Eight Weird and Wonderful Museums in Paris

These quirky institutions tell the stories behind everything from sewers to perfume, medicine to magic

Museum of Perfume
The Museum of Perfume, presented by Paris’ Fragonard Perfumery, is dedicated to exploring the methodology and history behind perfume making. Thomas Samson/AFP via Getty Images

From the Louvre to the Musée d’Orsay, there’s no question that Paris has some of the best museums in Europe. But not all of the city’s cultural institutions are world-famous.

Just under the radar fly many smaller Parisian museums that make space for the fantastic, the gritty and the unexpected. At the Museum of the History of Medicine, the gallery is filled with nightmarish surgical equipment, while fragrances rare and beautiful bloom at the Museum of Perfume. At the Museum of Magic, the secrets of magicians and spiritualists are kept under lock and key, while inside the Museum of Fairground Arts, a historic warehouse full of vintage carnival rides and games, “visitors are transported to a magical otherworld where they can learn while rediscovering their childlike spirit,” says its general manager, Clémentine Favand.

From tunneling into the subterranean sewer system to shining light on the discovery of radiation, these eight weird and wonderful Parisian museums are well worth a visit during the 2024 Summer Olympics and beyond.

Museum of the History of Medicine

Museum of the History of Medicine
Museum of the History of Medicine Emile Barret via Wikimedia under CC BY-SA 4.0

The Museum of the History of Medicine isn’t meant to be gruesome, but it just can’t help itself. “The collections exhibited are concentrated on surgical instruments and other medical apparatuses, especially those from the 16th to the 19th century,” says Andréa Barbe-Hulmann, the museum’s curator. It was in those long dark days before anesthesia that doctors and surgeons relied on tools that, while innovative for the time, look today more like torture devices than medical aids: hand saws, crude mechanical respirators, guillotine-like amputation devices and limb-replacing metal prostheses. Among the collection’s most prized artifacts, says Barbe-Hulmann, are “the scalpel used for King Louis XIV’s fistula operation in 1686, and the wooden anatomical dummy ordered by General Napoleon Bonaparte in Italy in 1796.” Each is laid out in glass cases lining the long, cavernous hall on the second floor of Paris Cité University—a hall of horrors that were once at the cutting edge of health care.

Museum of Perfume

Museum of Perfume
Museum of Perfume Thomas Samson/AFP via Getty Images

Though it’s not often considered as essential as sight or sound, scent has a profound effect on memory, mood and experience. The Museum of Perfume, presented by Paris’ Fragonard perfumery, is dedicated to exploring the methodology and history behind perfume making—an art used as much to enchant as to mask objectionable odors (especially in the days when baths were few and far between). The olfactory journey spans five continents with scents both recognizable and obscure, like the musk secreted by the glands of the nocturnal civet. At its end, visitors are welcomed into the perfumer workshop, where they can craft their own signature scent with the same techniques and fragrances used by the pros.

Museum of Fairground Arts

fairground target game at the Museum of Fairground Arts in Paris
This fairground target game at the Museum of Fairground Arts in Paris was inspired by the French comic strip 'Les Pieds nickelés.' Bertrand Guay/AFP via Getty Images

The Museum of Fairground Arts is more like a 19th-century carnival than a museum. Almost everything, from the curiosity cabinets to the carousels, demands interaction. “The museum is brought to life by our visitors,” says Favand. “Objects can be touched, and there’s the possibility to play with centenarian fairground attractions or ride old merry-go-rounds operated by the guide.” Some of the artifacts housed in the historic Bercy wine warehouses are extremely rare. It took more than 20,000 hours of work to restore one of the last remaining draisiennes, an early bicycle used by the elite. A velocipede carousel from 1897 was one of the first to be operated by both steam and electricity, and it would have been most fairgoers’ introduction to the carousel. As immersive as it is whimsical, “most visitors tell us the Museum of Fairground Arts is the best museum they have seen in Paris,” says Favand.

