Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Galeries de Paléontologie et d'Anatomie Comparée....

Fixed flight.
Before temperatures plummeted (falling to minus 18° here the other weekend) I went to see one of my favourite museums in Paris which by the nature of its exhibits – principally skeletons and fossils – and the nature of the very building and exhibit presentation seems to be frozen in time. Welcome to the Galeries de Paléontologie et d’Anatomie Comparée – part of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle (or MNHN as the French love giving initials to everything which complicates things for the uninitiated!)….
An alternative Noah's Ark...
 Apart from the odd interactive digital panel that appears to be a token gadget to satisfy a click-happy public, the glory of the museum is simply the unadulterated,  somewhat old-fashioned presentation of its exhibits. These need no justification or gimmickry to attract even, or rather especially, the youngest visitors. Should you wish to come during the school holidays, expect to queue for a considerable time as a glut of children gaze and gasp at the more dramatic forms of beast, breath-taking in terms of size, volume and age. 
Marine beasts
 As with all museums, however, one of its main roles, apart from simply conserving and improving the collection, encouraging research and teaching, is the diffusion of knowledge. The impressive lay-out of the displays, the vast glass mural cabinets and standing cases bear explanatory labels and descriptions, many hand-written and dating back to the inauguration of the museum, as the faded ink and ornate script attest. 
The canine family.
 While the museum has adapted the display of its collection to the taste and needs of the visitors over the years, it has mercifully not yet felt the need to pander to digital addictions by providing distracting tactile screens that never seem to truly inform. And yes, I do acknowledge that just saying that makes me a freak, frozen in time myself, but there you have it!...  Indeed, since its inauguration the museum has sought to vary the exhibitions, presenting some of its collection whilst storing others pieces in order to rotate the exhibits to enhance interest and improve conservation. This technique may appear logical to us today, but wasn’t common at that time and subsequently was adopted by other museums who admired this initiative.
Skulking Stegasaurus outside the museum.
 The museum grounds set the tone before you even enter the building. From the outside, it presents itself as an imposing edifice of red brick design – typical of many from the very end of the 19th century – and especially reminiscent of Victorian architecture.
Main entrance of the Galerie de Paléontologie et Anatomie Comparée.
 Andre-Joseph Allar undertook the decoration of the façade when the work requested by the natural history professors Albert Gaudry and George Pouchet for the inauguration of the Galeries in 1898. and even if the dramatic bas-reliefs animating the building have been worn down by the weight of years, climate and pollution the initial effect must have been striking. Situated just beyond the gated entrance of the Jardin des Plantes, opposite the Gare d’Austerlitz, the museum is surrounded by the impressive trees and shrubbery of the park. Amongst outsized ferns and other suitably ‘pre-historic’ foliage and trees such as the Monkey Puzzle (Araucaria Araucana) are imposing sculptures of beasts that seem to be grazing in these majestic grounds whilst guarding the museum.

