The Little(r) Museums of Paris

An Illustrated Guide to the City's Hidden Gems


By Emma Jacobs

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Discover a new side of Paris, hidden in plain sight, with this beautifully illustrated guide to the city’s smaller collections and best-kept secrets, from artists’ studios to scientific museums.

A visit to Paris can often seem like a highlight reel — the Louvre, the Musee d’Orsay, the Eiffel Tower. But Paris isn’t only about the big attractions; in fact, some might say it’s the offbeat destinations that hold the greatest treasures. The Little(r) Museums of Paris takes a whimsical journey through these smaller destinations, from the fantastical to the bizarre, offering both a guide to the city and inspiration for armchair travelers.

Rather than traveling by neighborhood, this charming guide explores the different types of institutions nestled within Paris, from time capsules like the Musee Nissim de Camondo to explorations of the world beyond the city limits, including the Institute of the Arab World. Readers will peek behind the curtains of artists’ apartments and into the microscopes of collections of scientific oddities. Each entry opens up a new world of adventure, with a description of the museum’s collection, as well as a short history, watercolor illustrations, and a miniature map. For residents and visitors alike, the captivating illustrations and deeply-researched yet approachable writing will encourage greater appreciation of the cultural diversity, history, and colorful characters that give Paris that je ne sais quoi.


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Entering the Paris Metro at République, a hub station, on a June evening, I see a poster for a painter’s house museum in the suburbs. Walking to my platform, I see another poster for an exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay, four for a show of contemporary artist Ai Weiwei’s work at the Mucem in Marseille, and another for a themed art exposition at Chantilly, a château the poster promises is just twenty-five minutes from Paris by train.

I see ads for two more local exhibits through the train’s window during my ride, and ten repeats from République at the station where I disembark.

The pervasive posters are all signs that Parisians are a museum-going people, the sort who might plan their upcoming summer vacations around a visit to a special exhibition, while also keeping up with the latest shows in town. Within a mile of where my journey began at République, there are more than a dozen museums. And that doesn’t even begin to touch the number of institutions within the city’s limits, or the region as a whole.

When I moved to Paris in 2015, I had the idea that I would try and visit all of the city’s small museums—an idea that eventually grew into this very book.

I have not made it to all of them, and as it turns out, I probably never will. The tourism office for the city of Paris says there are around 200 museums in the Paris region. Depending on how you define a museum and the boundaries of the region, I have come to suspect there are even more.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why there’s such a profusion of collections around this city, though I have occasionally summarized the explanation to friends as “Parisians are nerds.” That’s part of the story, but I also began asking as many people as I could: why are there so many museums in this region?

“There’s a tradition of exhibiting that’s quite old,” the director of the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, Claude d’Anthenaise, noted. It began “as early as the eighteenth century, in the salon,” though then it was reserved for the very elite.

With the French Revolution, royal collections became public collections, noted Isabelle Warmoes, historian at the Musée des Plans-Reliefs, a museum of three-dimensional maps assembled by the kings of France. She proposed a geographical answer.

“France has always been a very centralized state,” said Warmoes, with wealth and power concentrated in Paris. “A great number of collections are in Paris. The principal national museums are in Paris or near Paris.” Collectors after the Revolution, often industrialists or bankers, created more museums as their legacies and located them in the city with the largest potential audience.

Another factor, pointed out by a curator at a museum dedicated to the lesser-known painter Jean-Jacques Henner, has been the sheer density of creative life in Paris.

“There were so many artists’ studios,” noted Claire Bessède, in her museum’s immediate neighborhood in the nineteenth century. “Musicians, writers… an incredible number of painters. These artists’ homes,” she said, “are bound to leave traces.”

Over time, the more I have learned about these institutions from books, archives, and conversations, the more I have gotten out of my visits. Their stories have given me a lens through which to interpret places that can be dense and atmospheric, but also, often, too crowded to consider every piece individually. With more context, objects that I could now fit into people’s lives began to leap out.

I also learned the myriad ways these museums’ histories intersected. Collectors socialized and competed. Artists visited each other’s salons. Painter Eugène Delacroix went to draw the animals in the natural history museum.

An Yves Saint Laurent dress inspired by the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries at the Musée de Cluny (see here).

Marcel Proust, whose bedroom is installed in the Musée Carnavalet, visited and wrote about the house museum left by artist Gustave Moreau. Fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent based gowns on numerous paintings and even a medieval tapestry at the Musée de Cluny.

Overlaid, all these places assemble a unique history of Paris—with gaps, of course. Many of these museums had fascinating female champions, and many women serve as conservators and directors today, but few museums have prominent women as their subjects.

