The Museum design

The objective of the Musée de l'Homme renovation project was to create a museum that would promote understanding of the evolution of man and society by combining biological, social and cultural approaches.

The architectural project

The project: redesign the whole space to suit the needs of a Laboratory-Museum

The architectural project was entrusted to the winners of a competition (Nov. 2006): the architecture firms Brochet-Lajus-Pueyo and Atelier d’Architecture Emmanuel Nebout. The aim, on the one hand, was to refurbish all the installations, technical equipment, and safety features, and on the other hand, to redesign the space to accommodate: a museum and exhibition spaces, collections (more than 700,000 objects) and a research and teaching centre with offices, technical platforms, a library and classrooms for students. The OPPIC (French Operator of Heritage and Cultural Building Projects) was entrusted with managing the project.

A six-year commitment, with constraints and unforeseen issues

The architects worked inside the existing structures. The ground floor of the site was occupied by the Musée de la Marine which significantly limited the time work could be carried out, noise levels had to be kept to a minimum between 6 a.m. and 11 a.m.
The long duration of the project can also be explained by structural issues. Work carried out in 2010 to clean the building and remove asbestos revealed that the floors and beams had poor load-bearing capacities, due to wide discrepancies in the types of concrete used to build the Palais de Chaillot in 1937. Back then, construction came to a halt several times, and many different companies were called upon to intervene. In light of current safety standards and because of weight issues related to the design of new spaces, all vertical supports and floors of the building’s central core had to be strengthened or replaced. This unforeseen issue had financial repercussions and resulted in programme changes. There were delays in the construction schedule, and the architectural project was partially modified. For example, the better part of the collections’ storage vaults was transferred from the 3rd floor to the garden level, and the classrooms were moved from the garden level to the mezzanine on the first floor of the main pavilion.

Restitution Trocadéro, 1878

© Aristeas Hubert Naudeix

Restitution Chaillot, 1937

© Aristeas Hubert Naudeix

A significant but not irreversible initiative

The spaces were redesigned and arranged to be part of the framework designed by Jacques Carlu. Several spaces were added: intermediate levels added extra surface area (offices for research teams, classrooms and a temporary exhibition room) and a mezzanine between the two levels of the Galerie de l’Homme broke up the linearity of the two naves by hugging the curves of the building and created a more intimate exhibition space.

Bringing in natural light

The architects opened the museum out to its environment, bringing in natural light by enhancing existing windows and creating a new light well in the main pavilion by removing the flooring in the music hall on the first floor which was blocking the skylight that remained from Davioud’s palace. The Galerie de l’Homme is bathed in light from the large bay windows along the walls of the two curved naves of the Passy wing. White canvas screens mounted on double ceiling rails filter the light without blocking the view or distracting visitors. They offer protection to the collections on display and form a transparent, virtual and adjustable wall. In the spaces devoted to temporary exhibitions, sliding partitions can be used to screen the windows, darkening the space and providing extra hanging surface area.

The high windows to the rear of the main pavilion offer a panoramic view of the Eiffel Tower and Champ-de-Mars from the Café de l’Homme (ground floor level) and Café Lucy (Level 2).

“We created small openings in the building to make it brighter, we wanted to find a way to preserve the views without compromising the collections.”

Olivier Brochet

The Atrium: creating an attractive and bustling centre

This new space in the main pavilion is representative of the architectural and strategic transformation in terms of how the spaces are arranged and how people move through them. Located above the lobby, it rises 16 meters, spanning two levels. It is the heart of the museum and leads to the temporary exhibition galleries, the Café Lucy overlooking the Seine, and the various areas involved in the museum’s outreach programme (Balcon des sciences, Jean Rouch auditorium, Centre de Ressources Germaine Tillion). The Atrium is accessible from the lobby by lifts or the double staircase that goes back to Carlu’s time.

Smooth visit circuits between various public spaces

The Atrium is the strategic crossroads that leads to the different public spaces of the museum. The flow of traffic has been entirely reworked to eliminate all deadends and problem areas. The Galerie de l’Homme unfolds in a continuous visit circuit above the two great overlapping naves of the Passy wing.

Espace salon du Musée de l'Homme

© MNHN - J.-C. Domenech

The museographic project

Humans are an infinitely rich subject which led to the design of a visit circuit in three sections: Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we headed? Although, at first glance, everyone knows what it means to be a human being, can anyone really precisely define who we are? The visit circuit begins with an exploration of human nature from a variety of angles, combining approaches from life sciences and human sciences: the body, thought, language and life in society. How far back must we go to find the very first human being?

The second part of the visit circuit deals with the extremely long history of human evolution. The search for the origin of our species, Homo sapiens, is another way to understand who we are today and how we got here.

The last part of the visit circuit focuses on the world as we know it. It investigates the ecological impact of human activities, the sociocultural effects of globalisation, and our species’ scope for adaptation to environments that we have contributed to creating. It takes a stand, in line with the commitments of the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, to safeguard biodiversity and raise public awareness about the challenges involved in preserving the planet.

