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Return of the Musée Mécanique

As the Musée Mécanique museum & arcade in San Francisco, California prepared to reopen after a 15 month pandemic hiatus, I was invited for an intimate, behind-the-scenes look.

Dan Zelinsky, the owner and operator of the Musée Mécanique motions far into the distance of the sprawling museum floor that sits on Pier 45 of San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf: “I’ll be back there in the workshop. You, take pictures.” I nod. As he walks away, he pauses as if he forgot something. “Don't scratch anything," he requests.

In 2020 and 2021, Dan and I had coordinated about when would be the best time to visit the Musée to take pictures. The Coronavirus was in full swing, and no time really felt right or safe. As the Musée was approaching its 15th month of shutdown, we had a breakthrough: vaccines became readily available, and infection rates in San Francisco dropped. In May of 2021, I received a call that Dan was planning on reopening the Musée within a week. Without hesitation, I packed my camera gear, choosing film cameras rather than digital to honor all of the old-timey machines the "mechanical museum" has on offer in its interactive display.

And now, camera in hand, I find Dan and his colleague, mechanical whiz and engineer Ken Eaton, in the workshop troubleshooting a particularly tricky issue on the Mighty Wurlitzer Band organ. It's a magnificent piece of 1915 technical engineering that features an astonishing 146 pipes. As Ken dives into the instrument's open mechanics sprawled out on the worktable, I catch Dan taking a rare moment of rest.

“May I take some portraits of you?” I ask.

“If you can see it, you can take it!” he retorts.

Elsewhere in the warehouse, which contains well over 300 items and automata, an artist is painting a "Welcome Back!" sign on the glass door entrance. A staff employee seemingly appears out of thin air and bops around the museum floor like a pinball in one of the Musée's games, inserting quarters into multiple machines, creating a cacophonous chorus of amusement.

All of this liveliness and bombast make it clear: The legendary (and sorely missed) Musée Mécanique is back in play.

Special thanks to my host David Volansky for all of the arrangements and originally proposing the idea to Dan ("I know we told you around 2 hours, but we just said that because we didn't know if you would be annoying or not.") And for showing me the amazing lathe in the workshop ("It’s the only machine in the world that can make a copy of itself.”)