Nevertheless, a picture of a city emerges: one that venerates its local heroes but is also international and outward-looking, if sometimes exoticizing of other cultures; a Paris that is more complex than the images of quaint sidewalk cafés and bakeries that many imagine.

The result of this exploration—this book—is not comprehensive. I did not have hard-and-fast rules for inclusion, and for many reasons, including the ones listed above, it would be impossible to present them all. Luckily, a city with a museum the size of the Louvre left me a lot of flexibility in defining small. Some institutions are farther off the beaten path than others, both figuratively and literally. I hope the final list compiled here has one or two for everyone.

A Note about Language

For every museum, these symbols note accommodations for English speakers:

English text, including pamphlets, some or all posted museum text.

English-language app or audio guide. Some require a small additional fee.

Tours available in English. May require advance reservation.

I would suggest testing your language boundaries. The ambience and objects can often speak for themselves, and museum staff may be able to answer questions. Don’t be afraid to ask.

Musée des Arts Forains


53 avenue des Terroirs de France, 12e

01 43 40 16 22

Wed, Sat, Sun, and holidays. Advance reservation required.

Adult: €16.80 | Child 4–11: €8.80 | Child 0–3: Free Metro 6 14 Bercy

All Year | Summer, daily

In this museum, cavernous warehouses built as part of Paris’s wholesale wine market have been made over as a picturesque fairground. Vines twine around mermaids and chandeliers that hang in a courtyard. Inside, carousels, arcade games, and other finds are artfully arranged and recombined. Figures rescued from a shuttered wax museum, including those of Louis Pasteur, painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and Thomas Edison wear colorful costumes from a long-lived Paris theater, the Folies Bergère.

Traveling fairs made their way around Europe in the eighteenth century and catered to adults, not families. On a carousel, ordinary folks could ride horses, an activity generally reserved for soldiers and the nobility.

Early on, carousel craftsmen in different countries developed their own styles for these popular rides.

Over time, as more animals came on board carousel platforms, tastes still diverged by country. The French favored everyday animals: cats, rabbits, pigs, and cows. Germans created fantastical forest creatures and magical sirens. The English rode red and gold roosters, and even their own politicians. In the early twentieth century, children began coming along to fairs with their parents, and smaller animals appeared for younger riders. Later carousels would also add newer aspirational modes of transportation from cars to planes.

Jean Paul Favand, an actor and antiquarian who built most of this collection, believes these objects were all made to be used. So, both children and adult visitors to the museum can play the arcade games and ride the carousel.

With enough enthusiasm, the turn-of-the-twentieth-century British carousel housed here, powered by its passengers pedaling bicycles, can reach speeds of thirty-five miles per hour. Painstakingly restored, it is featured in the film Midnight in Paris, in which the hero travels back in time to the 1920s. The carousel appears in a bustling, colorful party scene shot in the museum, the kind of setting people normally can walk into only in the movies.

Carousel pig wearing a feathered headdress from the Folies Bergère.

Musée des Arts et Métiers


60 rue Réaumur, 3e 01 53 01 82 00

Tue, Wed, Sat, Sun: 10am–6pm | Thu: 10am–9:30pm

Adult: €8 | Child: Free Metro 3 11 Arts et Métiers


Various churches occupied this site from the eleventh century until the French Revolution, when the new government nationalized religious properties across the country. Revolutionary forces turned what had become a monastery over to a very secular new institution: the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers.

Allegorical portraits of agriculture and industry went up under the vaulted arches of the church of Saint-Martin-des-Champs. Today, early planes soar here, including the first rickety machine to cross the English Channel.

The century leading up to the Revolution was known as the Siècle des Lumières, or the Enlightenment. Scientists and engineers made great strides in science and technology, and the Conservatoire closely followed their application to the industrialization of France. Professors acquired examples of the latest innovations in agriculture, transportation, and motors, and they used the collections in the free classes they provided. The rails embedded in the floor of the galleries were used to move large objects into the teaching amphitheaters (there was no PowerPoint in the 1890s).

The collections opened to the public in 1802, by which time a general French audience was closely following the latest scientific news. Colorful, ornate instruments now on the top floor of the building were used to demonstrate discoveries like electricity in Parisian salons. At the front of the church of Saint-Martin-des-Champs swings a pendulum invented by Léon Foucault, which provides visual proof of the rotation of the earth. Foucault’s first job had been covering the meetings and debates at the Académie of Sciences for a major newspaper. In 1851 he staged a demonstration of his pendulum in the Panthéon with a sixty-pound weight (also owned by the museum) swinging on steel piano wire; Parisians lined up to see it.

