Ultimate Tool - The Hand

Daily Artifacts On Show in Pre-Industrial Museum

Paris:- Thursday, 31. October 1996:- There are parks galore in Paris that I've never set foot in, and I will someday, but the season of Fall is officially here - verified by merely looking out a window - and 'catching' the weather for parks for the next six months is going to be a thing of chance.

Having the luxury of being an endless 'visitor' in Paris, I can quickly switch to under-cover or inside features. Ideas for these can 'pop' into my head apropos of nothing at all, or I see something on my travels, read an item in the papers - or - hit on something completely by accident.

Today's visit to the Musée National des Arts et Traditions Populaires is a complete fluke. It is located within the Jardin d'Acclimatation, which is within the Bois de Boulogne - so I am making a visit to a museum that I never heard of before this morning, inside two parks that have never been featured in Metropole.

Asterix Poster

Yesterday, by chance, I was in a building that is very much worth a feature, but I could not get authorization to do anything there today, on account of such short notice. So I was idly flipping through a guide-book, published by the organization that controls this particular building, and I turned up the Musée National des Arts et Traditions Populaires and it seemed interesting enough so I put it on my agenda.

After getting to Paris I bought my 'inside Paris' newspaper, Le Parisien, and discovered that this very museum is featuring - Asterix! As if it needed an expo! As a publishing event, I gave the new Asterix album, the 'Galère d'Obélix,' a plug in the 'Au Bistro' column in Metropole 1.34 and since then it has sold a gazillion copies. Without any help from me.

As the school holidays are current, this temporary exhibition is a smart move, because it will cover the Christmas holidays and the February holidays as well. Smart move, because it will drag all sorts of people into a museum that is quite interesting.

What's In a Museum's Name?

The French either think up short snappy names for things - like 'Etoile' or 'disco' or 'Beaubourg' - or they have a snobby culture-clique committee think up something really ponderous and inappropriate, like 'Musée National des Arts et Traditions Populaires.' At least it is not initials: 'MNATP.' For the sake of a short file name, I have been calling it 'artpop' and the museum itself uses 'atp' on its poster.

Basically, this museum contains a collection of artifacts and objects that date from pre-industrial France. If you are thinking that this is a basket-weaving collection, you won't be far wrong. However, France is not some palm-fringed south-sea island where there is nothing other than basket-weaving.

One of the first exhibits is merely a map, showing the route taken - in 1960 - of a sheep-drive from the lowland Camargue region west of Marseille, of 200 kms uphill to St. Martin-d'Entraune, 2100 metres above Grasse. Then there is a display of all the gear of a French 'cowboy' - with everything in place except the person and the horse.

Pre-industrial France means the country that existed before machines made tools, before houses were pre-fabricated, before clothes were made in illegal sweat-shops in Paris suburbs or suburbs of Manila. This museum contains the things that the French made by hand, which, before machines, was everything.


For example, as you walk around Paris, you see buildings that date from the - say - 15th century onwards, to the present. All the buildings that are not made of steel, concrete, glass, plastic - were essentially made by hand. Look at the stones. In Paris they come in all shapes and sizes. All of this stone was extracted from quarries, shaped, cut, and fashioned - all by hand. This is so fundamental and it is so common, that none of us give it a thought.

All the cathedrals - all stone! All the tools for working it - all made by hand. Everything made by hand: French hands. That is what people did before industrialization. In fact, everything in the world was made by hand before a certain time. Despite all the wars, catastrophes, floods, earthquakes - look at how much is left. But when you stand in front of Notre-Dame-de-Paris or Sainte-Chapelle, does it ever occur to anybody that what you see - hundreds of years old - it was all made by hand?

What do we know? What do we use our hands for? When you go through a museum like this one, you should think of your hands - and maybe about how little use you get out of them.

Mass-production freed most of us from manual labor. Another thing you come across in this museum, is the idea that mass-production also freed us from thinking very hard about anything. Before machines, everything was 'do-it-yourself' and the things that were impossible to do - had to be thought out in order to become possible.

Mardi Gras/Bebert

There are supposed to be 800,000 items in the Musée Nationale des Arts et Traditions Populaires. A lot of these are tools and utensils, some of them are decorative - but this is in no way a collection of folklore.

Along with audio and audio-visual documents, the collection makes up a popular history of the ordinary people of France - this is the way it was, this is how the houses were built - what they looked like inside - this is how they got their food, made bread, wine - this shows what they did for fun - or how they worshiped. This is France without the 'official' history of royalty, politics, finance, speculation, or intellectualism - the France of all the ordinary people, without which the tiny 'cream' on top could not have existed.

Although there are items dating to 1000 AD, most of the collection is made up of artifacts made within the last 200 years. This museum, created in 1937, is a spin-off from the Musée de l'Homme and is in the process of becoming a world member of the growing network of museums specializing in ethnic and ecological heritage.

It works closely with the Association of French Agricultural Museums for example - and will be mounting a temporary show starting 22. November, together with the Musée d'Ethnographie at Neuchâtel in Switzerland, the Musée Dauphinois of Grenoble and the Musée des Civilisations of Québec.

Ils Sont Fous... D'Asterix - a Contemporary Myth

This is the current temporary exhibition being shown at the museum. Although Asterix is a fictional comic-book character, with its story-line set in Roman Gaul - the pre-France - it treats history with irreverence while drawing parallels to the present: the eternal 'us' and 'them' of French life.

Other than the fact that this particular comic-book hero is still 'made by hand' and not mass-produced in some comics factory, a great deal of attention to historical detail is included in the visual fabric of the scenario - and I suppose this is the main drawing card for this museum: its references to Gaul.

For the children, the attraction is probably the display of the original pages of designs by Albert Uderzo, the blow-ups of the designs and the personal items relating to the strip belonging to the authors. There is also a huge collection of all the mass-produced spin-off products associated with the comic-strip.

violin & clown

Practical Information

Although my 'industrial'-guide book says otherwise, I do not think it is permitted to take photos of the exhibits - and certainly not of the Asterix exhibit. If the museum has a fault, it is this: in the permanent collection part, it is very dim. I do not know if this is accidental or because some of the objects will not support light. The result for this feature, is a very unrepresentative selection of photos. Most 'scenes' - many of the most interesting - were simply too dark to shoot.

The museum has the usual large boutique and I imagine that books, photos or diapositives, and other objects are on sale.

Musée National des Arts et Traditions Populaires Entry from the Jardin d"Acclimatation, or 6. avenue du Mahatma Gandhi, Paris 16. Tel.: 01 44 17 60 00 Métro: Sablons and bus 73 Open 9:30 to 17:15, daily except Tuesdays - Entry, for Asterix only: adults over 25 years: 23 francs; ages 18 to 25 - 16 francs; 5 to 18 years, 10 francs; under 5 years, free. Entry fee includes quiz booklet. - Entry, Asterix and permanent collection: adults over 25 years: 32 francs; ages 18 to 25 - 23 francs; to 18 years, 10 francs. - There is a special combination ticket which includes entry to the museum and to the Jardin d'Acclimatation. It costs 25 francs, for age 6 and up; only available at the entry to the Jardin d'Acclimatation.

Individual visits, visit-conferences and groups. Animations for children. Illustration day on 23. November. Film 'Asterix et les Indiens' at 15:00 on 21 and 28. December, no extra charge. Special 'animation' for enfants, three to five years, in the ateliers of the Jardin d'Acclimatation, on all school holidays; otherwise on Wednesday and Saturdays; from 10:00 to 16:00. 50 francs for two hours; tel.: 01 40 67 77 02.

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