9 of the Most Unusual Museums in Paris

Items from the Musée d’Histoire de la Médecine (Museum of the History of Medicine)
Items from the Musée d’Histoire de la Médecine (Museum of the History of Medicine)
Emma Jacobs

Paris has been home to collectors and collections for centuries, and they've left behind a landscape of small museums. The author Edmund White once wrote that “Paris has countless small and bizarre museums, little corners where someone's bid for immortality goes unnoticed.” Occupying every sort of building, from former wine warehouses to 16th century cellars, the subjects of these small museums range from medical instruments to fairground automatons. Emma Jacobs, author of the new book The Little(r) Museums of Paris takes us through some of the most unusual offerings.

1. Musée d’Histoire de la Médecine (Museum of The History of Medicine)

The displays in this gallery, tracing the history of medicine from antiquity to the 20th century, have plenty of grim handsaws, drills, and other unnerving medical instruments. Some items, by contrast, are charming, like the painted pharmacy jars from Renaissance Italy. The museum also has an intricate wooden anatomical model that Napoleon Bonaparte ordered for Paris’s medical school during his Italian campaign, as well as the tools used for his autopsy.

2. Musée de la Préfecture de Police (Police Prefecture Museum)

This admittedly grisly museum testifies to the long appeal of true crime stories in France. Gustave Macé, a 19th-century police chief, assembled cabinets of murder weapons and evidence in his office while writing a memoir he called My Criminal Museum. The objects have since entered this official museum, occupying a floor of an actual police prefecture on the Left Bank. Besides famous assassins, thieves, and spies, the museum also introduces famous figures in the history of Paris law enforcement, like Macé and forensics pioneer Alphonse Bertillon.

3. Musée des Arts Forains (Museum of Fairground Arts)

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 in the courtyard, while 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. Both children and adult visitors to the museum can play the vintage arcade games and ride the carousels.

4. Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature (Museum of Hunting And Nature)

Full of taxidermized trophies, the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature could very easily feel dated, like an old hunting lodge, but instead it is a world of humor and whimsy. The design—with its feathered bronze banisters, and animals at large like a fox curled up on an upholstered chair—makes the museum feel both charming and contemporary, with modern works of art also integrated seamlessly into the décor.

5. Phono Museum

Items from the Phono Museum
Items from the Phono Museum
Emma Jacobs

The Phono Museum has a collection of sound recording technology dating back as far as the 1880 cabinet-size mechanical music box from Switzerland, and spanning everything from 1930s phonographs to a record player from the studios of Radio France. Unlike many more traditional museums, the Phono Museum still regularly turns on vintage machines playing records or even antique wax cylinder recordings for visitors.

6. Musée de la Magie and Musée des Automates (Museum of Magic And the Museum of Automatons)

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, 16th-century vaulted cellars. Just adjacent, more than 100 mechanical figures come to life with the push of a button, waving wands, playing instruments, or swinging on swings in the automaton collection. Most date to the 18th and 19th centuries, the golden age of the form, when automatons proliferated in fairgrounds, departments stores, and even on stage.

7. Musée Édith Piaf (Edith Piaf Museum)

Items from the Musée Édith Piaf (Edith Piaf Museum)
Items from the Musée Édith Piaf (Edith Piaf Museum)
Emma Jacobs

In this pint-sized museum, two rooms are packed tightly with armchairs and clothing mannequins, and even more mementos on the walls: photographs, letters, paintings, and record covers. Even Édith Piaf's collection of decorative ceramic plates are arranged on hooks. A teddy bear precisely Piaf’s diminutive height (4 feet 8 inches) occupies an armchair in the corner.

Piaf lived here for only a year in the early 1930s, when she was 18 and still singing for change around Paris. Piaf devotee Bernard Marchois, who met Piaf as a teenager, has lived discreetly in half the apartment, opening the rooms dedicated to Piaf three afternoons a week since the mid-1970s. Reservations must be made in advance by phone.

