My wife and I recently accepted an invitation to join a group to take a tour of the Musée des Arts Forains, a museum of fairground arts located in the Bercy Pavilions in Paris.
Because we have heard that the museum was a must-see place for anyone nostalgic for the merry-go-rounds of days gone by, we didn’t anticipate much more than a quick ride on a carrousel. We showed up on a Monday morning and were met by a guide, Joris, who told us to be prepared for the magic that would take place during the tour. I was somewhat skeptical about how much magic old-fashioned fairground equipment could evoke, but as the visit progressed I was drawn into the enchantment.
Our first stop was in the outdoor Théâtre de Verdure, a large space between rows of pavilions. The space was overgrown with trees and climbing vines, and if we looked carefully through the foliage, we could see a rabbit scampering down the trunk of a tree carrying a carrot and the Pink Panther marching across a branch playing a bugle. Something strange was going on here.
We entered the first pavilion, Le Théâtre du Merveilleux. There, we saw things that were truly marvelous: a hot-air balloon lifting an elephant, Josephine Baker’s garter belt sporting three spangled bananas, several sculptures of wild beasts formed naturally from weathered tree trunks, and more!
We played an arcade game where participants tried to make their horse outdistance the others by launching a wooden ball along a track with numbered holes. If the ball fell down the highest-numbered hole, the horse moved forward quickly. It was fun! My horse came in second to last.
In the Salons Vénitiens we sat in gondolas mounted on a slow-moving carrousel and then watched a fantastic sound-and-light show. In an adjacent room, mechanical puppets (automatons) dressed in Venetian costume gave an opera performance in balconies high above.
And in the Musée des Arts Forains some of the visitors mounted velocipedes to propel themselves in a tight circle on a high-speed carrousel. I was satisfied to ride a stationary horse on one of the staid merry-go-rounds in another room.
The event ended with hors-d’œuvres and champagne and everyone left with smiles on their faces. The Musée des Arts Forains had worked its magic!
This summer, the museum will be open at 11:00 a.m. every Monday and Thursday during July and August for guided visits in English. Reservations are required. Click here for on-line booking.