Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Musée Mécanique, San Francisco

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.


Mr. Kimberly said...

The musee is great. I love that some of the machines still dispense cardboard tokens/fortunes.

Great pictures.

mwynn13 said...

So glad you posted this. My absolute favorite place in the world. If I could move into a storage closet and live there, I would.

joel. said...

wow, it looks fantastic. i can't believe i've never been...this weekend i plan on changing that.
thanks for sharing.

William Thirteen said...

so wonderful! i saw the English Execution Machine (a non functioning model) at an exhibition at the Museum of Sepulchral Culture in Kassel, DE.

JE said...

Willam Thirteen: The Museum of Sepulchral Culture sounds amazing. Can you tell me more? Do you have more photos?

David Gallagher said...

Hi Thanks for the post! Really like the animations!

However, you should know that the Musee has a new web address. The new site, run by Dan Zelinsky, the owner of Musee Mecanique, is:

the .org site is outdated and not maintained or owned by anyone affiliated with Musee Mecanique.

If you could change the link, we'd appreciate it

JE said...

Hi David

Thanks for your comment, and sorry about the mis-link. I have now linked to the official site. Thanks again!

Unknown said...

I LOVE your blog. These photos are great. Love it.

William Thirteen said...

Hi JE,

the Museum of Sepulchral Culture in Kassel collects all types of objects relating to death, burial and grieving. Gravestones, hearses, urns, skulls and many other items make up their permanent collection and they also mount temporary exhibitions on certain aspects of death and dying. When I was last there they had a delightful exhibition on death in film. Within this exhibit they had lots of film posters and other oddities including Klaus Kinski's costumes and teeth from Herzog's 'Nosferatu'. Definitely worth a visit - here are a few pics

and their website

(looking forward to the Mummies exhibit!)

Kassel in general is a nice place to visit, with large green parks, museums and moldy old graveyards.

might be seeing you in Dresden for the Wax Moulage conference!

JE said...

Hi William Thirteen

Please come up and say hello if you make it to Dresden. Would you like to write a brief guest-post about the Sepulchural Museum to accompany your wonderful images? Just a few sentences to a paragraph... would you be interested? And how far is Kassel from Dresden? I think I'd like to pay a visit!

stexe said...

About twelve years ago I shot a black & white super-8 film of the automatons (mostly the fortune tellers) at the musee, in its old cliff house location. The owner was very friendly and allowed me to bring in my own lighting, which I used to give the figures a stark and sinister look. Seeing these photos inspires me to transfer it to digital and post it on youtube.

Unknown said...

The year I lived in SF I would ride my bicycle to the old Musee location above the Sutro Baths, you're right it was great there. Still worth the trip to see it at Fisherman's Wharf, plus you can tour the submarine nearby, which I always enjoy too.

Mike Moulton said...

There was a place like this that used to be in Covent Garden in London, although all of the pieces were the work of one man and were incredibly intricate, with some of the mechanical shows going on for several minutes. One of the showpieces was a man's upper body whose eyes, mouth and head would move, and then the chest and ribcage opened up to show several miniatures wolves running around inside of him, turning wheels and pulling ropes to make him move. It was incredible. Unfortunately the museum there closed, but they have a couple of permanent locations in the US now, along with a traveling show. If you're interested, here is their website:

ZenMonkey said...

Thanks for this post! The Musée Mecanique was my favorite place when I lived in San Francisco. I lived in the Inner Richmond and went to Ocean Beach often, which was never complete without a visit to the Musée.

I'm glad it lives on, but I haven't seen it at the Wharf. For me it will always live in that weird little cave under the Cliff House.

Falk Keuten said...

For all of us who cannot visit this museum, they published a 68min.DVD ("The Zelinsky Collection")

And for all of us who wants discover the very rich british scene I highly recommend the Double DVD
from Darren Hesketh (Author of the best book I know about working models "Penny-in-the-slot automata and working model" )
titled "The Old-Tyme Penny Arcade &
the Vintage Fairground", 155 min.

Falk Keuten, Germany
Blogger from "Spiel und Kunst mit Mechanik"

Morna Crites-Moore said...

I wish I had known about this place during the ten years I lived in Los Gatos, visiting San Francisco (only 45 miles away) quite often. Darn! But thanks for showing so many fantastic pictures. You have a wonderful blog!