“Saint-Étienne, Museum of Art and Industry. Facade and botanical garden.” Photo by Hélène Rival from Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:01_Musee_Art_Industrie_02.jpg. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/
I first visited Saint Etienne as a schoolboy in the early 90s. Our school trip, coming from Dublin, encountered a much smaller and more heavily industrialized city. Saint Etienne had been a centre of arms manufacturing, of ribbonmaking, coal mining, and finally bicycle manufacturing. By the 1980s, the old industries had waned, and the city was reinventing itself on the model of humane cultural urbanism. There was an atmosphere of civic modernity and good organization, evidenced by the presence of trams and trolleybuses. The air was clean.
Of the handful of museums in Saint Etienne, perhaps the most unexpected is the large Musée d'Art Moderne et Contemporain (MAMC) on the northern outskirts of the city. This museum, which has a significant collection of 20th century art, is one of the largest such institutions in France. Prior to moving to its strikingly gridded rectilinear black building in 1987, this collection was part of the Musée d’Art et d’Industrie.
It is the Musée d’Art et d’Industrie that made the strongest impression on me. This museum, founded in 1889, is located near the city centre in a former administrative palazzo which dates back to 1846. It houses three collections: weapons, bicycles, and ribbons, each of which is assigned its own floor of the building. There is also a fourth space for temporary exhibits. Rather than celebrating fine art, the collections of the MAI examine functional and decorative design through the local manufactures of Saint Etienne. The three collections are quite distinct in terms of the social role of the objects concerned.
The collection of armes (consisting primarily of guns) is second only to that of the Musée de l’Armée in Paris, and focuses on the craft of the gunsmith, whether artisanal or industrial. The museum considers guns aesthetically, symbolically, and in relation to the human body. This curatorial lens, “resistant to warmongering,” is perhaps closer to a fashion sensibility than many approaches to military history. The collection was further enlarged by a donation from the Manufacture d'Armes de Saint-Étienne (founded 1764) when it ceased operations in 2001.
The bicycle collection, consisting of almost 350 cycles, documents the history of this iconic genre of utilitarian design. The first French bicycle was manufactured in Saint Etienne in 1886, and the MAI’s collection is today the premier one of its kind in France. In the early days of the industry, cycle manufacturing drew on technical know-how from the gunsmithing trade. The museum’s presentation of bicycles sustains its emphasis on understanding them as material culture.
The MAI’s ribbon section is perhaps the most important of the three, and it’s certainly my favourite. The museum’s collection of ribbons is, naturally, the largest in the world, a reflection of Saint Etienne’s 19th century preeminence in the business of weaving of silk ribbons. Having initially formed part of the silk weaving industry of the nearby metropolis of Lyon, Saint Etienne’s weavers began to specialize in ribbon weaving in the early 19th century. The machinery of the ribbon makers is exhibited in the prime spaces of the museum, while the looms are regularly operated by demonstrators.
Where large looms would usually weave a single broad sheet of cloth, the narrowness of ribbons made it economical to weave several ribbons in parallel. There are several of these Zürich-style looms on display at the museum, each with its complex Jacquard apparatus controlling the selection of warp threads. A loom for the weaving of velvet ribbons is displayed and the process it uses where two ribbons are woven face-to-face and then separated by a razor is explained. Other machinery leads bobbins of coloured thread through the dance-like patterns necessary to create a braided band. The spirit of technical innovation and pride in Saint Etienne’s 19th century ribbon weaving industry is palpable. By 1850, the city’s industrial production was rivalling that of Lyon, thanks to the ribbons.
Together, the three collections express the variety and ingenuity of industry. Although perhaps weapons, bicycles, and ribbons might seem like a disparate bunch of products, what they share apart from their contingent connection with the city is the tactile familiarity they would have had for the consumers of the past. These are not the rough products of a sawmill or coalmine, but perfected, designed items.
The design and museological approach of the museum, which was remodelled in 2001 by the architect Jean Michel Wilmotte, make a strong and nuanced case for the continuing aesthetic relevance of the exhibited items. There is an extensive online archive of the ribbon collection (https://mai.saint-etienne.fr/rubans-velours) as well as web-based tours of highlights from the collections.
I can’t say whether the topics of the collections lend themselves particularly to interpretation in the light of modern technology and manufacturing—the activity of weaving being putatively linked to the logic of computation, for example—but the evident enthusiasm with which these artefacts are preserved and presented is infectious. What I mean to say is that one doesn’t need to have an interest in weapons, bikes or ribbons to be fascinated here.
For more information on the museum, its hours of operation, and cost of admission, see:
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Theo Honohan is an architectural historian and writer from Dublin, Ireland.