5 little museums of Paris, for little travelers
Even the best behaved child may not be able to patiently wait in the long lines of the Louvre. Luckily, Paris and its surrounding region also have some 200 other museums, many of which cater happily to young travelers and their families.
At this selection of five museums, children and adults can ride antique carousels, attend musical performances and watch magic shows. With the benefit of being a bit off-the-beaten tourist path, more French will be heard and visitors might feel a sense of satisfaction knowing they have arrived at a place that native Parisians also enjoy.
National Museum of Natural History
Encircling the Jardin des Plantes. the galleries of Paris’ natural history museum include halls of geology and botany and greenhouses of plants from different climates. But the must-sees are the Gallery of Paleontology and Comparative Anatomy and Grand Gallery of Evolution.
In the paleontology building, a menagerie of articulated skeletons and fossils still sport their original, charmingly hand-lettered labels from the end of the 19th century. Neither children nor their parents can touch, but they can ride the animals on the "dodo manège," a carousel of extinct and endangered species, located just outside.
The Grand Gallery of Evolution occupies a beautiful iron and glass building dating to the 1880s. Originally the zoology building, it reopened to the public in 1994 after decades of neglect. The museum displays more than 9,000 preserved animals and insects, from a total collection of many tens of millions more. The exhibits tell the intertwined stories of the evolution of species and of human impacts on the planet, including a hall of extinct and endangered species where creatures seem to glow under low, preservation-sensitive lighting.
Museum of Music
This museum in the 19th Arrondissement adjoins the home of the Paris Philharmonic. Its collection spans centuries of European classical music and instruments, with intricately decorated pianos and hundreds of reeds, horns and string instruments, including a 10-foot-tall octobass that is played with the hands and feet.
Live performances take place in the galleries of the museum every day, either on original instruments or replicas. The museum provides two versions of its English-language audio guide, one for children and one for adults, and visitors can hear the sounds of the instruments on display. Smaller sections of the museum feature electric guitars, 20th-century experimental instruments like the theremin and gmebaphone, as well as a selection of instruments from other continents.
Museum of Fairground Arts
At this museum, in whimsically arranged former wine warehouses, children and adults can hop on vintage carousels and compete on the antique fairground games. Guides recount the history of Europe’s traveling fairs and explain signs that identify the country of origin for a carousel horse. One hint: British horses face the opposite direction to horses made in continental Europe.
An unusual British carousel from the turn-of-the-20th century — one that had a cameo in the film "Midnight in Paris" — features a ring of bicycles. It turns on the pedal-power of its riders, and can reach speeds of up to 35 mph.
Reservations must be made in advance on the museum’s website. Tours in French are offered several days a week year-round, and English-language tours are offered in the summer months.
Museum of Arts and Tradecrafts
Established during the French Revolution to showcase cutting-edge science and technologies, the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers’ has since received continual updates, which gradually transformed it into a museum of the history of technological change.
Early planes, including the first to cross the English Channel, hang from the ceiling of one building, the former church of Saint-Martin-des-Champs. So does Foucault’s pendulum, a device first used to visually prove the rotation of the earth in the mid-19th century. The collection has tremendous range, with antique cars, early engines and scientific instruments, and elements used in the construction of the Statue of Liberty, including an early plaster cast of the sculpture at human scale.
If a parent is looking to feel particularly old, point your children to a Sony Walkman, behind the glass in the hall of communications.
Museum of Magic
From the reactions of young visitors to the Museum of Magic, it appears a magician’s act requires no translation. Every visit to this museum in the Marais neighborhood begins with a short performance of simple tricks, followed by a guided tour of the magic props and objects on display in these 16th-century cellars. This tour currently takes place in French, so English-speaking visitors may want to explore on their own with the help of English-language guidebooks available at the entrance.
Highlights include funhouse mirrors, early home magic kits, the first box successfully used by an American magician to saw a woman in half and an Egyptian mummy-case that made its occupants disappear. A second, even tinier gallery has what the children might call early ancestors of the animated GIF. Dozens of automatons, many from turn-of-the-century fairgrounds, perform simple motions at the push of a button.