Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle: Making History
Text: Pierre Antoine Zahnd | Photos: Muséum National D’histoire Naturelle
France’s cultural landscape may not be what it is without the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle. It was first established in Paris in 1635 by King Louis XIII as a royal garden for medicinal plants, as well as a place of learning and teaching. The time was ripe for cementing the nation’s intellectual identity: the very same year, the Cardinal de Richelieu would establish the Académie Française, which still codifies the French language. Since then, the Muséum has acted as one of the country’s foremost centres for studies in the natural sciences, currently curating some 68 million specimens within its collection. With 500 researchers and 350 postgraduates, it also constitutes a part of the Sorbonne Universities, and is run around a general purpose: to further our understanding of nature so as better to preserve it.
The Muséum holds a unique status among similar institutions abroad: rather than consisting of a single site, it is made up of thirteen, the most prominent three of which are in Paris. Among these, the original 1635 Jardin des Plantes is France’s main botanical garden as well as the central seat of the Muséum. It was renamed as the ‘Paris Botanical Garden’ during the French Revolution, and became the ground for the Muséum by decree of the 1793 National Convention. The Muséum’s expansion through the 1850s, including the establishment of the Gallery of Mineralogy and Geology, marked the first time that a building had been conceived as a museum, rather than converted into one. Each individual gallery now constitutes a museum in its own right, specialising in a given aspect of natural history.
Jardin des Plantes
Set at the heart of the fifth arrondissement, the Jardin des Plantes is still the site of the Muséum’s most iconic institutions. Among them, the Gallery of Comparative Anatomy is an imposing repository of about 650 skeletons, articulating the similarities and divergences between species. On the upper levels of the same building, the Gallery of Paleontology contains a collection of fossil vertebrates, invertebrate and plants. As a whole, this double Gallery offers a 540-million-year journey, guiding visitors chronologically through the story of biological life and illustrating the earth’s main three geological periods: from Paleozoic fossils to the Mesozoic (known as the golden age of the dinosaurs) to our current Cenozoic era.
Grande Galerie de l’Évolution
Another highlight is the near-legendary Grande Galerie de l’Évolution, where some 7,000 mounted specimens retrace the evolution of life on earth. Divided into three sections, the gallery’s ground floor first presents the diversity of living habitats both on land and at sea, while the third floor illustrates the main steps in the evolution of species. Finally, the second floor is concerned with the man-made impact on natural habitats and its potential consequences on evolution.
The Grande Galerie also contains several annexes, one of the most significant of which is the room dedicated to extinct or endangered species. Among other specimens, it features the Schomburgk’s deer, the world’s only mounted example of a species of deer native to central Thailand. The animal in question, in fact, lived in the Jardin des Plantes until its death in 1868. The King Island Emu, endemic to Australia, is another example of an extinct species whose only remaining example stands in the Muséum today. Further on, are a pair of giant pandas, on display since 2019. They were the specimens collected in the Mountains of Eastern Tibet 150 years ago, and used to draw up the original scientific description of their whole species, now endangered. More than a mere exhibition of rare or unheard-of animals, the gallery is a moving testament to the finitude of life, and the care that is required to foster it. By presenting us with the last specimens of individual species, it encourages us to work toward the protection of those that may one day become extinct.
In order to increase awareness among the younger generation, the Muséum opened the Children’s Gallery in 2010. This two-floor space enables children to roam around four distinct ecosystems (city, river, tropical forest and planet) so as to familiarise themselves with biodiversity.
Musée de l’Homme
The Musée de l’Homme, or Museum of Mankind, is another central point of the institution. Built on the grounds of the former Trocadéro Museum of Anthropology, it was established in 1937 by Paul Rivet, who became known for his involvement against fascism during the Second World War. Its fundamental purpose was better to define humanity under its multiple facets, illustrating its various socio-cultural expressions over time. Some 1,800 items form an exploratory route through the museum, articulating three main questions: “Who are we?”, “Where are we from?”, and “Where are we going?”. These thematics aim to define and interpret mankind’s evolving role among living beings, and, by understanding what it has been, to conjecture what it may become.
Zoological Park of Paris
Finally, the third foremost Parisian site of the Muséum is the Zoological Park of Paris. Located in the 12th arrondissement, it covers a 36-acre area within the Bois de Vincennes, and is recognisable from afar thanks to the iconic, 65-metre-high artificial ‘Great Rock’ that towers over the park. Opened in 1934 as a complement to the smaller zoo at the Jardin des Plantes, it was fully renovated from 2008 to 2014, when it reopened its doors to the public. The parc aims to offer an immersive experience into a great variety of natural habitats: its four-kilometre pathway goes through five distinct biozones: Patagonian, Sahel-Sudan, Europe, Guyana-Amazon and Madagascar. It also contains a 4,000-square-metre greenhouse that harbours a tropical rainforest climate. Spanning mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish and invertebrates, the parc includes 194 species, with over a thousand animals on the grounds: an added testimony to the Muséum’s commitment to biodiversity.
Beyond these three main Parisian institutions, the Muséum is complemented by regional sites across France. A non-exhaustive list includes the Marinarium in Concarneau, Brittany; the Garden for Exotic Botany in Menton, in the south-east of France; and the Pataud Shelter, a prehistoric museum site in the Dordogne region, originally occupied by some of the first Homo Sapiens 20,000 years ago. While more modest in size and scope, these sites add individuality and variety to the Muséum, while bringing significant contributions to its central concern: the understanding of life and its evolution, especially in the context of contemporary issues.
The Muséum in 2020
The Muséum consistently strives to offer a rich programme of events. A full list can be found on its website, but must-see 2020 events include the I eat, therefore I am exhibition, which investigates the biological, cultural and ecological sides of food consumption (at the Museum of Man until 1 June, 2020). At the Jardin des Plantes, two events explore the wonders of the marine and geological worlds: Illuminated Ocean (until 19 January) is an invitation to discover the biodiversity of oceans and the need to preserve it, while Precious Stones: from Minerals to Jewels focuses on gems, crystals and other rare minerals, tracing their journey from the mines to jewellery (from April 2020 until January 2021). Finally, the Zoological Park will feature a season centreing on its most fascinating species, either animal or vegetal; real or imaginary (from 4 April to 1 November 2020).
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