Inaugurated in 1882, the Trocadero Ethnography Museum (Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro) displayed “the history of the customs and costumes of peoples throughout the ages.” While it drew a curious crowd in the beginning, it was soon outdated, until Paul Rivet took it over in 1928.

1882-1928: Ethnography Museum - first period

The Trocadero Ethnography Museum focused on objects that were “vanishing”, either due to colonization or to changes in the societies where they were found. The exhibits showed the diversity of physical types and cultural objects in a favourable light, and in that it was in keeping with the school of anthropology developed by Armand de Quatrefages at the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle (MNHN). The Ethnography Museum’s approach relied on evolutionist and ethnocentric concepts of the time. It featured “life-sized” reconstructions in the idea that people needed to experience a civilization in order to understand the objects they produced.

The ethnography museum was run by Dr. Ernest-Théofore Hamy, and later by anthropologist René Verneau, but from the start, it lacked funds. By the early 20th century, if the museum was still a draw for artists looking for inspiration, the general public had begun to desert it. Between the lack of funds and the inflow of new objects from the colonies, and despite the best of intentions, the museum had begun to look like nothing more than a giant curiosity cabinet.

1928-1936: Ethnography Museum - second period

In 1928, the anthropologist and American studies specialist Paul Rivet took over as the museum’s director. He had it attached to the MNHN’s anthropology department, which he chaired and renamed the Department of Ethnology of modern and fossil humans. This shift from anthropology to ethnology would influence the changes made to the museum, breaking with the “all physical” of anthropology and the “all social” of sociology.

Rivet envisioned a multidisciplinary institution that combined, in a single location, university education, a public museum, a research facility and a library. Such was the “Laboratory-museum” which would finally see the day with the founding of the Musée de l’Homme.