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March 17, 2011


Recording the Past

by soundlandscapes

IT WAS CREATED BY Father Grégoire in 1794 as a “dépôt des inventions neuves et utiles” – a warehouse for new and useful inventions.

Housed in the former priory of Saint-Martin-des-Champs in rue Réaumur in the 3rd arrondissement, the Musée des Arts et Metier houses part of the collection of the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers.

The museum has over 3,000 scientific and technical inventions on display ranging from an astrolabe dating from 1567, to the original Foucault’s pendulum, which demonstrates that the earth really does rotate, to a Cray 2 super computer and lots more.

The museum is arranged in seven categories – Scientific Instruments, Materials, Construction, Communication, Energy, Mechanics and Transportation.

Being a lover of sound, I am always particularly fascinated by the Communications gallery, which begins with the printing of the written word and continues through to a communications satellite. Sound and vision are featured with a collection of early telephones, early televisions, early film cameras and projectors together with early sound reproduction devices.

Ambient sound inside the Communications gallery including a creaky wooden floor:

Tape recorders are represented but, this being a French museum, all the recorders are French – so no historic Nagras feature here unfortunately. The one shown above is from the early 1960’s.

Those shown below are from the 1950’s.

Photographing these objects behind glass in a bright, sunlit, room doesn’t show them at their best but even so, the pictures still excite me when I look at them.

Of particular interest to me was this 1950’s magnetic wire recorder.

And let’s not forget the microphones …

I can’t help wondering how many sounds these devices have recorded and what stories they could tell.

One of the features of the Musée des Arts et Métiers that I enjoy is that there are always lots of wide-eyed children keen to explore, to learn and to have fun.  In the Communications gallery a group were enjoying a magic lantern show – but if it’s magic you want, then the Théâtre des Automates is the place to be.

Sound inside the Théâtre des Automates:

The Théâtre des Automates is a side gallery in the museum full of musical clocks and automatons all exquisitely made and some very rare.  While I was in there recently a demonstrator from the museum was explaining the exhibits to a group of children. Her enthusiasm was absolutely infectious.

I certainly recommend a visit to this museum.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. Mar 21 2011

    What an excellent museum to work in! The curator’s enthusiasm certainly does come across in the recording. Slightly off topic, but you mention the Théâtre des Automates, complete with automata. The French once led the world in building such devices, mimicking the appearance and movements of both people and animals, and some of Descartes’ thinking was influenced by their example.

    Are the automata in the collection very old, and do any of them still work?

    • Mar 21 2011

      Thanks Ian, good to hear from you again.
      Yes, the automates are of both people and animals – and some of them are very old. All the ones on display work and the museum demonstrates them regularly. The only ones that are not played are the rarest ones.

  2. Mar 21 2011

    Thamks Des! Do you remember the automaton bird at the start of that 1970s antiques program ‘Going for a Song;, presented by Arthur Negus? Quite intriguing to know that some automata were designed to make noises too.

  3. Apr 2 2011

    Those disembodied voices blending in with the squeaky floor sound fantastic. Even better to think that those sounds were captured inside a communications gallery. You are lucky to have access to such a place!

    • Apr 2 2011

      Thank you for your comment. I’m pleased that you enjoyed the sound and I always appreciate your interesting and valuable comments.

      For me, the creaky wooden floor takes centre stage whilst the voices seem to float as you rightly say – disembodied. It’s interesting that when you are actually in the gallery and focussing on the exhibits these sounds fade into the background. They are audible but not important. It’s only when you actually “listen” to the sounds that they take on a life of their own.

      It’s also interesting to contrast this clip with the other sound clip on that post – inside the Théâtre des Automates where the human and very enthusiastic voice of the gallery curator takes centre stage whilst the other sounds form the backdrop.

      And, yes, I am very lucky to have such a rich sound tapestry to record … and I never get tired of doing so.


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