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  • Enlightenment in the Public Sphere: The Musée de Monsieur and Scientific Culture in Late Eighteenth-Century Paris
  • Michael R. Lynn* (bio)

Eighteenth-century Parisians witnessed the creation of numerous social and cultural institutions, all competing for their attention, patronage, and financial support. Many of these organizations sought to attract members by facilitating access to the Enlightenment and acting as centers for the dissemination of useful knowledge. 1 In the last decades of the eighteenth century one type of club, usually called musées or lycées, particularly captured the imagination of numerous Parisians. Incorporating a mixture of institutional styles, musées quickly entered into the late-eighteenth-century cultural milieu and won the approval of the public. In the years before the French Revolution, at least ten musées were established in Paris alone, all specifically formulated to provide their members an entrance into the Republic of Letters. In a description of the Musée de Monsieur, one observer claimed that it was “the idea of giving, in a way, to each mind a nourishment which is appropriate to it, through encouraging all preferences, and of obtaining an open worship of the sciences and the arts, that has given birth to the project of this musée dedicated to public utility.” 2 Usually organized by a single individual, the musées provided a concrete location for a variety of activities and, for a price, allowed members access to lectures, libraries, and laboratories. Courses, based on similar classes already offered throughout Paris, usually provided the main focus and gave subscribers the chance to watch and engage in Enlightenment undertakings rather than just read about them. [End Page 463]

Active in most of the major cities in France, the founders of musées consciously carved out a role for themselves in the Enlightenment, particularly within the realm of sciences such as experimental physics. 3 Although not all aspects of the Enlightenment were necessarily scientific and not all science was enlightened, the connections between the two were frequently noted by both contemporaries and historians. This essay intends to broaden our understanding of the social and cultural history of the Enlightenment by exploring the role of the sciences in the public sphere through an examination of how musées contributed to the dissemination of science. I begin my analysis by examining the place of the musées within the general cultural landscape of eighteenth-century Paris. Then I discuss the different forms and functions of musées and the means through which they developed. Last, a more detailed look at the Musée de Monsieur will illustrate the place of musées in facilitating the general interest in eighteenth-century science and helping to formulate a popular scientific culture.


The musées developed within the burgeoning public sphere of late eighteenth-century France. 4 Jürgen Habermas’s concept of a bourgeois public sphere has become the focus of many recent efforts to understand both the nature of politics and sociability in the decades before the French Revolution and the activities of groups and individuals in the creation and dissemination of public culture. 5 The place of natural philosophy in the public sphere, however, has largely been ignored, despite the fact that the philosophes themselves assigned it such a key role in defining their efforts. Scientific activities also occupied a central place in the popular understanding of the Enlightenment and furnished the most spectacular and public demonstrations of the power of ideas. 6 The impact of ballooning alone, first developed in 1783, gave the citizens of the French capital an extremely stunning and public view of the enormous potential of natural philosophy and the nearly miraculous results that stemmed from its pursuit. Balloons, however, were only the grand finale of a much longer love affair between the Parisian public and the sciences. Recent studies of Enlightenment culture have made explicit reference to the importance of the musées. In particular, Dena Goodman analyzes them in conjunction with salons and freemasonry in her important study, The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment. 7 Goodman argues for the dominance of salons within the culture of the Enlightenment. Musées, she...

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pp. 463-476
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