The plaster model for the Statue of Liberty is one of many items the museum has related to her creation.

But the pace of change made many of the items housed in the collections increasingly obsolete. Around the end of the nineteenth century, the institution became more like a museum in today’s sense of the word, showing the history of technical progress.

This survey includes both daily objects and exceptional ones. The automaton staff refer to as their Mona Lisa was created for Marie Antoinette in 1874. An elegantly dressed doll at a dulcimer, she has an eight-hour musical repertoire. A bulky steam-powered chariot for cannons from 1770 is a contender for the world’s first self-powered vehicle.

“It didn’t work very well,” admitted energy and transportation curator Lionel Dufaux, “but we find the object interesting.”

Dufaux is also fond of a model of a satellite dish–shaped device that boiled water, using solar energy, to create steam power.

“We’re in the 1880s, so people have been interested in these issues for a long time,” he noted. Another strange object, what looks like a taxidermized lion grappling with a snake, was actually made entirely from spun glass in the 1850s.

The wooden display cases from 1904, with their rippled handblown glass, now hold many items newer than themselves. Any visitor who grew up with cassette players and VCRs will feel particularly old in the hall of communications.

Other relatively recent additions include a prototype Mars rover from the 1990s and a Vélib’ bicycle from the first generation of Paris’s bike-share program.

The trickiest part of contemporaneous collecting is to figure out which innovations—a tablet versus a smartphone, for example—represent a true step forward.

“We prefer to reflect before adding something to the collection,” said Dufaux. “We attempt to ask ourselves that question.”

Model of a solar oven by Augustin Mouchot and Abel Pifre tested at the Conservatoire in 1880. Another demonstration in the Tuileries successfully powered a newspaper printing press.

A pneumatic pump used to demonstrate the creation of a vacuum by extinguishing candles—or even the lives of small animals.

Phono Museum

53 boulevard de Rochechouart, 9e 06 80 61 59 37

By appointment: Mon, Tues, Thurs, Sat: 9am–6pm

Fri, Sun: walk-in 10am–6pm

Adult: €10 | Child 5–15: €5 | Under 6: Free

Metro 2 12 Pigalle

For many years, Jalal Aro packed his apartment with vintage phonographs and gramophones.

“There was stuff everywhere,” says Aro. Originally from Aleppo, Syria, he came to France at age 20, where he met his wife Charlotte. Together, in the late 1980s, they began digging up audio-playback machines in antique shops and flea markets, bringing them home and living among all the equipment in a typically small Paris apartment.

“What was fun,” he said, “was that our kids would play with the things when they were very young. We would explain to them how they worked.”

The couple started dealing in historic audio equipment, eventually opening a shop in the Pigalle neighborhood. The people who would walk in, it turned out, had many of the same questions as Jalal and Charlotte’s children. This gave them the idea of creating a public museum from their personal collection.

Run by volunteers since 2014, the Phono Museum has shared a collection of sound recording technology dating back to a cabinet-size mechanical music box from Switzerland, completed in 1880.

Among the collection’s treasures is a barrel-shaped object on an ornate stand—a reconstruction of a phonautograph, which French inventor Edouard Leon-Scott de Martinville used to record the human voice in the 1850s, two decades before Thomas Edison.

1. A promotional gramophone made for the chocolate company Stollwerck in 1903 played tiny chocolate records.

2. Gramophone in the shape of a car.

3. A record player from the studios of Radio France.

4. Record player in the shape of a stack of books.

5. A Fisher-Price cassette player for children.

6. An early-twentieth-century Duletto phonograph.

7. A machine for children created by Pathé in 1910.

A painting by Francis Barraud shows Nipper, the artist’s late brother’s terrier, at the horn of a gramophone. This cozy, domestic scene was created at the key moment when phonographs and gramophones like those in the museum started entering people’s living rooms. Companies competed for customers by offering a new range of colors and designs, seen in this gallery, and new approaches to branding. Barraud shopped his image around to record companies. Edison turned him down (“Dogs don’t listen to phonographs”) but Emile Berliner’s Gramophone Co. adopted the logo with the tagline, “His Master’s Voice.”

Unlike many more traditional museums, the Phono Museum still regularly turns the machines in its collection on for visitors. Some play records, while others play wax cylinders that do degrade with use, making this a no-no for most conservators.

But, said Aro, “an instrument that makes music, if you don’t use it, it’s like you’ve let it die.”

“They need to function,” he believes, and besides, a digital reproduction of the sound is no substitute for the experience of seeing and hearing the original object play.