The architect responsible for its realization was Ferdinand Charles-Louis Dutert (1845-1906), who was perhaps better known for the creation of the Galerie des Machines for the Exposition Universelle of 1889 (for which Gustave Eiffel created his infamous feat of engineering – the Eiffel Tower). The Galerie des Machines was indeed an impressive structure, composed of vast metal trusses and bridges spanning the great width of the building whilst large expanses of glass provided luminosity and a sense of lightness. 
Galerie des Machines: Dutert.
 This was sadly demolished in 1909, however these features of glass and metal appear in the Galeries de Paléontologie et d’Anatomie Comparée. Here the metallic skeleton is not only visible, but is fully emphasized. Delicate iron fretwork decorates the mezzanine level in an organic manner and flourishes of ferns and flora enhance the stairwell and handrails to intricate effect, in some ways acting as a precursor to Art Nouveau.
Ironwork on the balcony handrail.
 The stonework of the museum also bears references to the natural world, with sculpted creatures emerging from pillars and lurking on cornices if the visitor cares to lift his eyes to notice them… You cannot fail to miss the striking sculpture of Emmanuel Frémiet, one of the greatest artistes animaliers, which demonstrates the ever-powerful hold of the natural world on man. 
Orangutan: Frémiet. 1895
 Once you’ve paid your entrance fee however, and walked into the vast room on the ground floor, you soon feel that Man still strives to maintain his dominant position in the animal kingdom. At the head of a veritable troup of animal skeletons stands an écorché statue of a man, all muscles and veins visible, yet this vulnerability is belied by his determined stance and a strategically placed fig leaf!. With one arm raised, the statue, very much man-made, unlike the natural remains of his animal procession, seems to be ordering his bestial followers forward, heralding the way, like a surreal version of Noah preparing his ark.
The 'écorché' leading on his troup...
 Just as ‘Noah’ has been stripped of his protective layers, his animal herd seems to be an ironic parallel to the huge procession of naturalized (i.e. stuffed) beasts that can be seen in the Grande Galerie de l’Evolution of the Natural History museum on the other side of the Jardin des Plantes. In the section of comparative anatomy, over 1000 skeletons of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles overwhelm you in their diversity. Many of the specimens were brought to the collection from naturalists’ missions around the world in the18th and 19th century, or came from the animals once housed in the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes, or elsewhere (eg. The rhinoceros from the Ménagerie de Versailles). 
 On the day that I visited, the museum was full of art students, busy sketching various forms and subjects, school children and a number of foreign visitors just admiring the building and collection alike. The ground floor has to be my favourite of the three collections to be seen. The big procession of marine, air-borne and terrestrial beasts all highlight different aspects of comparative anatomy of species and groups that still exist today, or have just become extinct. Walking around the central display you encounter the animals in all their skeletal glory.
Elephant minus the characteristic trunk and ears...
 Comparative anatomy dictates the differentiation and classification of species and the first lateral display windows that you encounter on your right offer an ‘alphabet of the skeleton’ and study of locomotion. Most specimens surprise you by their sheer size, and the incredible intricacy of the bones and many others seem virtually unrecognizable without their furry/ fleshy coverings and characteristics. The elephant skull, minus a trunk and huge ear flaps, has a strangely truncated, block-shaped form, whilst other skulls, such as that of the duck-billed platypus prove just how accurate the species’ name actually is.
Duck-billed Platypus.
 The more delicate specimens are displayed in the mural glass cabinets, as are glass jars containing organs and body tissue, all of which serving to demonstrate similarities and differences in function, form and structure in the animal world. The majority of the jarred specimens date from long ago, and many of these appear to be like macabre displays from a travelling fair, destined to titillate and shock the general public. Ancient mutant forms floating in formalin attract us with a strange quaintness as Geoffrey Saint-Hilaire’s cabinet of Monstres demonstrates. Other forms simply fascinate us by their strange properties – just have a look at the giraffe’s tongue for a prime example of this!
A siamese skeleton.
 In this part of the museum we see that in terms of skeletal formation and function Homo Sapiens is not so very different from the primates apart from his notably upright position and the resulting proportion of bones. Perhaps as a security measure most of these skeletons are safely exposed behind glass - visitors do actually steal skulls and various other bones from the Catacombs in Paris, as I witnessed myself! As a consequence, the photos caught the light and reflections but I quite liked the effect, as Man seems to be floating in a timeless, unreal space, almost traced onto the squat remains of the primate family.
Homo Sapiens floating in the primate family.
 This effect was more marked, and poignant even, with the cabinet bearing the skeletons of foetuses. Here, groups of ‘unborn’ babies appear huddled together, with strangely expressive head positions, bowed down and puzzled by their fate, arms and hands hanging down, at a loss – all still-born yet destined to live together in this state of limbo, floating in time and space in a cradle of animal bones. 
