The Musée des Arts Forains Explores the History of Carnivals and Fairground Art

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The Musée des Arts Forains Explores the History of Carnivals and Fairground Art

I didn’t come to Paris to die, but the City of Love seemed to have other ideas. At least it wasn’t going to be some mundane, everyday death; when the 19th century fair ride I was barely clinging to inevitably flung me headfirst into the walls of the Musée des Arts Forains, it would guarantee me an unforgettable obituary. Who dies by velocipede carousel these days? I was almost looking forward to it.

Fortunately the 120-year-old bicycle merry-go-round did not actually murder me. Despite how terrifying it can feel to ride the thing, its top speed rarely ever hits 30 miles per hour, which wouldn’t be much for a modern day thrill ride. Combine that speed with a century-old contraption, though, one without seatbelts, restraints, or any visible safety mechanisms, and the fear outstrips anything you’ll feel on a fancy new roller coaster. And the kicker: because this carousel is a joint effort, with every bike connected and every rider helping to keep it spinning faster and faster, you’ve got to keep your feet firmly on those pedals. If they slip and you don’t pull your legs out of the way you could absolutely mess them up as they got sucked into the whirring cyclone of pedals propelled by the force of a dozen other riders.

That happened to me, uh, almost immediately.

As I yanked my legs up tight against the side of my bicycle I started to feel the centrifugal force—the mechanical reaction that would clearly end my life that day. The carousel kept spinning faster and faster, our (very French, very entertaining) tour guide cackling with glee as this group of tourists started to realize this carnival ride was also maybe some kind of death trap, as I clutched ever more tightly to the handles of my bike. You know that part of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory with the boat and the tunnel and all the screaming? It felt like that, but with the extra promise of massive head trauma.

And I loved every second of it.


The Musée des Arts Forains—in English, the Fairground Art Museum—is a tribute to the fairs and carnivals of the 1800s and early 1900s. Found within the Pavillons de Bercy in the 12th arrondissement, the reservation-only museum collects dozens of rides, amusements, midway stalls, and pieces of artwork from these precursors to today’s theme parks, preserving and presenting them for both their historic and artistic value, and, in the case of certain exhibits, like our friend and would-be murderer the velocipede carousel, letting today’s guests experience them as they would have on a turn of the century fairground. It’s a niche museum, but one of my favorites in Paris.

What seems charmingly archaic to us today must have been magical, otherworldly even, to fairgoers 130 years ago, at a time when electricity was still new and the household technology boom of the 20th century was decades away. The museum’s ornately carved woodwork, detailed sculptures, and costumed mannequins don’t seem primitive today, but spotlight a level of artistry and handmade uniqueness that’s largely been lost since the rise of mechanization and assembly line precision. There’s a sense of mystery to the figures you can see in the Museum today, as if these wooden mermaids and elephant hot air balloons carry not just the history of their years of service at the fair, but have seen something else too, some private life unknowable to us who view them solely as carnival novelties.

That slightly unsettling feeling abounds in the museum’s Original Marvelous Mechanicals exhibits. This collection of clockwork figures and calliopes highlights the earliest days of automation, years before Walt Disney’s audio animatronics started to astound guests with their lifelike accuracy.


Given its focus and the trajectory of pop culture, the museum can’t help but track the rise of what would eventually be classified with the stultifying corporate buzzword “IP.” As you walk past the 19th century carousels and midway games and come across pieces from the 1930s and ‘40s, you’ll notice mutant bootleg representations of characters like Popeye, Donald Duck, and Pluto. (This Pluto looks as much like E.T. as he does Mickey Mouse’s dog.) You can see the distinctiveness and originality start to be replaced by corporate mass media, a cultural hegemony that wasn’t possible before the technological developments of the 20th century. You can still see this influence at the traveling carnivals and state fairs of today, where twisted, funhouse mirror versions of superheroes and cartoon characters often decorate the exteriors of rides and booths. It’s fascinating to see this process develop over time as you walk through the Musée des Arts Forains, and see the obscure past of the 19th century exhibits start to assume a form we can recognize today.

If you’re a fan of fairs, carnivals, or amusement parks, the Musée des Arts Forains is a fascinating exploration of how they grew and developed over the course of a century. That period goes up to about 1950, or only a few years before Disneyland opened in California and ushered in a new era of the theme park. It’s not framed as such, but it’s easy to see the museum as a response to the cultural dominance of Disney and American pop culture—a vivid reminder that this type of entertainment, this artform, existed long before Mickey Mouse, and will no doubt continue beyond whatever the future might bring for the theme parks and thrill rides we know today.

Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.

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