8. Maison d’Auguste Comte (Home of Auguste Comte)

Comte, a 19th-century French philosopher, has only become more obscure in recent decades. His apartment has undergone a natural aging—paint peeling, creaking floors—that enhances the feeling of walking around a hushed shrine to a forgotten hero. This seems appropriate for a man who created an actual, though little-known, religion. Called “positivism,” or the “Religion of Humanity,” this belief system revolved around Comte’s optimism for organizing a better society based on science and reason. Comte’s disciples kept his apartment and carefully reconstructed the furnishings in the 1960s based on a detailed inventory. Scientific instruments sit on mantelpieces and in cabinets. His utensils even have their own glass vitrine in the kitchen.

9. Musée des Plans-Reliefs (Museum of Relief-Maps)

A model from the Musée des Plans-Reliefs (Museum of Relief-Maps)
A model from the Musée des Plans-Reliefs (Museum of Relief-Maps)
Emma Jacobs

Louis XIV (1638-1715) had 144 maps made to plan his military campaigns, which aimed to secure France’s borders against its rivals, the Habsburgs and Protestants. This 3D atlas gave the king and his generals aerial views of France that may seem banal in the era of Google Earth, but that no one in the 17th century would ever have seen. During these wars, towns traded hands between the great powers, and so the same model could be used to plan fortifications against a siege and later to reconquer the same terrain. The king kept the models under lock and key in the Louvre’s Grand Gallery, admitting only select visitors to view the sensitive material. His relief maps and those built by future French rulers now occupy an upper corner of the Musée de l’Armée in Les Invalides.

Adapted with permission from THE LITTLE(R) MUSEUMS OF PARIS © 2019 by Emma Jacobs, Running Press

10 Fascinating Facts About Chinese New Year

iStock.com/aluxum
iStock.com/aluxum

Some celebrants call it the Spring Festival, a stretch of time that signals the progression of the lunisolar Chinese calendar; others know it as the Chinese New Year. For a 15-day period beginning January 25 in 2020, China will welcome the Year of the Rat, one of 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac table.

Sound unfamiliar? No need to worry: Check out 10 facts about how one-sixth of the world's total population rings in the new year.

1. Chinese New Year was originally meant to scare off a monster.

Nian at Chinese New Year
iStock.com/jjMiller11

As legend would have it, many of the trademarks of the Chinese New Year are rooted in an ancient fear of Nian, a ferocious monster who would wait until the first day of the year to terrorize villagers. Acting on the advice of a wise old sage, the townspeople used loud noises from drums, fireworks, and the color red to scare him off—all remain components of the celebration today.

2. A lot of families use Chinese New Year as motivation to clean the house.

woman ready to clean a home
iStock.com/PRImageFactory

While the methods of honoring the Chinese New Year have varied over the years, it originally began as an opportunity for households to cleanse their quarters of "huiqi," or the breaths of those that lingered in the area. Families performed meticulous cleaning rituals to honor deities that they believed would pay them visits. The holiday is still used as a time to get cleaning supplies out, although the work is supposed to be done before it officially begins.

3. Chinese New Year will prompt billions of trips.

Man waiting for a train.
iStock.com/MongkolChuewong

Because the Chinese New Year places emphasis on family ties, hundreds of millions of people will use the Lunar period to make the trip home. Accounting for cars, trains, planes, and other methods of transport, the holiday is estimated to prompt nearly three billion trips over the 15-day timeframe.

4. Chinese New Year involves a lot of superstitions.

Colorful pills and medications
iStock.com/FotografiaBasica

While not all revelers subscribe to embedded beliefs about what not to do during the Chinese New Year, others try their best to observe some very particular prohibitions. Visiting a hospital or taking medicine is believed to invite ill health; lending or borrowing money will promote debt; crying children can bring about bad luck.

