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11 museums you may not have heard of

From the poster museum in Toulouse, to the glove museum in Millau, and not one but two tiny museums, Samantha David checks out some of the quirkier educational and informative venues in France

The Poster Museum in Toulouse has just re-opened after two years during which the museum was modernised, enlarged and brought up to current health and safety standards. Now re-baptised MATOU, it is a natural home for many examples of Toulouse-Lautrec's work. Among a collection of 20,000 advertising posters, it boasts 14 of his original works. 

The opening exhibition (which runs until August 27) highlights the work of Roger Broders who, between the wars, designed posters for the SNCF enticing people to travel from Paris and Lyon down to the south coast. "We have been very pleased with the opening, and had nearly 2,000 visitors in just three hours on the Nuit des Musées," said the museum's director, Sonia Gaja. "So we're very optimistic for the future." 

The museum plans to hold a sale of vintage postcards, posters and fliers as part of the Journées du Patrimoine on September 16-17. "We expect a lot of collectors, who obviously will be looking for a bargain, but we hope they'll also enjoy visiting the new museum and having the opportunity to enjoy meeting and networking with like minds." 

MATOU is then participating in the Mister Freeze graffiti and street art festival from September 30 to October 8. "There isn't a Poster Festival in Toulouse yet," said Ms Gaja, "but who knows what the future will bring!" 

France is home to some of the world's largest and most famous museums, like the Louvre and the Musée d'Orsay in Paris. It also offers a trove of lesser-known, often privately-owned, niche museums. The erotica museum in Paris may have closed down but if you want to know all about sweet-making or buttons, bicycles or French customs, then France has just the museum for you. 

The Hat Workshop and Museum (www.museeduchapeau.com) in Chazelles-sur-Lyon, 45kms south-east of Lyon has a special exhibition this summer "Voyages au Bout du Feutre" which explains everything you ever wanted to know about felt, tracing its history back 10,000 years via carpet-makers, yurts and the French royal court. There is also a section on how felt is made and how it can be combined with other materials, and a display of fabulous felt hats. The permanent exhibition is equally fascinating, tracing the history of hats and how to make them via films, exhibits and demonstrations. Set aside at least two hours to enjoy the full experience in this old factory. 

The Haribo Sweets museum (left) (www.museeharibo.fr) near Uzès, in Gard, is a delight. Yes, kids love it because there are free sweets in the foyer, but the museum is educational as well. Celebrating its 21st anniversary this year, the museum explains how sweets are made and has a good selection of historic equipment and machinery. There is a section on the history of confectionary giant Haribo (founded in Uzès in 1862 to make liquorice) and a display of vintage posters. In the machine room, children can use the free token they are given at reception to operate a machine which will bag up and dispense 30g of sweets just for them. 

The glove museum (www.museedemillau.fr) in Millau, Aveyron, is a great visit. The building is beautiful in itself and the exhibition includes a vast array of gloves, most of them made of leather as the area is well-known for sheep farming and goods made from sheepskin. The museum explains the entire history and process of making gloves, and as an added extra also has a great deal of more general information about the history of Millau, now best known for its spectacular bridge. It is a shame however to speed over the town and miss this unique and interesting museum. 

The Fairground Museum in Paris (Musée des Arts Forains - www.pavillons-de-bercy.com) is a delight for fairground lovers. You can ride all the 19th-century carousels, touch the theatrical props, see the Cabinet of Curiosities and the Theatre of Marvels. An entire hall is dedicated to the Venice Carnival, another is laid out as a circular ballroom from the 1920s. The venue is as magical as the exhibitions, the buildings are connected by a cobbled street lined with wisteria and chestnut trees, and lit by a spectacular chandelier. 

The Customs Museum (www.musee-douanes.fr) in Bordeaux contains 13,500 items tracing the history of French customs including vintage uniforms, furniture, musical instruments, models, maps, sculptures and a wealth of documentation. Right in the centre of the city, it gives an interesting view of its trading history, from the point of view of national security, taxation and of course, smuggling! There is an excellent audioguide in English, and a free game (Bonjour Petit Bouanier for kids to help keep them interested. In honour of the contribution made by the French excise and customs service, entrance to the museum will be free on July 14. 

