Paris is renowned for its world-class museums and galleries, yet it also has many quirky museums that are off the beaten track, and Musée des Arts Forains is one of them. This private museum opened in 1996 and it is located within the Les Pavillons de Bercy, the 19th century wine warehouses built by Gustave Eiffel's apprentice in the 12th arrondissement. I have visited the nearby Bercy Village years ago when it first opened, but I had never heard of this museum until recently.
Top: Les Pavillons de Bercy
Don't expect majestic art work by great masters, this quaint museum actually contains vintage funfair objects from 1850-1950 collected by Jean Paul Favand, an actor and antiques dealer. This museum resembles an indoor Belle Epoque amusement park – there are restored merry-go-rounds, carousels, Japanese billiards, fair stalls and all kinds of attractions/ games that would transport you back in time.
The annual Festival du Merveilleux is a popular family event for Parisians
One reason why this museum has remained off-the-radar is because visitors could only visit by appointment (via guided tours), with the exception of two occasions: the European Heritage Days in September, and the Festival du Merveilleux around the Christmas Holidays for 12 days.
At the annual Festival du Merveilleux, there are daily street artists' performances and augmented reality shows, as well as games and rides available to the public. And this year, a photography exhibition by renowned French street photographer Robert Doisneau was one of the highlights of the festival. Unpublished photographs of funfairs were captured by the photographer, and through them, we could see the social changes over the years and the (sad) demise of amusement parks.
I can't remember the last time I visited an amusement park – let alone a retro one – and from what I gathered, most visitors were French families with young kids. Though I am certain that this maze-like atmospheric venue, and its retro games and activities would appeal to both kids and adults. The 14 Euro festival entrance fee also included a free ride/game, and it was fun to wander around and enjoy the festive atmosphere; though queues were quite long at the more popular rides and games...
There are four thematic rooms rooms at the venue, and one of the most beautiful one is the circular Magic Mirror, where the photography exhibition was held. I have always been a fan of Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Doisneau, and I think his playful and beguiling post-war photographs of Parisian fun fairs capture a bygone era that reflect how times have changed in the last few decades. While tech companies are investing heavily on the technology of virtual reality, these photographs remind us that the advanced technology does not necessarily make us happier. I am not anti-technology (I have enjoyed my VR experiences in the past), but I think human beings will always value tactile objects and direct experiences without the aid of digital machines.
And honestly, one could not expect a more apt venue for this exhibition – vintage swan and horse carousels were displayed among photos of joyous carousel riders – the nostalgic ambience made the Magic Mirror even more magical!
Robert Doisneau's photography exhibition at the Magic Mirror
If you are bored of visiting the touristy art museums in Paris, then I highly recommend a visit to this one-of-a-kind museum. It is beyond nostalgia; not only does it celebrates our cultural history and funfairs, but also the nameless entertainers who devote their lives in perfecting their skills to bring joy to funfair goers.