Historically, the core of the Musée de l’Homme has always been research. The decision to place the research facility at the very heart of the newly renovated space is a powerful re-affirmation of the laboratory-museum concept that made the museum so unique at its creation in 1938. Our research spans the adventure of humankind from the rise of the multiple human lineages that preceded us to modern-day humans.
The story began in the 18th century laboratories of the MNHN with the work of anatomist physicians.
The science of humans (anthropology) is not limited to the study of our anatomy. The MNHN Anthropology department was founded in 1855. Before long, it became evident that its scope as originally conceived was too narrow to cover the diversity of fields of study that was implied by the abundance of its collections, which were constantly being enriched through the archaeological excavations, donations from curious travellers, and collecting during research in the field. The expansion of the collections in the 19th century led to the creation of the first dedicated museum.
The abundant corpus of items from all continents, which testified to the diversity of humans and cultures and illustrated the extent of the French colonial empire, was considered sufficiently instructive to warrant a museum. The Musée d’ethnographie was inaugurated in 1882 in the Palais du Trocadéro, built for the 1878 World’s Fair.
As discoveries continued and theoretical discussion and fields of investigation expanded, existing disciplines grew more specialized.
In 1911, the IPH (Institute of Human Palaeontology) was founded, becoming the first research centre devoted to prehistory. In 1925, three MNHN scientists, Paul Rivet, Marcel Mauss and Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, founded the Paris University Institute of Ethnology.
Ethnology, as understood by Paul Rivet, was a science of synthesis that studied humans as a whole. In 1928, Rivet took over as head of the Musée d’Ethnographie, breathing new life into it with the help of a young museum designer, Georges-Henri Rivière. The new museum concept, which was more scientific, was a prelude of sorts to the creation of the museum to come: the Musée de l’Homme.
1938: Creating the laboratory-museum, an innovative concept by Paul Rivet
From the outset, the Musée de l’Homme was designed as a laboratory-museum that associated a museum, a major research facility, a library and a centre for higher education. The innovative project involved grouping all of the collections relative to humans in a same location. Thus the collections from the anthropology and prehistory gallery at the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle joined the ethnology collections from the former Musée d’ethnographie. At last the conditions made possible an approach—in Paul Rivet’s own words— to “Humans as one and indivisible in space and in time”
The new museum was installed in a new structure: with the 1937 World’s Fair, the Palais du Trocadéro was transformed into the Palais de Chaillot. The Musée de l’Homme was inaugurated on 20 June, 1938 by President of the Republic Albert Lebrun and Education Minister Jean Zay.
For decades, the Musée de l’Homme would prove an international reference for research and museum design, a centre renowned for some of the major names in anthropology, prehistory and ethnology: Claude Lévi-Strauss, Marcel Griaule, Paul-Émile Victor, Jacques Soustelle, and André Leroi-Gourhan.
But the great synthesis envisaged by Paul Rivet was gradually confronted with the specialization of fields. In 1962, the Prehistory division was created. Ten years later, in 1972, research was further divided into three different divisions: prehistory, biological anthropology and ethnology, the layout of the museum followed suit, and was split into separate galleries.
As the three fields settled into this three-part structure, research continued. Despite the transfer of the ethnology collections to the other museums in 2002 and the closure of the Musée de l’Homme for renovation in 2009, the concept of laboratory-museum held fast, and researchers were relocated to the Jardin des Plantes.
The renovation project: an opportunity for the development of research, training and public diffusion of research findings.
The founding principle of the laboratory-museum, which combines collection conservation and knowledge dissemination with the functions of research and teaching, has been reaffirmed and enriched through multidisciplinary, collective deliberation. In an entirely renovated space, the new museum concept goes hand in hand with the implementation of a scientific project that relies on a federating entity, the Centre for Research on the evolution of humans and societies. With 150 researchers on location, this multidisciplinary structure approaches humankind in all its complexity as biologic, cultural and social beings, while exploring the past and raising questions about the future.