Exhibiting life history at the Paris Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle (nineteenth–twenty-first centuries)
Published:November 27, 2018
Claudine Cohen, 2018. "Exhibiting life history at the Paris Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle (nineteenth–twenty-first centuries)", Museums at the Forefront of the History and Philosophy of Geology: History Made, History in the Making, Gary D. Rosenberg, Renee M. Clary
Download citation file:
The notion of a history of life has been the subject of extensive debates in France, from the turn of the nineteenth century to the dawn of the twentieth century and beyond. In this paper, I analyze how the organization of buildings and collections within the Paris National Museum of Natural History (MNHN), and their successive transformations up to the present, have reflected concepts and controversies over this history. After a brief overview of the constitution of the Museum, this chapter studies the organization of the Museum’s paleontological, zoological, and comparative anatomy collections, and the devices through which scientific ideas and debates about evolution have been displayed and presented to the public.
This paper will focus more particularly on the settings of three major collections of zoological specimens: (1) Georges Cuvier’s “Museum of Comparative Anatomy,” which was opened to the public in 1806; (2) the Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy Gallery, which was founded by Albert Gaudry in 1898; and (3) the Great Gallery of Evolution, which was inaugurated in 1994. I will argue that organizing these exhibits involved theoretical choices, taxonomic methods, scientific practices and rhetoric of displays, as well as ideological choices that connected natural history to its intellectual and sociopolitical background.
Through the examination of these different settings over a period of more than two centuries and their present use, I will question today’s choices of the Paris Museum regarding the meaning and roles of these galleries, involving patrimonial conservation, public entertainment, and diffusion of scientific knowledge in the public.
Figures & Tables
Museums at the Forefront of the History and Philosophy of Geology: History Made, History in the Making
Natural history museums have evolved over the past 500 years to become vanguards of science literacy and thus institutions of democracy. Curiosity about nature and distant cultures has proven to be a powerful lure, and museums have progressively improved public engagement through increasingly immersive exhibits, participation in field expeditions, and research using museum holdings, all facilitated by new technology. Natural history museums have dispersed across the globe and demonstrated that public fascination with ancient life, vanished environments, exotic animals in remote habitats, cultural diversity, and our place in the cosmos is universal. This volume samples the story of museum development and illustrates that the historical successes of natural history museums have positioned them to be preeminent facilitators of science literacy well into the future.