny in 1079. After the French Revolution it was assigned to the Conservatoire des Arts et Metiers and the collections of Vaucanson (1709-1782) and other scientists were gathered here. Jacques de Vaucanson was a French inventor who was responsible for innovative automata and machines, including the first totally automated loom. The first administrator of the Conservatoire was Joseph-Michel Montgolfier (1740-1810) who, with his brother Jacques-Etienne, was the inventor of the air-balloon in 1783. The museum was renovated in 2000 and now has 7 collections on 3 floors.

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Foucault pendulum in foreground

This is another fascinating museum that was a first for us. We’re not quite sure how it happened that we missed it all those other visits to Paris, but are very happy to have now rectified that. That day there were many groups of school kids, who obviously had projects and “treasure hunts” to complete, but it’s big enough to absorb large numbers of visitors mostly. This science and mechanical and technical engineering museum emphasizes industry, communication, transportation, and measurement, focusing on leading inventors and inventions in each area. There’s a fantastic collection of instruments—some originals and some models—and many interesting old planes and cars. After all, France was the leader in car manufacturing!

I didn’t study science much at school or university, but still it was a fascinating place for me—because what it focuses on are all basically practical, everyday concepts and objects that anyone can relate to, such as clocks, other ways of measuring, construction, transport, communication methods etc.

A good pamphlet guides you around the different floors and sections. The display has around 3,000 scientific and technological discoveries and inventions through the centuries, including Pascal’s 1642 calculator, Foucault’s 1855 pendulum, and two models (1878) of Bartholdi’s Liberty Enlightening the Worldfor the Statue of Liberty in New York City (one in the church, one in the entrance courtyard).

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Comunication hall

Each of the 7 collections is divided into 4 time periods, the earliest prior to 1750 and the newest after 1950, so the visitor can follow the development of each theme. Start on the second floor with Scientific Instruments, and Materials. In Scientific Instruments the highlight is probably a reconstruction of the lab of Antoine-Lourent de Lavoisier (1743-1794), who laid the theoretical groundwork for modern chemistry and the chemical industry. Also interesting is an early electron microscope by Siemens. On the First Floor are Energy (note Michael Faraday’s law of electromagnetic induction, which helped lead to electricity), Mechanics, Construction, and Communication—this was fascinating, covering printing, mass media, sound systems, telephones, cameras, and modern global communication. Some highlights are Telstar, the first TV satellite; Thomas Edison’s phonograph; Alexander Bell’s phone; Eastman’s roll-film camera, and daguerreotypes by Louis Daguerre (1787-1851), the father of photography. On the Ground Floor is Transportation, with a good collection of steam engines, early cars, and bicycles of all types, including the very modern Velib that is so popular as a short-term rental bike in the city (**remember that in France, Ground Floor = first floor in USA; First Floor= 2nd floor in USA and so on). Suspended from the ceiling of an ornate entrance hall with wide staircase, is a remarkable old plane, Clement Ader’s Avion 111. We nicknamed it the “batmobile” as it looks very bat-like. Even more amazing is that it was steam-powered!

At one end of the ground floor wing, a few steps go down to the former Abbey Church of St.-Martin-des-Champs. Although ‘restored’ in 1854-1880, the basic structure of the choir and its apse chapels is perhaps the earliest surviving Gothic vault in Paris (1130-1140). For us, this was probably the most interesting part of the museum as it’s here that lofty dreams and spiritual ideals come together. Nowadays, the church houses a collection of early planes, suspended from the ceiling, and early cars, on a series of glass ramps and platforms. We found it really interesting to see actual planes, cars, and pumps displayed in the soaring space of the former priory church—it seemed fitting and appropriate to us, to have the idea of flying linked to the vast spaces of a place devoted previously to worship. Among the highlights are Foucault’s pendulum; the plane of Esnault-Pelterie (1906) in which Bleriot made the first flight across the Channel in 1909; a Breguet plane of 1911; an early Panhard car (1896); and Peugeots of 1893 and 1909. There’s also an 1852 Tuxford steam tractor, the start of the mechanization of agriculture. This church section is like a small museum in itself!

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Clement Ader's Avion III

The only drawback is we wished that more of the information was in English: the titles all were, plus information about the main pieces, but not many of the details about the individual items. However, it’s still possible to take in a huge amount of new information.

So…well worth a visit and easy to get to.


The museum has a very pleasant café-restaurant called Des Techniques A Toutes Vapeurs (roughly “All kinds of techniques with steam”), with inside and outside seating, if the weather is good. The day we went it was warm and sunny so we sat outside in the courtyard of the old priory next to one of the large entrance halls. The food was good and it’s a lovely lunch place, especially if you use it to break up the museum visit. We splurged with a leisurely lunch of large plates of very nice salads served with slices of artisanal bread, rather than the usual baguette, and a whole bottle of wine (rather than a lunch pichet). Merveilleux!


Address: 60 rue Reaumur (3rd arrondissement).

Metro: Arts et Metiers or Reaumur-Sebastopol (Note, it’s not far from Les Halles and Pompidou Center).

Open Tues-Sun 10am-6pm, Thursday 10am-9:30pm

Entrance euro 6.50/adult. No senior reduction. Student and group rates. No security check. (click on the British flag for English)

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One Response to An Unusual French Museum: St-Martin-des-Champs – aeroplanes in a church

  1. Denise Suttie says:

    Hi Viv,

    As you say, quite a find and not in a very obvious place.
    Very interesting.

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