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Couloir d'accès aux bureaux des chercheurs au Musée de l'Homme © MNHN - J-C Domenech
Couloir d'accès aux bureaux des chercheurs au Musée de l'Homme © MNHN - J-C Domenech

Research at the Musée de l’Homme

Biodiversity is at the core of research at the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle. As a result, researchers at the Musée de l’Homme work on the interactions between humans and the environment, but they also develop their own research on the human species: its evolution and its biological and cultural diversity, thus powerfully reaffirming the laboratory-museum concept.

Creating the laboratory-museum

In 1925, three of the Museum’s scientists – Paul Rivet, Marcel Mauss, and Lucien Lévy-Bruhl – founded the Institut d’ethnologie de l’Université de Paris (Paris University Institute of Ethnology). Paul Rivet considered ethnology as a science of synthesis that studied Mankind in its entirety. In 1928, Rivet took over as head of the Musée d’ethnographie (Museum of Ethnography), breathing new life into it with the help of young museum designer Georges-Henri Rivière. The new museum concept, which reorganised to be more scientific, was a precursor for the creation of a new museum: the Musée de l’Homme.

From its creation in 1938, the Musée de l’Homme was designed as a laboratory-museum, bringing together a museum, a major research laboratory, a library and a centre for higher education. The innovative project involved grouping all of the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle’s collections related to mankind in the same location. Thus the collections from the anthropology and prehistory gallery joined the ethnology collections from the former Musée d’ethnographie. Thus all the requirements were met to approach – in Paul Rivet’s own words – “Humans as one and indivisible in space and in time”.

Réouverture du Musée de l'Homme en 1939 - Paul Rivet, en premier plan, mène la visite © Bibliothèque Centrale du Muséum

Research today: a unifying entity, a project unique in Europe

That is how Paul Rivet, its founder, summarised the Musée de l’Homme’s aim:

Mankind is one and indivisible, not only in space but also in time.

The laboratory-museum legacy (a museum, collections, a library, a centre for education, technological platforms and researchers), combined with the recognition of human sciences’ contribution to addressing current issues (climate change, loss of biodiversity and the future of our species) create an environment conducive to new research dynamics at the Musée de l’Homme.

Shelly Masi, primatologue du MNHN, et Makumba, dos argenté de gorilles de l'Ouest, Parc National de Dzanga-Ndoki, République Centrafricaine © Antonio Sanna
Observation d'un groupe de gorilles de l'Ouest en République Centrafricaine © Ngombo Dieudonné
Ethnologie. Traitement d'une chamelle malade (Qatar). 1978 © MNHN - Annie Montigny
Ethnologie. Au Qatar, les anciens bédouins aiment retourner dans le désert mais en créant un environnement idéalisé. 2014. © MNHN - Annie Montigny

Ethnologists, ethnobiologists, ethnomusicologists, primatologists, geneticists, palaeoanthropologists and prehistorians mix together, sharing the same offices and technological platforms which leads to the exchange of ideas and collaboration. Human contact and sharing are thus the basis of the interdisciplinary nature that characterises human sciences research at the Musée de l’Homme, and the Museum more widely. Thus prehistorians working with fossils and tools dating back 2 million years or even longer cross paths with primatologists who are interested in the behaviour of our cousins, the apes. They also encounter and exchange with ethnologists, ethnobiologists who explore contemporary societies and biological anthropologists who study human diversity. This collaboration is strengthened by the presence of young researchers and many masters’ students and doctoral candidates.

Le grand marché au dromadaire de la vallée du Nil, à Darāw, au nord d’Assouan, Égypte, le 22 février 2015 © MNHN - Vincent Battesti
Enfant portant un masque de bélier dans l’ancienne oasis d’Amon, pour la fête annuelle (‘aīd al-siyaha), Dakrūr, oasis de Siwa, Égypte, le 25 octobre 2015 © MNHN - Vincent Battesti
Un enfant près de son père qui fait les dents d’une faucille amdjir qui finira dans la vitrine du Musée de l’Homme, quartier de Sidi Raḥyem, oasis de Siwa, Égypte, le 16 novembre 2014 © MNHN - Vincent Battesti

An original contribution

The Museum’s researchers’ national and international reputation, their expertise and the unifying dynamics at work within the Musée de l’Homme provide an original contribution, putting humans’ biological, cultural and social data, from prehistoric to contemporary times, into perspective. A driving force, both at national and international level, when it comes to understanding our past, the museum is also an environment for discussion, for assessing our species’ capacity to imagine scenarios for the future.

Ethnomusicologie. Bernadette Antari, joueuse téké du pluriarc ngwomi. Les Téké sont les seuls détenteurs de ce type d'instrument au Gabon - Odjouma - Gabon - 2003 © MNHN - Sylvie Le Bomin
Groupes de chanteuses ayaligui chez les Téké (les coiffes sont réalisées en plumes de cigogne et les costumes en raphia tissé) - Franceville - Gabon - 2003 - © MNHN - Sylvie Le Bomin
Femmes babongo du village de Moyiko à la pêche dans les petites rivières de la forêt équatoriale - Moyiko - Gabon - 2015 © MNHN - Sylvie Le Bomin

Find out more

This research is carried out by the “Man & the Environment” department of the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle.

This department is made up of 4 research units, 2 of which are based at the Musée de l’Homme:

All these research units are actively working on research topics developed at the Musée de l’Homme.