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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.

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