The forlorn foetuses.
 The anthropological and pre-historical collections were largely transferred to the Musée de l’Homme in 1937, but copies of Lucy’s bones are displayed on the first floor of the Galerie de Paléontologie. 
Part of the stairwell.
 Heading up the the decorative stairs the visitor comes across a mural plaque depicting the Tree of Life, which enables us to situate Man in this vast, diverse classification. Arriving in the paleontological section of the museum we see the force of evolution in the succession of fossilized vertebrates that populated the earth from over 600million years ago. 
 Here is a long disappeared world, retraced through the lay-out of the large room. The visitor passes in front of ancient beasts only familiar to us through books and the screen – the big ‘stars’ being the dinosaurs of monstrous dimensions; Diplodocus, Tyrannosaurus, Triceratops and Ichthyosaurus. 
The terrifying Tyrannosaurus.
 We also encounter distant ancestors of species common to us today – the horse, giant deer, birds, primates, and of course, Lucy herself. All the creatures are imposing due to their size, and visible signs of their force and ferocity. 
A collection of fiendishly ferocious fangs
Huge tusks, horn formations, antlers, massive jaws, jagged feet and treacherous teeth and fangs leave no doubt to the brutality of the fight for the survival of the fittest. One imposing beast, related to the Armadillo is the Glyptodon Asper, with its own glass cage to protect it (or us!) has a particular ‘crazy-paving’ armoured shell . 
Glyptodon Asper with its intricate shell and hard-wearing feet.
 Leaving this floor we enter the mezzanine where the invertebrate specimens are to be found. The names roll of the tongue like an ancient school textbook – trilobites, ammonites, arachnids, nautiloids, gastropods, molluscs… What I really liked is that this part of the museum even looks like an ancient study room. 
Fossile display cabinets.
 A spiral staircase leads up to a library full of ancient volumes (sadly inaccessible to the public), long rows of old display cabinets stretch out and the whole atmosphere is of a distant world that I hope will long be preserved and revered here, at least. The museum was partially renovated in 1998, but escaped the ravages of excess modernization and the need to meet the extensive criteria of health and safety and has kept its spirit intact. The French poet, Paul Claudel, said that the museum was…"rien de moins que [le] plus beau musée de Paris [...]. À chacun de mes passages en France, je reviens visiter cette galerie sublime avec un sentiment de vénération religieuse, qui chaque fois, me donne envie d'enlever non seulement mon chapeau mais aussi mes chaussures." 
 The museum also attests to the quasi-religious veneration of the natural world and the sciences and reflects the continued thirst to understand these during the 19th century. From the previous century, scientists had been attempting to find, describe and name species of the natural world – largely basing their classification on the work of the Swedish zoologist, botanist and physicist Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778). His studies and publications - especially his Systema Naturae - put forward his theories on the division and sub-division of the animal world with a system of taxonomy using binomial nomenclature.
 At the head of the huge parterre of the Jardin des Plantes is a large statue of Georges-Louis de Buffon (1707-1788) for it was he who transformed what was initially known as the Jardin du Roi, from its creation as the royal herbarium in 1633 into a centre of research and a museum when he was named intendant in 1739. Over the next fifty years Buffon increased the size of the grounds, replanted the Jardin with trees and plants from foreign lands and improved the zoological and botanical specimens for the Cabinet d’Histoire Naturelle du Roi to the point that it offered the most elaborate collection In Europe. Buffon was the first to evoke the birth of the universe and the Earth in terms that did not include religious theory, but instead advanced the idea that time itself was the “grand ouvrier de la Nature” (Nature’s workman), based on a theory of revolutions. He was recognized as not being “an evolutionist, yet he was the father of evolutionism” (Ernst Mayr). He enjoyed considerable success during his lifetime; elected member of the Académie Française, named Compte de Buffon, admired by the great novelist Balzac who emulated him in his La Comédie Humaine. «Si Buffon a fait un magnifique ouvrage en essayant de représenter dans un livre l'ensemble de la zoologie, n'y avait-il pas une œuvre de ce genre à faire pour la Société? »
Lamarck: Léon Fagel. 1908
 The same level of success and esteem were not meted out to another grand savant whose statue is to be found at the other end of the gardens, not far from the entrance to the Galerie de Paléontologie. And yet this was a great man of science who was instrumental in the initial development of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle and the Jardin des Plantes in 1793, and the classification of the collections. Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck (1744-1829), botanist, zoologist and professor of Histoire naturelle des Insectes et des Vers au Jardin du Roi was to have a key role in the development of the theories of evolution in the 19th century. As Charles Darwin remarked in 1861, Lamarck “first did the eminent service of arousing attention to the probability of all changes in the organic, as well as in the inorganic world, being the result of law, and not of miraculous interposition.”

