It was only by chance that I discovered that the Musée des Arts Forains exists. Having visited I’m glad I stumbled upon it while looking for more unusual things to do in Paris. The museum houses an extraordinary private collection of funfair attractions, rides, games and memorabilia from around 1850 – 1950, much from the Belle Epoque. It’s one of the most exciting museums I’ve ever been to, as unexpected as it is wondrous.
A museum dedicated to the history and craft of the funfair may not sound like everyone’s cup of tea, but I’d make the trip to Paris just to visit the Musée des Arts Forains. It’s a magical place and, if you’re in Paris on a day when it’s open, I’d heartily recommend a visit. It’s an interactive museum with participation encouraged, being there is to be transported back to childhood.
Visits are by tour only, which will put some people off, but it’s not really possible to go around this amazing place without a guide. To do so would be to miss out on much of the history and background and, as brilliant as the exhibits are, our guide must take most of the credit for bringing them and their history alive, getting us all to participate, and making the tour so entertaining.
We arrived a little before the tour was scheduled to start, which gave us time to wander around in the courtyard admiring the 18th century wine warehouses where the collection is housed. As we read up on the museum and Jean Paul Favand, the actor and antiques dealer who collected all these extraordinary pieces, a couple of dozen intrepid funfair enthusiasts and families arrived.
The tour was split into two, adults in one group and families with young children in another. Both tours were in French, but our guide took pity on the several Anglophone members of his group and translated most of it into English. Which was just as well, even with some French, understanding the intricacies of 19th century funfairs would have been a struggle.
What quickly became clear was that the funfair and fairground we know today evolved out of a truly pan-European cultural movement, which expanded to other parts of the world. In the 19th century, funfairs were upmarket entertainment, exclusively for adults with money to pay the entrance price. Poor people and children wouldn’t have been able to visit a funfair, take a ride on one of the carousels, or play any fairground games.
We, on the other hand, got to play some games and also had the privilege to ride two exquisitely maintained wooden carousels and a terrifying cycling carousel, all of which are well over 150-years old. The museum, which doesn’t receive any public funding, has a team dedicated to repairing and maintaining the attractions. The ethos seems to be that these are things to be enjoyed by using them as originally intended.
The first gallery we visited had a replica hot air balloon carrying an elephant, recalling the Jules Verne adventure, Five Weeks in a Balloon, in which an adventurous trio of Englishmen set off to explore Africa looking for the source of the Nile. The rest of the room was filled with some wonderful oddities from 19th and 20th century European funfairs.
The collection included a life-size elephant from the 1931 Paris Colonial Exposition; a unicorn-man; a mechanical fortune teller; a statue of Esméralda, one of the characters in Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame; and a horse racing game played by rolling balls into numbered holes – the higher the number the further the horse ‘runs’ when the ball falls through the hole.
It was hugely entertaining, but this was only first half of the exhibition, the next gallery contained the carousels…