The history of research end the collections

One of the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle’s sites, the Musée de l’Homme houses collections related to humans and our evolution as a species, our relationship with the environment, our place in nature and the continuous development of cultural identities. Research is also at the core of its history.

The history of research at the Musée de l’Homme

The story began in the 18th century in the laboratories of the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle with the work of anatomist physicians. However, the science of humans (anthropology) is not limited to the study of our anatomy. The Museum’s Anthropology department was founded in 1855. Before long, it became evident that its scope as initially conceived was too narrow to cover the diversity of fields of study that resulted from the abundance of its collections, which were being enriched by many archaeological digs, donations from travellers who were interested in other cultures, and items collected by scientists during research in the field. The expansion of the collections in the 19th century went hand in hand with the first structural transformation of the museum.

The extensive corpus of objects from around the world, testifying to the diversity of humans and cultures and illustrating the extent of the French colonial empire, was considered sufficiently instructive to warrant a dedicated museum. The Musée d’ethnographie was inaugurated in 1882 in the Palais du Trocadéro, built for the 1878 universal exhibition.

In light of new discoveries and theoretical discussions, the fields of investigation broadened and the disciplines became more specialised.

In 1911, the IPH (Institut de Paléontologie Humaine – Institute of Human Palaeontology) was founded, becoming the first research centre dedicated to prehistory. 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.

Buste de Manyosi, cafre de la tribu des Zulus (Chef Zulus) frère de Souibe - Fonds d'archives de la Société d'anthropologie de Paris

© Bibliothèque Centrale du Muséum

Founding the laboratory-museum in 1938: Paul Rivet’s innovative concept

From the outset, 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 collections related to mankind in the same location. Thus the collections from the anthropology and prehistory gallery of the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle 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”.

The new museum was set up in a new building: thanks to the 1937 universal exhibition, the Palais du Trocadéro had been transformed into the Palais de Chaillot. The Musée de l’Homme was inaugurated on 20 June 1938 by the French President, Albert Lebrun, and the Minister of Education, Jean Zay.

An international reputation

For decades, the Musée de l’Homme was a leading research facility and museum, a reference centre run by 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 gradually encountered difficulties caused by the specialisation in disciplines. In 1962, the Prehistory department was created and, in 1972, research was broken down into three different departments: Prehistory, Biological Anthropology and Ethnology, reflected in the layout of the museum by separate galleries.

The disciplines were organised within this framework, and research continued. Despite the transfer of the ethnology collections to other museums starting in 2002 and the closure of the Musée de l’Homme for refurbishment in 2009, the concept of laboratory-museum held fast as its researchers were relocated to the Jardin des Plantes.

In 2015, the founding principle of the laboratory-museum – combining collection conservation and knowledge dissemination with research and teaching – was reaffirmed and enriched by the fruit of multidisciplinary, collective discussion. In an entirely refurbished space, the new museography design goes hand in hand with the implementation of a scientific project with new research dynamics. Bringing together 150 researchers from diverse disciplines within human sciences (ethnology, ethnobiology, biological anthropology, prehistory, ethnomusicology and primatology) on one site, research at the Musée de l’Homme approaches humans in all their complexity as biological, cultural and social beings, explores our past and raises questions about our future.

Photographies de sujets et paysages. Types et costumes du Japon - Fonds d'archives de la Société d'anthropologie de Paris

© Bibliothèque Centrale du Muséum

The history of the collections

The collections on display at the Musée de l’Homme are part of the vast corpus of collections owned by the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle (67 million specimens). They are national collections, the result of several centuries of collecting in the field, items given on deposit and acquisitions. Some of the best collections in their discipline, they include several hundred thousand specimens including pieces that are outstanding due to their scientific, historical and aesthetic value, their exemplary nature or their contribution as part of a series.
Historically, the Musée de l’Homme’s collections have been made up of three main groups in line with the development of the fields of biological anthropology, prehistory and ethnology.

An eventful history

Based on changes in these disciplines and political and scientific choices, the collections have experienced a complex history marked by several reshuffles in their composition and where they are attributed to. The major event was the transfer, due to a policy decision, of the entirety of the non-European ethnology collections (around 300,000 pieces and their archives) to the Musée du Quai Branly, which opened in 2006. As for the European ethnology collections (35,000 pieces), they were moved to the Musée des Civilisations de l’Europe et de la Méditerranée (MuCEM) in Marseille (as part of a deposit agreement, they still belong to the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle). This new development was decisive for the future of the Musée de l’Homme. As a result of the museum’s refurbishment, the decision was made to transfer the ethnobiology collections (apart from the botanical pieces which joined the Museum’s Herbier (Herbarium)) from the Jardin des Plantes to the Musée de l’Homme.


Momie, tête desséchée d´Indien Mundurucu

© MNHN - J.-C. Domenech
Prothèse bionique Bionicohand, composants et doigts en plastique.

Prothèse bionique Bionicohand

© MNHN - J.-C. Domenech
Vénus dite “impudique”, Paléolithique supérieur (Magdalénien moyen/supérieur)

Vénus dite “impudique”, Paléolithique supérieur (Magdalénien moyen/supérieur) - Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle

© MNHN - J.-C. Domenech
Mannequin pédagogique d'accouchement en tissu.

Mannequin pédagogique d'accouchement de Mme du Coudray (1714-1789), Fac-similé

© MNHN - J.-C. Domenech

A vast corpus reconstructed, at the service of research and knowledge dissemination

Planning the design of the new museum’s permanent visit circuit and drawing up a plan for future scientific research provided an opportunity to overhaul the existing collections (restoration, packaging, image acquisition, identification) and to gradually put together a new cultural anthropology collection. Stored at the Jardin des Plantes in 2009 for the duration of the work, the collections were put into the storage vaults of the new museum; 2,000 objects and specimens will be displayed in the new permanent visit circuit – original pieces that remain accessible to researchers.
Thus, in a cross-cutting and multidisciplinary approach to research, this cultural and biological anthropology collection is available to the scientific community, and the human journey can continue to be explored using new investigation techniques.

The collections in figures:

  • 700,000 Prehistory objects;
  • 30,000 pieces related to Biological Anthropology;
  • 6,000 objects in the Cultural Anthropology collection.
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