Key messages

The design of the Galerie de l’Homme is the result of a multidisciplinary collective discussion, fuelled by the Museum’s scientists’ expertise and contributions from qualified outside personalities from the fields of human sciences and biology. Messages emerged from this discussion, supported by our current understanding of these fields: all of us belong to one human species, despite our differences; our African origins and our permanent link with an environment to which we have constantly adapted ourselves, while progressively modifying it after occupying nearly all of the planet’s ecological reaches. Outreach objects and tools that offer a wide range of approaches are used to get these messages across. The visit circuit is punctuated by recurring topics. The “History of science and ideas” topic illustrates and traces the evolution of knowledge while the “Advance of science” topic focus on the current state of research and new analytical techniques.

A variety of experiences accessible to all

Thinking, touching, listening, reading, smelling, playing, participating… all of the senses are engaged by the diversity of the display methods and outreach materials. The spaces and content of the Galerie de l’Homme are designed to be accessible to all visitors collectively, to meet a wide range of expectations and to cater to individual learning styles: new audiences, families, school groups, the curious, knowledgeable enthusiasts and people with disabilities.

Immersion in our evolutionary history

Zette Cazalas from Zen+dCo designed the Galerie de l’Homme as a flexible, immersive experience providing a range of options. The layout takes into account the specific features of the two large naves, their linearity, their sweeping curves, and the spectacular view they give of the Seine from one side. The visit circuit can be followed in any order, involving the visitors in the experience, guiding them with the markers along the wall on the Seine side, away from the light coming through the large bay windows towards the more intimate spaces inside where authentic, fragile objects are presented (alcove showcases, semi-enclosed areas), making them pause before the spectacular wall showcases and providing them with breaks at regular intervals to interact with objects, have fun with the game tables and have audio or tactile experiences.

A forward-looking gallery

The full potential of digital tools is unleashed so visitors can take part in the exhibits and choose how to learn. Each type of showcase is a custom-made prototype seamlessly incorporating technology: climate control adapted to the kinds of objects displayed, glass treatment that provides visitors with a better view and provides complete protection for the items and augmented showcases that provide additional information about an object at the touch of a fingertip.

Curiosity cabinets: reinvented

Spectacular due to their size (3 to 4 m high and 9 m long (the longest is 12 m) and 1.5 m deep) as well as due to the number of objects they contain (as many as a hundred), the wall showcases are designed, like paintings, to draw the visitors in with a wealth of information and aesthetic charm. For technical reasons (climate control), they are positioned along the blind wall. Their size makes it possible to create new viewpoints and to stage objects on several levels. Each object has a role to play within the showcase and tells its own story while remaining an integral part of a network of connections and comparisons to serve a purpose and the overall theme.

Innovative outreach materials

One or more exhibits providing experiences that are a little different are dotted around each section of the visit circuit:

  • a 3.5-m tall highly realistic resin tongue, complete with salivary glands, which visitors enter to hear songs from around the world;
  • a monumental structure made up of anthropological busts, arranged like a vast musical stave, towers 11 m high;
  • the circle of 7 hotspots round like the world, which tells the story of the transition to the Neolithic using felt panels;
  • the vast “Cyclo” screen, 9 m in diameter, a place to properly reflect on our impact on the environment;
  • the garden of mutations shows the evolution of current-day humans.

These structures stand on their own but blend in with the visit circuit due to the choice of colours, materials and forms.

Musée de l'Homme - Atrium Paul Rivet

© MNHN - J.-C. Domenech

Sensory visit circuit

The museum considers accessibility to be added value so the exhibits on the sensory visit circuit have been designed to meet broad objectives. They are an integral part of the museum’s design and are aimed at French and foreign visitors alike, visitors with visual impairments, families, and visitors with reading difficulties. The sensory visit circuit includes a high-contrast relief floor plan and about twenty original resources located throughout the Gallery, consisting of objects you can touch, audio commentary and tactile tables.

The objects you can touch are works of art in their own right, both aesthetically and in the materials used to make them. Reproductions of objects from the collections (busts, fossil skulls), artefacts and sculptures help visitors grasp the key messages of each sub-section of the Galerie de l’Homme by touching and listening. Mounted on stands, they go hand in hand with manually activated audio exhibits and information written in both text and Braille.

A wealth of resources

1,800 objects come from the Musée de l’Homme’s historic collections or are items collected by researchers in the field. New acquisitions, items on deposit and artworks commissioned from contemporary artists are constantly being added. Conveying messages and emotions, the most remarkable specimens are showcased in cases that allow visitors to get a close look.

With 80 screens, 14 digital consoles and 60 different displays (including game tables, exhibits engaging the visitor’s body, interactive workshops to find out what it’s like to be a scientist, multi-screen audiovisual installations, audio exhibits and documentaries), all the museum’s resources are custom-designed providing original content derived from the work of the museum’s researchers.