A Natural History Tour of Paris


As any good naturalist knows, it is important to get away sometimes – out of the workshop, and into the field. One must find the time to disentangle oneself from the single-minded pursuit of knowledge to travel to exotic locales, to broaden one’s experience, to relax and regenerate. For our dear John Whipple Potter, his breaks took the form of field excursions to the Lathams’ Oak Lodge in Florida. For members of the Jenks Society, we have Spring Break. And where should a Jenksian hope to go? If one were to conjure up an image of the ideal city for the lover of museums, a place with more museums of wondrous description, filled with art, artifact, animal, vegetable, mineral, than one could hope to visit in a month, if one were to then will that ideal image into existence – that city would be Paris.

I share with you now a photographic essay of my adventures through the natural history museums of Paris. The voice of Professor Jenks will weigh in now and again with his thoughts. And if you should ever find yourself in the City of Light, I hope that you will use this as a field guide of sorts, so that you might experience these wondrous places for yourself.

Stop 1: Le Musée Fragonard de l’Ecole Nationale Veterinaire D’Alfort


This museum was established in 1766 as part of the royal veterinary school in Alfort, a suburb of Paris. Its collection includes skeletons, models, and other comparative anatomy preparations of domestic and wild animals. It is not for the faint of heart. Collection areas include teratology – the study of deformities – parasitology, lots of internal organs, and most famously, an incredible collection of anatomical preparations known as ecorchées. These ecorchées were prepared by Honoré Fragonard in the late 18th century, and consist of preserved muscle, nerves, veins, and other organs presented in a lifelike pose. They are essentially the Body Worlds specimens of the 18th century. When the National Museum of Natural History was founded during the French Revolution, many of the specimens from this museum were transferred to the new institution. Most of its current specimens date to the 19th century.


A two-headed calf on display in the teratology section


A display of teeth by age


A Fragonard ecorchée based on Albrecht Durer’s Horsemen of the Apocalypse print

What would Jenks have thought? What an eminently useful collection for the teaching of agricultural zoology! Those ghastly ecorchées are too dramatic by half, but Fragonard’s skill as a preparator is certainly impressive.

Stops 2-4: Jardin des Plantes and the National Museum of Natural History

The royal medicinal plant garden was established in 1635 under King Louis XIII for the royal physicians to cultivate and study medicinal plants. For much of the 18th century, it was directed by George-Louis LeClerc, Comte de Buffon, a leading naturalist of the Enlightenment, and came to include all sorts of natural history collections. The jardin was formally reorganized as the National Museum of Natural History in 1793 during the French Revolution.  There are now 4 separate museums on the grounds as well as a zoo, library, and of course, gardens. The first site that we shall visit, housed in the library of the museum, is the –

Stop 2: Cabinet Bonnier de la Mosson

An unbelievably beautiful collections cabinet, assembled by Joseph Bonnier de la Mosson in the 1730s. This article by Celeste Olalquiga in (fittingly) Cabinet Magazine is far more eloquent on the subject than I could hope to be, but to sum up: The piece is the last remnant of the extensive cabinet of a wealthy Parisian family, created during a transitional period between pre-scientific curiosity cabinets and later, rationally organized specimen displays. Following Bonnier’s death in 1744, the cabinet was acquired by Buffon and installed in the King’s Garden Room. It is now in the modern library reading room, looking strangely out of place but no less gorgeous.


What would Jenks have thought? Specimens of this caliber need not be embellished with fancy cabinetry. Here, allow me to reorganize these cabinets for you in a more scientifically correct way.

A walk across the gardens takes us to –

Stop 3: The Gallery of Paleontology and Comparative Anatomy


Though this gallery was inaugurated in 1898 as part of Paris’s 1900 universal exposition, its collections pre-date the building, and its overall vision and organization can be considered a monument to the great comparative anatomist Georges Cuvier (1769-1832). The gallery is a glorious temple to the variety of life in a spectacular setting – two stories under a glass and steel ceiling that evokes an enormous ribcage.


A bust of Cuvier, with whales

Some of its specimens have truly wonderful stories, such as the rhinoceros of Versailles:


Rhinoceros of Versailles

This rhinoceros was a gift from M. Chevalier, governor of the small French colony of Chandernagor to Louis XV. From 1770 to 1793, it lived in the Royal Menagerie at Versailles. Killed in 1793 during the French Revolution, its skeleton is now found in the Gallery of Comparative Anatomy, while its mounted hide can be seen in the Grand Gallery of Evolution.

Other specimens can be traced back to the conquests of Napoleon. A number of skeletons of mummified animals were collected by Geofrey Saint-Hilaire, who accompanied Napoleon in Egypt. During the 1797 Italian campaign, Bonaparte acquired a collection of fish fossils, which would later be intensively studied by Louis Agassiz. Agassiz emigrated to US, where he founded the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, and became colleagues with none other than our dear JWP Jenks.


Fantastic didactic posters adorn the balcony, if you’re a fan of such things

What would Jenks have thought? Superb! Given the proper space and adequate time, I would create a museum of this caliber for my alma mater.

Stop 4: The Grand Gallery of Evolution

This is the modern face of the National Museum of Natural History. Housed in yet another incredible structure of steel and glass, with 3 stories of open balconies overlooking a grand central space, the museum is organized around the theme of evolution, and around a central display of parading African animals. I hear that this display is periodically animated with a sound and light show, but I didn’t see one while I was there.


What would Jenks have thought? Wonderful specimens, but what a waste to use them to illustrate the new-fangled theory of evolution. No doubt this notion will be forgotten within a year or two, and they will reorganize the collection in more correct way.

Stop 5: Musée de la Chasse et la Nature


What elegant salon wouldn’t benefit from the addition of a few bears?


Guns are surprisingly beautiful, it turns out

This museum of hunting and nature is not a natural history museum, though taxidermic specimens abound. The specimens here are not objects of scientific study, but hunting trophies – and also perhaps, physical prompts for the consideration of man’s complicated relationship with animals. The museum was founded in 1964 by a wealthy industrialist couple, the Sommers, who were avid hunters and conservationists. It is housed in a decadent 17th century mansion, and its rooms combine elegant art and décor with weaponry and hunting trophies, organized around symbolically important animals, such as the room of the wild boar, or room of the stag. Contemporary art installations, including one by our friend Mark Dion, further elevate the bizarre and fantastical atmosphere of the place.



What would Jenks have thought? Hunting for sport is the idle pursuit of the rich. One must not collect animals for the thrill of the chase, but for the knowledge that can be obtained from the study of God’s creations.

Stop 6: Palais de la Porte Dorée


This art deco artifact was constructed as an exhibit hall for the Paris Colonial Exposition of 1931. The Colonial Exposition showcased the natural and ethnographic resources of French colonial holdings, including a ‘human zoo’ of Senegalese Villages, and other recreations of ‘native life’. While the displays are fortunately long gone, the building’s exterior bas-reliefs and interior murals reflect the racist and exploitative colonial attitudes of the time. The building has housed an ever-changing series of ethnographic museums, periodically reorganized according the politics of the time, and is now the National Immigration Museum. It is a fascinating study in the evolution of ethnographic museums during the 20th century.


The African room


‘Commerce’, from the murals of the main gallery


Colonial exposition poster

Thus concludes our tour of some of notable the natural history museums of Paris. Of course, there is much more to see, to do, and to buy – if you are in the market for a taxidermied lion, I suggest a visit to the venerable natural history store Deyrolle (they don’t allow photography inside, alas).  And if you have extra time, I hear Paris has some art museums too.

Au revoir, chers amis!





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