Cooling off with Automatons in France

I learned a while back that the best places to escape the heat in Europe are churches and museums…

It was 32c (89F) at 9 AM one morning in September 2023 while I was visiting the port town of La Rochelle, France. I was taking pleasant stroll along the waterfront to view the Atlantic Ocean, before my hatless head told me it was time to seek a cooler environment in one of the two museums nearby.

The Automaton Museum is fun, though most of the mechanical figures are pretty rudimentary. Most are under 18″ tall and make minimal movement. Half a dozen, like the Hurdy-Gurdy player shown here, were near life-size. Others, like the Charcutier, made social commentary. A clown lost his head which would show up a few seconds later in a box. There were birds from 1905 that had been real at one time before reaching the taxidermist and being outfitted with mechanisms that would make their heads turn and produce song from their less than gilded cages. They were actually pretty creepy.

Hurdy Gurdy
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno

I learned that automatons became popular in the 12th century when they replaced human bell ringers in churches and cathedrals. Between the 16th-18th centuries automata became associated with music boxes, and gained their peak during the 18th-19th centuries. The Vichy et Compagnie, founded by watchmaker Antoine Vichy in 1862, started producing mechanical toys. His son Gustave took over the business the following year, and exhibited his musical automatons to great acclaim at the Exhibition Universal in 1878. The company was handed down father to son until it was eventually sold to Jouets et Automates Francais (JAF) in 1920. They were just one of many makers of mechanical toys during this period.

Man and his duck
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno

I took videos of some of the more interesting automatons, which you will find on my YouTube channel. My favorites were the man oiling his mechanical duck (shown above, made by Vaucanson in the mid 1700s), the magician, the dim-sum waiter, and a woman who could write.

There were a number of ornate vignettes with pairs or groupings of automatons that gave the appearance of interacting with each other. The movements were limited to heads that nodded and turned, and arms that moved up and down, but the overall detailing was pretty impressive.

The ticket for the Automaton Museum offers free admission to the Models Museum next door. It is filled with ships, cars, trucks and trains, many which look like weekend projects that were donated, although they did have a nice replica of the Vasa, the Swedish warship from 1628. There are several informational placards in French. Some of the car models were interactive. There is a model train mountain in the back room, with additional models along the mezzanine.

Model train mountain
PHOTOGRAPH BY Heather Daveno

The dioramas were very dated, and the air was oppressively stale, so I did not stay long. It might be of greater interest to people who build models or who are traveling with children in search of amusement.


Address: 12-14, Rue de La Desiree, 17000, La Rochelle, France

Admission: Adult 12 Euros / Children 8 Euros (up to age 17)

Hours: 2 PM – 7 PM (also 10 AM – Noon in July and August)

Many museums and businesses in La Rochelle are closed on Monday

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Heather Daveno

Heather Daveno hails from Seattle, Washington, where she works as an office manager by day and a self taught textile artisan by night. In her spare time she is a “hobby historian” and is currently researching the female side of her family history for a book she plans to write, titled: “The Matriarch Diaries.”

You can see her current textile projects at August Phoenix Mercantile and her travels at Daveno Travels.