Clément Ader’s gloriously fantastical Avion III, his hallucinatory mash-up of steam engines, variable geometry bat wings and propellor blades like giant feathers, is one of the oldest surviving flying machines in the world, and a star exhibit at the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris since 1902.
Whether or not it actually flew, on its one and only trial for the French army in October 1897, has long been a subject of dispute almost certainly beyond proof – although the museum claims that it did get airborne, just, and has it hanging in splendour in the escalier d’honneur, several metres off the ground.
It’s a masterful arrangement, the stairwell’s lavish 18th-century decor a striking foil to the plane’s outlandish lines; but this autumn it became more of a drawback than a benefit, as the museum’s conservation team gave the Avion III its first ‘make good and mend’ treatment for over 25 years.
Prior to being winched into its current position in 1994, Ader’s marvellous machine was given a complete overhaul at the workshops of France’s national air museum, the Musée de l’Air et de l’Espace at Le Bourget. The programme of work carried out this November was more modest, but it’s a measure of the effort needed to care for a venerable and unwieldy exhibit like the Avion that preparing for the operation took six months.
The main challenge was to design and build a platform from which to carry out work, all without damaging the exhibit or the listed building around it. After that, the restoration itself took only a few days, consisting of repairs by a textile specialist to a rip in the plane’s silk fabric skin, and the removal of a quarter of a century of dust with brushes and modified hoovers. As head of the museum’s transport collection Lionel Dufaux explains, dust is no friend to historic objects: it absorbs moisture, which then creates favourable conditions for corrosion and mould.
Although its name suggests a focus on the arts, the Musée des Arts et Métiers is in fact Europe’s oldest science museum, a vast and wonderful collection of treasures housed in what was once a Benedictine priory. Another historic aviation exhibit, hanging high in the chapel, is the Blériot XI in which Louis Blériot made his celebrated cross-Channel crossing on 25th July 1909.
The website of the Musée des Arts et Métiers is here; its nicely produced online Ader exhibition is here; its nicely produced online Blériot exhibition is here. The website of the Musée de l’Air et de l’Espace is here.