From the Musée d'Ethnographie to the Musée de l'Homme
From 1882 right up to 2015, the year of the refurbishment, let’s look back on 133 years of history.
1882-1928: The early life of the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro (Trocadéro Museum of Ethnography)
The Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro preserved objects that were “vanishing”, either due to colonisation or societal changes. The exhibitions showcased as much different physical characteristics as cultural objects and was in this way in keeping with the anthropology developed by Armand de Quatrefages at the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle. The design of the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro’s exhibits was based on the evolutionist and ethnocentric concepts of its time. It featured “life-sized” reconstructions, reflecting the idea that people needed to experience a civilisation in order to understand the objects it produced.
The Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro was run by Dr Ernest-Théodore Hamy followed by anthropologist René Verneau but was sorely lacking in funds. By the beginning of the 20th century, although the Museum still attracted artists seeking inspiration, the general public was gradually abandoning the site. Between the lack of funds and the abundant supply of new objects from the colonies, the museum ended up looking like a cabinet of curiosities, which it never intended to be.
1928-1936: a new lease of life for the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro
In 1928, anthropologist and American studies specialist Paul Rivet took over as the Museum’s director. He had it linked to the anthropology department of the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, which he chaired at the time and renamed it the department of ethnology of modern and fossil humans. This shift from anthropology to ethnology marked the official birth of the latter, at the crossroads of “all physical” anthropology and “all social” sociology.
Rivet envisioned a multidisciplinary institution that combined university education, a museum, a research laboratory and a library in one location: a “laboratory-museum”, which only really came into being with the founding of the Musée de l’Homme.
The founding of the Musée de l’Homme: 1937
The Musée de l’Homme saw the light of day in a climate marked by upheavals in the Popular Front, nationalist exacerbation and signs of rising Fascism. Inaugurated on 20 June 1938 by the French President, Albert Lebrun, the Minister of Education, Jean Zay, the Minister of the Interior, Albert Sarraut, and the Minister of Colonies, Georges Mandel, the Musée de l’Homme sought to fight racism, like its founder.
“With the name of this institution, I wanted to show that everything that concerns us multi-faceted human beings should and could find a place within the collections. (…) All the results obtained by specialists had to be brought together in one vast summary, forcing them to compare their findings, to check them and to back them up with their colleagues’ findings. Mankind is one and indivisible, not only in space but also in time”
The Musée de l’Homme took over the site and a major part of the collections of the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro and received the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle’s anthropology collections. In September 1939, the rooms of anthropology closed due to a lack of staff because of the mobilization. They re-opened from November 1939 despite the war. Within the space of just a few years, the Museum became a leading research facility, where renowned scientists set up their laboratories, including Claude Lévi-Strauss, Marcel Griaule, Michel Leiris, Robert Gessain, André Schaeffner, Thérèse Rivière, André Leroi-Gourhan, Germaine Tillion and Jean Rouch.
Major exhibitions: the 1990s
Beginning in the 1990s, the Musée de l’Homme created large-scale permanent exhibitions that demonstrated the Museum’s vocation to answer questions about the origin of Mankind. In 1994, the Grande Galerie de l’Évolution of the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle presented Mankind as a factor of recent evolution. It was up to the Musée de l’Homme to include humans in the evolution of species by detailing the history of the human lineage, and by illustrating different understandings of nature and resulting uses. The first exhibition, La nuit des temps (“The dawn of time”) enabled visitors to explore the paleontological and cultural history of humans through the exhibition of remains of human fossils, prehistoric tools and cave art. In 1992, the exhibition Tous parents tous différents (“All related, all different”) illustrated the main results from research on the biology of present-day human populations, concentrating on the common origin of all human beings, while reminding visitors of the genetic and physical diversity that makes each of us unique. In 1994, Six milliards d’hommes (“Six billion humans”) presented the mechanisms of human population growth and focused on how our lifestyles are contributing to the future of our planet.
Reconfiguring the Musée de l’Homme: 2003-2015
In the 1990s, the Musée de l’Homme was involved in the general cultural policy decision regarding the fact that indigenous art – more specifically African, Oceanian, American and Asian art – lacked a prominent place in French museums. In 1996, a government commission under President Chirac proposed that the collections of the Musée de l’Homme’s ethnology laboratory and those of the Musée national des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie (National African and Oceanic Arts Museum) be brought together in a new single museum: the Musée de l’Homme et des Arts premiers (Museum of Mankind and Indigenous Art). Initially, the idea was that the new museum would be housed in the Musée de l’Homme and the neighbouring Musée national de La Marine. Eventually, it was decided that a new institution, the Musée du quai Branly (Quai Branly Museum), would be built instead At the same time, the proposal for the Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée (MuCEM – Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations) got the go-ahead. It brought together all the national collections of European ethnography, including those of the Musée de l’Homme as of 2005. The MuCEM opened in Marseille in 2013.
In July 2008, further to a proposal by Valérie Pécresse, the French Minister of Higher Education and Research, the government committed to the refurbishment of the Musée de l’Homme – the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle site located at the Palais Chaillot. Starting in April 2009, movers replaced the visitors at the Musée de l’Homme. As soon as the museum closed, the works began. The operation affected around a hundred people in the Musée de l’Homme’s “Prehistory” and “Humans, Nature, Societies” departments. The teams moved to the Jardin des Plantes where they were able to continue their research and teaching activities. The collections were also transferred. A large proportion of them remained available for study, and the renovation works provided an opportunity to embark upon a vast reorganisation of the collections.
The new Musée de l’Homme: 2015
Inaugurated in 2015, the new Musée de l’Homme aims to provide visitors with an understanding of human evolution and societies by combining biological, social and cultural approaches. It deals with the earliest days of humanity as well as the modern era, questioning the future of humankind.
As a museum devoted to the diffusion of knowledge and public discussion, the new Musée de l’Homme houses vast public spaces dedicated to these functions. Exhibitions, the balcon des sciences, the auditorium, the resource centre, classrooms and educational workshops are all places where visitors are invited to gain first-hand experience of the latest developments in the human sciences. The Musée de l’Homme is also home to internationally renowned research teams who work on human evolution and the interactions between societies and their environments.