March 18, 2016 | by Sadie Stein
Paris’s Musée des Arts and Métiers, which reopened in 2000, is an age-of-reason triumph—it’s even on the site of an old priory. Devoted to inventions of all kinds, it’s divided into sections like Materials, Energy, Mechanics, Construction, and Scientific Instruments. It’s an interesting place, but it is not the best place to see the famed automaton of Marie Antoinette, playing the dulcimer.
Marie Antoinette, playing the dulcimer, does indeed live chez Arts et Métiers. But like most of the antique automata in their collection, she performs only very occasionally. Usually she sits, immobile, in a darkened room. When I last visited, they showed a rather dated and peculiar film in which—in case it wasn’t already creepy enough—the various automata played to the sounds of eerie music, and a voice-over spoke about dreams. At one point a sinister Svengali-like automaton (notable for its absence in the actual museum) says, in English, “What is real … and what illusion?!” A poor German tourist literally shook the door in her attempt to escape this. But the rest of us, I think, were glad to see these engineering marvels in action.
In an age when we’re used to TV and even virtual reality, automata are still marvelous, their engineering remarkable. It is hard to imagine how miraculous they must have seemed in the eighteenth century. Marie Antoinette is particularly amazing: not only is her mannequin exquisite and her dulcimer repertory extensive, but she moves her head and shifts her gaze. The effect is, if not precisely lifelike, certainly uncanny.
The automaton was the work of a famed German cabinetmaker David Roentgen. His work was known for its incredible intricacy and its ingenious hidden drawers and panels; the Bourbons were his official patrons. In 1784, he presented Louis XVI—a mechanical enthusiast—with this model of his wife, and miraculously it survived the events that were to follow, even as Roentgen’s career did not. You may exit as you wish in the event of terror.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.