Inside Paris’ Musée des Arts Forains, it’s possible to recreate the sense of wonder and excitement people must have felt when the extraordinary mechanical contraptions, carousels, rides and games, of a 19th century funfair rolled into town. If you lived in a sleepy town somewhere in Europe, the spectacle of this exotic ensemble purporting to bring the mysteries of the universe alive must have been overwhelming.
Funfairs would be shipped from place to place by train, no small undertaking when it required eighteen or more carriages to transport everything. Today, hundreds of original funfair items grace the 5000m2 Musée des Arts Forains. Wandering around the collection has a dream-like quality, enhanced by subtle lighting and a guide with a flair for showmanship. It really is a place like no other.
Fairs existed for centuries in Europe. Originally, they were places where people gathered to buy and sell goods, but gatherings of people also meant entertainment. This was the origin of the funfair. The Industrial Revolution saw traditional fairs decline in popularity but, in the second half of the 19th century, they were replaced by funfairs with revolutionary mechanised rides. The Golden Age of the funfair lasted for around a hundred years.
One of the great funfair inventions was the carousel. These rotating circular platforms were often decorated with horses, pigs, sheep or chariots and were originally rotated by hand or horse power. In the mid-19th century they became ever more elaborate and were powered by steam engines. Soon the horses were going up and down and, by the end of the century, they were being driven by electic motors.
The Musée des Arts Forains has several carousels, we went on two of them: one that was quite old and only had stationary animals, but the second was a classic later 19th century horse carousel, where the horses actually ‘gallop’ while music plays. It was brilliant. We also saw the marvelous Parisian Waiter Race, where you can make your waiter move by rolling a ball into numbered holes.
When the ball drops through a hole your waiter is propelled forward, racing while trying not to spill a drop of wine from the tray. The details of the moustaches, dicky bow ties and bottles was wonderful. At one point on the tour our guide played a mechanical organ and had us dancing around the museum. All of which was a prelude to the grand finale … the manège vélocipédique.
The manège vélocipédique at the Musée des Arts Forains dates from 1885 is a thing of great beauty, and is still in perfect working order. It’s said that in the years between 1885 and 1947 when it operated, more than 12 million people rode on it, covering a distance equivalent to cycling to the moon and back again. At one time it was run just by peddle power, then it was converted to steam power, and is now run off an electric motor.
That, at least, explains why the vélocipèdes go so fast. Without doubt this one of the most exhilarating, not to say terrifying, rides in the collection. It has a top speed of 68km per hour which, in a small circle, legs pumping up and down like a lunatic, the g-force trying to force you from the bike, made me genuinely concerned that I was about to be catapulted across the room. It was the perfect way to end a truly magnificent visit to one of Paris’ most extraordinary museums.