“Visually, it’s already intriguing and compelling,” he said, “but what’s more, whether it be collectors or a child who knows nothing about the object, as soon as you turn it on, they’re frozen in place.”

Musée de la Cinémathèque


51 rue de Bercy, 12e 01 71 19 33 33

Closed for renovations May 2019–Oct 2020 | Wed–Mon: noon–7pm

Adult: €5 | Child 6–17: €2.5 | Under 6: Free

Free first Sun of the month Metro 6 14 Bercy

| |

By the mid-1930s, the eclipse of silent film by the talkies unleashed the wholesale melting down of film stock to produce consumer goods like combs and nail polish, or simply to reclaim its raw ingredients. The young film fanatic Henri Langlois set out to save as much as he could. He and friends evacuated reels from flea markets, recycling factories, and bankrupt distribution houses. “Never assume you know what’s of value,” Langlois insisted. Even imperfect films could become important historical documents.

Alfred Hitchcock mailed the skull of Mrs. Bates from his film Psycho to the Cinémathèque without a note. A few days later, Langlois received a letter from the American director, “I hope you received my gift.” Langlois observed that it reminded him of his former secretary.

With Georges Franju, he founded the Cinémathèque Française to preserve and screen films. During WWII, with the Germans seizing banned titles, friends of the Cinémathèque buried film canisters in their yards, wardrobes—even the dungeon of a southern château. Langlois continued to host secret screenings of Soviet and other contraband pictures.

After the war, regulars at Cinémathèque screenings included François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and others who went on to direct New Wave cinema in the 1950s and ’60s.

From the Cinémathèque’s growing archive of film history, Langlois created an exhibition in the Palais de Chaillot in 1972. It wasn’t necessarily educational, says the Cinémathèque’s resident historian, Laurent Mannoni, but rather atmospheric, “a kind of mysterious attic, which was moreover beautiful.”

Costume from Le Voyage dans la Lune.

From the archives: a caped outfit worn by Gerard Depardieu, playing the title role in Cyrano de Bergerac (1990). Franca Squarciapino won an Oscar for the costume design in that film.

Unfortunately, the low-budget museum’s lack of a guard or protective glass led to a lot of thefts, most famously of a dress that had purportedly belonged to Marilyn Monroe.

A 1997 fire forced the museum’s contents into storage. It took ten years for an exhibition space to open in the Cinémathèque’s new home in a Frank Gehry–designed building in southeast Paris. This gallery is, as of writing, being redesigned, moving away from attempting an exhaustive cinematic history to mostly focus on the work and impact of French film pioneer Georges Méliès. His best-known film is the silent science fiction classic Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902).

The museum’s other treasures will still come out of the reserves from time to time for temporary shows and internationally traveling exhibitions.

Musée de la Magie and Musée des Automates


11, rue Saint-Paul, 4e 01 42 72 13 26

Wed, Sat, Sun: 2pm–7pm | Daily during French school vacations

Adult: €14 | Child 3–12: Free Metro 1 Saint-Paul

On request

A magic act, it turns out, requires no translation, even for young visitors. A visit to the Musée de la Magie begins with a performance of basic illusions by one of the resident magicians, followed by a tour (also in French) of the collection of magical objects displayed in atmospheric, sixteenth-century vaulted cellars. (Request a guidebook at the ticket booth with English descriptions.)

Magic, as it happens, is about stagecraft but also technical assistance. One glass cabinet in the museum displays an assortment of vintage “physics boxes,” a little like the starter home magic kits for sale these days. Professional-grade equipment includes an Egyptian mummy case used to “disappear” its occupant and the first box successfully used to saw a woman in half, made for an American.

The museum reserves a special place for nineteenth-century French magician Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin (the namesake for the American Harry Houdini). The innovative illusionist’s career went a long way toward making magic respectable, taking it from street theater to the stage. Robert-Houdin was the first magician to abandon wizards’ robes and perform in a tux and tails.

A physics box.

The objects housed here mostly trace back to the collection of one man: Georges Proust saw his first magic show at age six and was seriously collecting magical items by his teens. He became a performing magician and started a school of magic in Paris in 1993. He subsequently opened up his collection of magical objects, one of the world’s finest, to visits from the public.

Musée Carnavalet


16 rue des Francs Bourgeois, 3e 01 44 59 58 58


On Sale
Jun 4, 2019
Page Count
192 pages
Running Press

Emma Jacobs

About the Author

Emma Jacobs is a multimedia journalist and illustrator. She has reported for NPR and PRI’s The World. Her writing has also appeared in the Washington Post and the Philadelphia Inquirer, among other publications.

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