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  • L'amphithéâtre, la galerie et le rail: Le Conservatoire des arts et métiers, ses collections et le chemin de fer au XIXe siècle by Lionel Dufaux
  • John Pannabecker (bio)
L'amphithéâtre, la galerie et le rail: Le Conservatoire des arts et métiers, ses collections et le chemin de fer au XIXe siècle. By Lionel Dufaux. Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2017. Pp. 360. €26.

Lecture hall, gallery, railroad—these terms summarize Lionel Dufaux's approach to his history of the Conservatoire national des arts et métiers (Cnam), a national institution founded in 1794 to support industry and transform social structures in a manner consistent with the values of liberty and equality. Cnam's mission includes education, research, exhibitions, and collections of artifacts and drawings, and Dufaux integrates his study of railroads into the breadth of that mission. Since Dufaux has direct responsibility for Cnam collections, he is well placed to provide this [End Page 968] well-documented and well-illustrated analysis of the development of Cnam and railroads in the nineteenth century.

The diversity of Cnam's mission gave rise to special challenges. For example, Cnam personnel—teaching faculty and staff—had to develop policies for collecting that supported instruction through lectures, demonstrations, and gallery tours. While other institutions could focus on mathematics and theory, industrial sectors, or specialized audiences, Cnam was intended to reach diverse populations, whether in the lecture halls or gallery tours. As time passed, artifacts and drawings that had represented innovative technologies in their time were retained for their historical value, thus tilting galleries towards a historical perspective of change. Dufaux describes how Cnam dealt with the tensions of simultaneously remaining up-to-date while serving as a museum of science and technology.

The first third of the narrative is an analysis both of the acquisition of artifacts and drawings and of the development of higher education at Cnam. Cnam was at the forefront of conceptualizing and teaching a transversal view of technology in which technical practice and science intersected, applicable across industrial sectors and supported by collections of artifacts and drawings. Generalists in history and museum studies will find this first part helpful for understanding how Cnam developed during its earlier years. Dufaux's analytical narrative is a multifaceted dialogue of text, artifacts and illustrations, inventory numbers, and primary and secondary sources, and the way in which he integrates them should be intriguing for prospective visitors, museum personnel, and researchers.

The remaining two thirds of this analytical narrative treats Cnam's involvement in the development of railroads in France: (a) Cnam and railroads in the broader industrial and economic context; (b) Cnam as "diffuser" of knowledge; and (c) Cnam's role on the front lines of innovation. The vast quantity of technical details and inventory numbers will interest specialists in railroad history. However, generalists can also benefit from Dufaux's interpretation of technical details about railroad infrastructure, locomotives and rolling stock, and materials research that show Cnam's role in the technological development of France. Dufaux also analyzes national legislative debates and laws that coordinated private companies, government-sponsored research, and infrastructures.

Dufaux focuses on Cnam's involvement in research, education, and collections about the railroad to show how French railroad development forged a distinctive pathway, especially with regard to Britain and the United States. For example, connections of Cnam personnel with Britain influenced early French railway development, especially through the early 1830s. Later in that decade, the French began to diverge from the pathway of British railway development by introducing technological innovations to optimize French resources such as lower-grade coal and complementary [End Page 969] canal and road systems. Cnam differed from other institutions within France and in other countries, and Dufaux is adept at showing how those institutional differences influenced the path of French technological development. Cnam's professors taught and conducted research in their own labs. That research was linked to relationships with French companies and is often represented in the collections of innovative artifacts and drawings.

The overall collections, of which a selection is interpreted in displays at the Musée des techniques at Cnam in central Paris, are...


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