5. Some people rent boyfriends or girlfriends for Chinese New Year to soothe their parents.

Young Asian couple smiling
iStock.com/RichVintage

In China, it's sometimes frowned upon to remain single as you enter your thirties. When singles return home to visit their parents, some will opt to hire a person to pose as their significant other in order to make it appear like they're in a relationship and avoid parental scolding. Rent-a-boyfriends or girlfriends can get an average of $145 a day.

6. Red envelopes are everywhere during Chinese New Year.

a person accepting a red envelope
iStock.com/Creative-Family

An often-observed tradition during Spring Festival is to give gifts of red envelopes containing money. (The color red symbolizes energy and fortune.) New bills are expected; old, wrinkled cash is a sign of laziness. People sometimes walk around with cash-stuffed envelopes in case they run into someone they need to give a gift to. If someone offers you an envelope, it's best to accept it with both hands and open it in private.

7. Chinese New Year can create record levels of smog.

fireworks over Beijing's Forbidden City
iStock.com/lusea

Fireworks are a staple of Spring Festival in China, but there's more danger associated with the tradition than explosive mishaps. Cities like Beijing can experience a 15-fold increase in particulate pollution. In 2016, Shanghai banned the lighting of fireworks within the metropolitan area.

8. Black clothes are a bad omen during Chinese New Year.

toddler dressed up for Chinese New Year
iStock.com/lusea

So are white clothes. In China, both black and white apparel is traditionally associated with mourning and are to be avoided during the Lunar month. The red, colorful clothes favored for the holiday symbolize good fortune.

9. Chinese New Year leads to planes being stuffed full of cherries.

Bowl of cherries
iStock.com/CatLane

Cherries are such a popular food during the Festival that suppliers need to go to extremes in order to meet demand. In 2017, Singapore Airlines flew four chartered jets to Southeast and North Asian areas. More than 300 tons were being delivered in time for the festivities.

10. Panda Express is hoping Chinese New Year will catch on in America.

Box of takeout Chinese food from Panda Express
domandtrey, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Although their Chinese food menu runs more along the lines of Americanized fare, the franchise Panda Express is still hoping the U.S. will get more involved in the festival. The chain is promoting the holiday in its locations by running ad spots and giving away a red envelope containing a gift: a coupon for free food. Aside from a boost in business, Panda Express hopes to raise awareness about the popular holiday in North America.

Write a Letter to Shakespeare’s Juliet for a Chance to Spend Valentine’s Day in Her Romantic Verona Home

Airbnb
Airbnb

Shakespeare didn’t specify which luxurious Italian estate was home to Juliet and her family in Romeo and Juliet, but hopeless romantics have linked a certain 13th-century house in Verona to the Capulets for many years. A balcony was even added during the 20th century to mirror the famous scene from Shakespeare’s play.

Now, Airbnb is offering one pair of star-crossed lovers the opportunity to stay in the house for Valentine’s Day. To apply, you have to write a letter to Juliet explaining why you and your sweetheart would be the ideal guests for the one-night getaway. The winner will be chosen by the Juliet Club, an organization responsible for answering the 50,000 letters addressed to Juliet each year.

juliet's house in verona, italy
Airbnb

If you’re chosen, you won’t just get to spend the evening reenacting the few happy parts of Romeo and Juliet—you’ll also be treated to a candlelight dinner with a cooking demonstration by Michelin-starred Italian chef Giancarlo Perbellini, access to a personal butler for the duration of your stay, tours of both the house and the city of Verona, and the chance to read and answer some letters sent to Juliet. Even the bed you’ll sleep in is especially romantic—it’s the one used in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 film adaptation of Romeo and Juliet.

juliet's house in verona, italy
Airbnb

juliet's house in verona, italy
Airbnb

And, of course, you’ll be giving yourself the ultimate Valentine’s Day gift: Freedom from the pressure to plan a perfect Valentine’s Day. The contest is open now through February 2, 2020, and you can apply here.

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