Just last night, two friends (and collaborators) were asking me where they should go on their upcoming trip to San Francisco, where I grew up. Without even thinking I responded only this: Musée Mécanique. Which is not to say that San Francisco is not filled with lovely and amazing things, not to mention food! But still, to me, Musée Mécanique a standout; It is by the most interesting, idiosyncratic, and magical place I know in the entire Bay Area.
The Musée Mécanique is a museum that houses scores of mechanical toys ranging from Victorian penny arcade toys to automata to early 20th Century fortune tellers to pioneering forays into animation to 1980s video games, all collected by San Francisco resident Edward Zelinski. Within these walls you can see: an opium den's inhabitants luxuriating in their lair, a drunkard's delirium tremens-inspired dreams, both a French and an English execution scene (!!!), a sultan's harem, dancing monkeys, the famous "Laughing Sal," and an epic, ambitious 1930s fairgrounds scene rich in colloquial detail complete with freak show and a angry caged gorilla (see above). And all this to the creepy sounds of tinny carnival music fading in and out from the activated amusements surrounding you.
If you ever find yourself in San Francisco, I simply cannot recommend this museum highly enough. Admission is free, but bring a bag of coins so you can plop them in watch each mechanical wonder lurch and illuminate into uncanny life. It is difficult not to be a bit mesmerized by these fascinating artifacts residing on the hazy border of the mechanized and the home-spun, artisinal craft and technology, the quaint and the macabre, as salacious and gruesome, in their way, as the products of contemporary technology, yet with an unexpected and seductive charm.
All the images you see above are of the attractions of the Musée Mécanique, which I have been photographing over the course of many years and with many cameras; the gif animations are provided to demonstrate movement (though they are moving a bit more frenetically than the originals!). These selections do not nearly do justice to the Musée's vast collection; click here to see more images. To visit the Musée Mécanique website, click here. For video of some of the attractions, click here. Better yet, go visit the Musée Mécanique in person! Now, I admit that the museum--which used to reside in a dark, furtive room on a cliff overlooking the ruins of the amazing 19th Century pleasure emporium The Sutro Baths*--has lost a bit of its charm since its recent relocation to bright, sanitized, crawling-with-tourists Fisherman's Wharf, but it is still truly awe-inspiring if a tad less magical. At least it has more visitors now, and is no longer in danger of closing.
* If you are interested in the Sutro Baths, I invite you to stop by the Morbid Anatomy Library to see my book of historical images.