It was he who coined the term invertebrate and applied that of biology to refer to the study of living forms. Lamarck elaborated his notion of transmutation, based on his studies of invertebrate fossils, wherein he remarked that species were in a continual state of flux and progression. However his resultant theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics was already widely refuted during his lifetime, and further rejected after his death, drawing particularly harsh criticism from his colleague Cuvier. Lamarck died in such a state of poverty that his body was finally disposed of in a paupers’ communal grave, his bones indistinguishable from those of all the others buried there; an ironic end for a man who had contributed so much to identification and classification. 
Cuvier: David d'Anger. 1833
 A bust of Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) stares out over the troop of animal skeletons on the ground floor of the museum, and rightly so since he was recognized as one of the founders of the disciplines of paleontology and comparative anatomy. Rejecting any notion of linear ancestry, Cuvier divided living creatures into four distinct categories – vertebrates/molluscs/arthropods and radiates. Any similarity between groups could simply be explained by common functions, but not put down to common ancestry. He was set against all the theories of transmutation privileged by Lamarck and Saint-Hilaire and enforced his own notion of the extinction of species, frequently due to catastrophic events. Cuvier himself proved to be a highly adaptable specimen since he managed to serve under three opposing governments (Revolution, Napoleonic and Monarchy) and met with great acclaim during and after his lifetime. 
Geoffrey Saint-Hilaire: Philosophie Anatomique. 1818
 At the far end of the comparative anatomy section of the museum we come across the afore-mentioned Cabinet de Monstres elaborated by Etienne Geoffrey Saint-Hilaire (1772-1844). In 1793 he was appointed as one of the twelve professors at the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle and occupied the Chair of Zoology, also teaching this discipline at the faculty of science. Gradually he began to devote himself to the study of anatomy (he examined the Hottentot Venus in 1815) and in 1818 he published the first part of his Philosophie Anatomique. His studies gave rise to a theory of evolution which was based on the notion of the unity of composition, subject to a general plan, with all animals formed from the same elements. In this vision of analogues and connections any abnormality or malfunction in nature was born of imperfect evolution. With his theory of transformation Saint-Hilaire was closer to the ideas of Lamarck and therefore in opposition to Cuvier’s work based on invariability.
 Walking around the grounds today it is difficult to imagine the debate and controversy that many of these theories and counter-theories gave rise to. Many, if not most of these have been overshadowed by the work of a man they all served to inform and influence; Charles Darwin. My most recent visit to the museum has made me appreciate the grand naturalists even more and want to take up reading a book I bought a few years ago – an account of Darwin’s visit to South America. 
Make sure you visit the museum before it is renovated/modernized/sanitized as it surely will be – the façade of the building is undoubtedly in need of a vital facelift. I just hope that the skeleton and essence of the museum remains the same. Enjoy this trip back in time while you can – over the millennia and particularly back to the 19th century!

1 comment:

  1. The Rothchild Natural History Museum in Tring is well worth a look. This place looks really fascinating, with actual exhibits unlike the London Natural History museum

    ps: put you up for a little award thing... see my blog for details


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