The Toy museum (www.museejouet.com) in Colmar, Alsace, boasts a massive collection of more than 1,000 toys: Barbies, Lego, well-loved teddies, electronic and mechanical toys, train-sets, board games and other delights including a joyous collection of vintage toy weapons. Alongside the history of toys, it also traces the history of childhood and play, making it a fascinating visit. Set in an old cinema, this summer is has a temporary exhibition exploring the links between cinema and toys, which runs until September 10. 

The Mother of Pearl Museum (www.musee-nacre.com) in Méru, Oise has an extensive collection of buttons as well as dice and dominos (with dots picked out in mother-of-pearl). Agricultural workers in this area (50kms north of Paris) used to make these items during the long winter nights, along with more luxurious ones like fans and dance cards, resulting in the area becoming a European centre for button-making. More than 10,000 people were employed making buttons in the town during the 1910s, and it earned the title "World Capital of Mother-of-Pearl". The museum has a vast collecting of beautiful items, but better still is has a functioning workshop where mother-of-pearl items are manufactured for sale in the museum's shop. They also offer a repair service. 

The bicycle museum (www.enviesdevelo.com) in Tournus, Saône-et-Loire, is heaven for lovers of life on two wheels because you can try the bikes. They have everything from the earliest cycles made by attaching two wheels to a solid bar which the rider sat on and moved by scooting with the feet (as with a scooter) through Penny Farthings and even a bicycle with wings (although you can't try that one). In the land which gave birth to cyclemania, this is where you can trace every development from pedals and gears right through to the modern machines designed for riding while lying on your back. There are 200 bicycles in three large rooms covering 600m2 including children's bikes, working bikes (deliveries, taxies etc) and tandems for three people, as well as a whole series of fascinating accessories. 

Not one, but two tiny museums

If you can't be the biggest museum in France, why not be the smallest? Or even in the world? Or perhaps be the smallest museum visited by so many famous people? France boasts not just one but two of the smallest museums in the world. One in the northern territories of Normandy and the other in the sunnier climes of Occitanie.  

A massive list of French and international celebrities, including Peter Ustinov, have made the pilgrimage up the narrow winding stairs to the Petit Musée d'Alphonse (alphonse-allais.blogspot.fr) in Honfleur, Calvados, which can only accommodate two or three people at a time. It is a homage to writer and humorist Alphonse Allais, who created the first completely silent musical composition in 1897 (Funeral March for the Obsequies of a Great Deaf Man - ie 24 bars of silence). At the Salon des Arts Incohérents (1883 and 1884) he exhibited monochrome paintings including First Holy Communion of Anaemic Young Girls in the Snow, (a sheet of plain white paper), and 'Apoplectic Cardinals Harvesting Tomatoes on the Shore of the Red Sea' (guess what colour that canvas was). A keen absinthe drinker, he also invented the Hydropaths' Club for people with allergies to water. The 'lab' above the chemist's shop contains such gems as blue, white and red starch to stiffen French flags when there's no wind. The visit is free. 

The museum at Albaret-Ste-Marie, in Lozère, measuring just 12.8m2 is also tiny, and entered the Guinness Book of Records in 1990 as the smallest museum in France. It is housed in an ancient communal bread oven. The 600-odd inhabitants of the village regularly update the exhibition, which traces the history of the village, including such fascinating snippets as a 1324 document detailing the sale of land for 466 livres, and another from 1691 revealing that 35,000 people out of a local population of 140,000 were beggars.

There is also a document showing that the Bête du Gévaudan (a massive and murderous beast which roamed the area in the late 18th century) was killed just 18kms away but that the church declined to allow the autopsy to take place there. Another section deals with the famous French Pezon circus, which was founded in the village in 1863, featuring wolves and bears. Entrance is free.

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