The collections presented and preserved at the Musée de l’Homme revolve around the following themes: humans and our evolution as a species; humans and our relationship with the environment; human impact on the environment; and the ongoing construction of cultural identities.
Collections that illustrate the history of science…
These collections, issuing from past and current research, are open to the scientific community and managed in a spirit of knowledge-sharing for the benefit of all humankind.
Their constitution and accompanying documentation evolve alongside the scientific disciplines that compose them. For instance, the growing importance of biological anthropology and genetics since the mid-20th century has led to the creation of DNA collections.
Some pieces are of considerable historic value and illustrate the scientific milestones of bygone centuries. One example are the biface hand axes collected in 1859 by Boucher de Perthes in Saint-Acheul on the outskirts of Amiens, France, which proved for the first time that humans were once contemporary with animal species that had long since become extinct. Another are the human and animal representations of the Palaeolithic that were among the oldest to have been discovered in the second half of the 19th century.
Many of the items, in addition to what they teach us about the life and behaviour of humans in their day, also have aesthetic value. They represent the earliest elements of art history, including portable art and cave art (represented in the collections by 19th century surveys).
… that tell of the natural and cultural history of humankind…
The MNHN’s biological anthropology collection, with its wealth of 30,000 items, is composed of ancient human skeletal or fossil remains, mummies, locks of hair, and plaster busts cast from live subjects. It served as the basis for 19th century hypotheses on the characterization of the human species and remains an internationally representative reference on human diversity.
These collections now provide an indispensable resource, especially for palaeoanthropology, bioarchaeology and historical research that rely on state-of-the-art techniques like 3D imaging, DNA analysis and carbon dating. Emblematic human fossils like those of Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal as well as a collection of over 600 anthropological cast replicas from the 19th century are among the highlights of this group.
The Musée de l’Homme’s prehistory collection (1,000,000) is one of the world’s best, both in terms of the diversity of its original pieces and by the vast chronological and geographical range covered, from Africa’s Olduvian stone tool industries to the Neolithic ceramics of China, Japan and Cambodia, for instance. It illustrates both the diversity of and similarities or convergences in behaviour (techniques, subsistence, and symbology) down through time and according to the environments that humans have occupied.
The cultural anthropology collections, containing 6,000 ethnographic items and ethnobiology specimens, are directly tied to the research undertaken by MNHN ethnologists and ethnobiologists on how human societies interact with each other and with their environment, with notable themes such as the globalization of trade, natural resources management, in particular the processing of raw materials, as well as representations of nature and bodily cultural markers.
… and contribute to knowledge building…
In addition to sharing access to Musée de l’Homme collections with other MNHN colleagues, they are at the disposal of the international scientific community, at a structure with high-performance, state-of-the-art research equipment. One of the aims is to encourage multidisciplinary collaboration between specialists and downplay the tripartite organization inherited from the 1970s (biological anthropology, prehistory, ethnology) with a view to developing a human science with an across-the-board, thematic vision that integrates the approaches of both the natural and the social sciences.
Collections that go with the flow of museum history
These national collections have a complex history, having undergone frequent changes in designation and composition depending on the political and scientific choices made at various periods. To start, the creation of the National Antiquities (Antiquités Nationales) in 1865 led to the regrouping of French prehistory collections.
In 1937, for the opening of the Musée de l’Homme at the Palais Chaillot, the prehistory collections of the former Trocadero Ethnology Museum (Musée d'Ethnographie du Trocadéro) were pooled with the MNHN’s prehistory and biological anthropology collections, while the former museum’s ethnography collections went to the Popular Arts and Crafts Museum (Musée des Arts et Traditions Populaire), also located at the Palais de Chaillot.
The creation of a prehistory department in 1962 led to an internal redistribution of the collections between three MNHN departments, ending with an ethnology collection, a biological anthropology collection and a prehistory collection.
In 2003, the newly created Quai Branly Museum, which would open in 2006, received the MNHN ethnology department’s non-European collections (300,000 pieces). Likewise, the European ethnography collections (35,000) went to the MuCEM (Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée) in Marseille, though as part of the deposit contract, they still belong to the MNHN. This new situation would prove decisive for the future of the Musée de l’Homme. The decision to transfer the ethnobiology collections from the Paris Jardin des Plantes to the museum under renovation with its newly created Research centre was a boon to the Musée de l’Homme.
The new Musée de l’Homme: major conservation works
The renovation of the museum with its all-new permanent exhibition concept led to a major overhaul of the collections and an acquisitions policy that focuses on the new scientific themes to be presented. The conservation works (restoration, preparation, digitalization, identification) provided an occasion to rethink and update the documentation.
A greater accent is placed on immaterial heritage by enriching the illustrations and documentation associated with the objects.