Natural history museums, from origins to decline?

Natural history museums, from origins to decline?

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From Antiquity, in China, Assyria or Egypt, enclosures were most certainly reserved for the cultivation of plants recognized as useful. In France, the creation of botanical gardens in the 16th century has an educational role. Indeed, if they are primarily intended for medical or pharmaceutical education, the collections will be enriched and open to an increasingly large public to become the Natural history museums that we know today.

From a “Royal Garden of Medicinal Plants” to the Natural History Museum

In France, a royal edict created in 1635 the “Jardin royal des Plantes”. It is Louis XIII's doctor, Guy de La Brosse, who is at the origin of this creation in order to study, on the one hand, the cultivation, conservation, study and use of plants in the field of health and on the other hand, the teaching of botany, chemistry and anatomy for future doctors and apothecaries. The courses are given to the public and in French, they are a great success. If this garden is primarily intended for botanical collections and the needs of the Royal Household, it will quickly come into conflict with the faculty of medicine, which remains the only one able to confer the rank of Doctor. The hostility between the two institutions is so strong that until the end of the 17th century, the faculty of medicine of Paris will do everything to oppose, before Parliament, the decisions taken by the superintendent or the steward of the garden. . In 1693, it was Guy Crescent Fagon who took up this position by becoming King Louis XIV's first physician, he calmed the conflict with the faculty of Paris and encouraged study trips to distant countries. From this period, date the first collections of the garden, constituted first by missionaries then by doctors. Fagon will also promote the importation and acclimatization of tropical plants such as coffee.

In the 18th century, the activity diversified. We learn the art of healing with plants and we move on to natural history2. It was in 1739 that the “King's Garden” took on a new dimension, in particular thanks to Buffon who was going to publish throughout his life a monumental Natural History (composed all the same of 36 volumes) and who was going to direct up to upon his death the establishment. Thanks to him, the garden will double its area, we will expand the botany school and the natural history cabinet and we will build a vast amphitheater and a new greenhouse. He will also discover prestigious naturalists such as André Thouin or Antoine Laurent de Jussieu and will multiply exploratory trips with a naturalistic goal.

The Revolution will profoundly transform the functioning of the garden, since on August 20, 1790, a decree of the National Assembly requests projects for a reorganization of it. The created commission is responsible for drafting the regulations of the new institution, its functioning but also its missions3. However, the Assembly did not follow up and it was only on June 10, 1793 that Joseph Lakanal, having discovered the project 3 years earlier, brought it to the Assembly and obtained the vote of the decree establishing the Museum and thus giving to the garden. its own legal existence. This decree of the convention gives birth to the Museum of Natural History and divides the teachings into 12 professors-administrators chairs, led by great scientists such as Cuvier, Jussieu, Lamarck, Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire and later Gay-Lussac, d ' Orbigny, Chevreul, Becquerel.

The heyday of animal study

In the 19th century, museums put plants aside to take an interest in animal life. The creation of the menagerie in 1793 by Saint Hilaire allowed him to tackle transformist ideas also close to that of Lamarck4, while Cuvier defended catastrophic or fixist theories5. Lamarck's ideas announced the evolutionist ideas of Darwin in 1859. Other great scientists will punctuate the life of the Museum in the 19th century. Most of them are members of the Academy of Sciences or the Academy of Medicine and several teach at the Collège de France. A real place of scientific emulation, it is at the heart of the museum that several theories and discoveries emerge, such as the essential laws of genetics by Charles Naudin or the discovery of radioactivity by Henri Becquerel.

The collections literally exploded in the 19th century, to such an extent that there was a lack of space to keep them. An old Louis XIII castle was then reworked, but the extensions made there still proved insufficient. The museum moves several times and new spaces are constantly being built. The collections are continuously amassed during numerous exploratory trips which multiply throughout this period, the Egyptian expedition of Napoleon Bonaparte from 1798 to 1801 being the most famous there. In 1836, the appointment of Chemist Eugène Chevreul enabled the museum to turn to pure research with the creation in 1837 of the chair of applied physics. To enrich the collections during the exploration of the French colonial empire, a colonial school was created in 1889 and provided specialized education for travelers from 1893.

Natural history museums since the 20th century

Since the finance law of December 31, 1907, the Museum has financial autonomy and its own budget. After the First World War, the institution will acquire new establishments outside the capital and thus promote research from different environments in the regions concerned, such as the Dinard maritime studies laboratory. On the eve of the Second World War, the museum had 19 masterly chairs, but the four years of Occupation caused the loss of part of the living collections. The establishment is also home to resistance networks. At the end of the war, Roger Heim managed to straighten out the Museum in a fairly difficult context since natural history was then considered a minor and obsolete discipline.

However, throughout the twentieth century new environments that had not been explored or little explored were discovered and new technical means made it possible to explore the ocean floors and discover the life that resides there. However, the Museum does not neglect the human being and many scientists make contact with indigenous peoples, which allows the birth of ethnography. During the 20th century, the collections were also the object of numerous temporary exhibitions which were very successful. From 1975, a major plan to rehabilitate the premises and regroup the laboratories was launched. 30 years later, in 1994, the zoological gallery was inaugurated by François Mitterrand and became the “Great Gallery of Evolution”.

Today, in Paris, nearly 2 million people pass through the Jardin des Plantes each year. The Museum is the guardian of a heritage of 62 million specimens including several million types of all kinds with hundreds of thousands of living plants and around 3,500 living animals. With almost 2,000 people in France, the majority of whom are researchers and technicians, the museum plays a major national and international role in the development of research in natural history and in the dissemination of scientific culture.

A true place of scientific knowledge, the provincial natural history museums are experiencing a decline in public attention or a merging of collections, or even a complete disappearance, as was the case for the Lyon Museum. The public sometimes judging the outdated or aging collections and not being, or no longer, attracted by the stuffed animals which made the eyes of children marvel in the 19th century, abandon these places which are nevertheless worthy of interest.

This observation should nevertheless be put into perspective, on the one hand, because of the public interest still shown in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris and on the other hand, by the desire of cultural leaders to enhance these collections with the creation in Lyon, for example, the Musée des Confluences which will bring together the collections that were once present at the Guimet Natural History Museum.

For further....

- Site of the National Museum of Natural History of Paris.
- Gérard AYMONIN, “JARDINS BOTANIQUES”, Encyclopædia Universalis [online], consulted on December 1, 2014.
- Yves Laissus, Le Muséum national d'histoire naturelle, Gallimard, coll. "Discoveries", 1995; new ed. 2003.
- Philippe Jaussaud, Édouard-Raoul Brygoo, Du Jardin au Muséum in 516 biographies, Scientific publications of the MNHN, coll. "Archives", 2004.

Video: Whale move: conservation commences. Natural History Museum (May 2022).


  1. Ciarrai

    Logical, I agree

  2. Thawain

    Congratulations, what words ..., a great idea

  3. Leyati

    just awesome !!!!))

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