Who are we?

What is a human being? What makes us different from other species? Our body? Our genes? Our imagination? Our empathy? How do we as humans see ourselves, study ourselves, explain ourselves?

To answer these questions, the first part of the visit explores our identity based on a number of possible criteria for pinning down what makes a human being. Are we: beings of flesh and blood? Beings of thought? Social beings? Beings of speech?

No single criterion, however generally accepted, can suffice to characterize humans. An across-the-board approach that combines anatomical, cultural and artistic considerations is always necessary.

We are one species among millions. Like our fellow species, we descend from an age-old evolutionary process. On the scale of life itself, our appearance on earth is very recent. Yet we are a singular species in the way we think, in the way we envision our world and in the way we shape it… to the point that we even created a museum where we are both the observer and the observed.


Visitors are invited to explore their humanity

  • To question their very nature as a member of the species Homo sapiens and as an individual human being.
     
  • To compare themselves with other species with which we share certain aptitudes. For we are not the only creatures that walk on two feet, not the only ones capable of transferring acquired skills and know-how to our fellows, not the only ones able to communicate, etc. We are, however, the only ones to weave words together, and to have an awareness of time and death.
     
  • To contemplate the oneness of humanity and the diversity of cultures, societies and the individuals that compose them. From the start, we are all endowed with the same set of cognitive functions, yet human beings have come up with very different ways of viewing the world and our origins, not to mention of structuring societies and speaking languages.

Content

Part one is rolled out in linear fashion over two-thirds of the nave on level 1. It opens with the spectacular exhibit “Plural beings”, a structure supporting a series of 19th century busts that attest to the special interest in human diversity that marked a given period in the history of sciences.

  • 3 expansive wall cases provide spectacular panoramas. They gather nearly a hundred objects on the following themes: “The body: between nature and culture” (what makes a human body); “1001 ways to view the world” and our connection with other beings (plants, animals, spirits...); “Me, we and the others: overlapping identities.”
     
  • 10 of our organs illustrating human morphology.
     
  • 20 preserved animal brains (lizard, elephant, langoustine, etc.) and one human brain, presented in jars in an interactive, animated display case that helps to understand similarities and differences in cognitive capacity.
     
  • 35 wax anatomical models, 79 plaster busts, 15 bronzes, illustrating human diversity and trends in scientific and artistic representations of our understanding of humankind since the 17th century.
     
  • 1 giant resin tongue housing an audio installation where visitors can bask in the diversity of songs and music from around the world.
     
  • 30 different languages (out of the 7 000 spoken by 7 billion humans)

Humans: Studied, Measured, Beautified

How do we humans envision ourselves?

Throughout the visit, a selection of objects denotes the various ways in which Europeans have represented the human species both physically and mentally throughout history. Many of these objects, taken from the museum’s collections, are being presented to the public for the first time.

The Musée de l’Homme boasts an exceptional series of anatomical representations ranging from:

  • illustrated plates
  • phrenological figures (350 skulls and the cast heads of people—famous or infamous—who lived in the 19th century)
  • the wax anatomical models of André-Pierre Pinson (18th century masterpieces, including the renowned “Woman with a teardrop”.
  • 600 coloured plaster busts illustrate human diversity, most of them cast during the round-the-world expeditions of the 19th century.
  • and fifteen bronze or marble sculptures are the work of Charles Cordier.

This extraordinary assemblage is given a prominent place in the gallery, with the busts mounted on a monumental structure that rises all the way up to the second level, measuring :

  • 19 m long,
  • 11 m high
  • and weighing 1 900 kg

The massive structure in high density aluminum is arranged like a musical staff. 79 plaster busts and 12 bronzes exemplify human diversity – four sets of busts, as many portraits of the individuals who served as models, speak to the circumstances of their fabrication and the individual or collective road that brought them all the way to Europe.