Sewer Museum

Sewer Museum in Paris
Sewer Museum Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images

A museum dedicated to the Parisian sewer system may seem like an unusual choice, but there’s more to this subterranean city beneath a city than meets the eye. Visitors have been flocking here since guided tours of the modern waste system began at the 1867 Paris World’s Fair, riding through its tunnels in boats or dredger wagons pushed by sewer workers. Both modes of transportation were discontinued when the Sewer Museum was officially founded in 1975, and they were replaced by walking tours that travel more than a third of a mile through underground flush tanks, spillways, and passages strung with water pipes and cables. Exhibitions housed in now-defunct tunnels focus on the evolution of Parisian sanitation over the years, the essential workers who keep the system running day after day, and the network’s modern automation. Just be forewarned: Although visitors never have to come face to face with raw sewage, there’s no escaping the stench of the Sewer Museum.

Museum of Magic

Museum of Magic | PARIS

Travel through a thousand years of sleight of hand at the Museum of Magic. There’s no otherworldly wizardry here. Instead, the collections at this museum open a window into the secrets of magicians through the centuries, including Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, who opened France’s first performance hall dedicated to the magical arts in 1845. Among the artifacts on display in what were once cellars beneath the home of the Marquis de Sade are a richly decorated “sawed-off woman” trunk from 1923, trick boxes that held everything from fire to silk, and the slates and levitation tricks of spiritualists who claimed to speak with the dead. Colorful posters and engravings dating back to the 1600s offer a look at the image of the magician throughout history. Don’t miss the automaton gallery by the museum ticket office before you go. It’s the home of more than 100 vintage push-button toys that, while not exactly magical, are powered by what was once considered an astonishing new electromechanical technology.

Curie Museum

A laboratory at the Curie Museum
A laboratory at the Curie Museum Bernard Bailly/AFP/Getty Images

It was on the site of the Curie Museum that the field of radioactivity was revolutionized. In its original laboratory, physicist and chemist Marie Curie spent 20 years at work at the height of her career. The year she died, her daughter and son-in-law, Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie, discovered artificial radioactivity in the same lab—a breakthrough that earned them the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1935. Those are just a few of the things that make the Curie Museum special, says cultural action and communications manager Nathalie Huchette. Today, the lab, preserved with some of its original equipment and archives, and its adjacent galleries tell the story of the Curie family’s impact on science, the radium craze that followed its 1898 discovery and the history of radioactivity in cancer treatment. Perhaps more importantly, the Curie Museum is one of only a handful of science museums around the world in which women play a starring role—and that’s struck a chord. Of the more than 36,000 people who visited in 2023, the majority were women between the ages of 18 and 34. The museum “is an important step for the visibility and recognition of women in the history of science,” says Huchette.

Police Prefecture Museum

A police office uniform on display at the Police Prefecture Museum in Paris
A police officer uniform used during the 1936-1946 period, with the identification number on the collar, at the Police Prefecture Museum Thomas Samson/AFP via Getty Images

The current exhibition at the Police Prefecture Museum couldn’t be timelier. The show, dedicated to the evolution of competitive sports and the role of the city’s peacekeepers in maintaining safety for both athletes and spectators, channels the Olympic fever that burns in Paris this summer. It joins the small museum’s permanent collections, a fascinating mix of equipment, ephemera and evidence inside the police headquarters of the Fifth and Sixths Arrondissements. The museum’s newest acquisition, a series of screen prints made by contemporary artist Alix Delmas from archival criminal photographs, delves into the anthropometric quest to identify repeat offenders by their physical measurements. It’s a colorful addition to perennial eye-openers like an authentic guillotine and German machine guns from World War II.

Smoking Museum

Smoking Museum
Smoking Museum Raphaël Lafargue/ABACAPRESS.COM/Alamy

Millenia before tobacco and cannabis became commercial products, inhaling them and other potent plants was a spiritual act, one that allowed smokers to experience the divine. Tobacco use has fallen out of favor in recent generations, but, according to the Smoking Museum, examining its history and artifacts reveals a lot about how behavior, society and religion have shifted over time. In the museum’s permanent collection, a hemp resin-extracting sieve, ornate Chinese opium pipes, kitschy smoking paraphernalia and live plants are crammed into every corner. Works of art—everything from ancient Maya drawings to original engravings to portraits of smoking celebrities—line the walls. The Smoking Museum is a reminder that in the story of humankind, smoking is a nearly universal practice.

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