Every big city in the world has its own Natural History Museum, so what makes the one in Paris worth visiting? Well for one, there aren’t many major Natural History Museums that were abandoned for more than 25 years, closed to the public while they fell into disrepair with everything still inside…
Archive images © Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle
My mother would like me to go to more museums, see more art. The thing is, I see Paris as one giant open air museum already, and its streets are my endless art gallery. I prefer the sort of museums for people who don’t like museums. But there is one, that breaks the rule. We begin in the Jardin des Plantes, a cultural garden of Eden if you will, just a ten minute stroll down the river bank from the Notre Dame, but far enough that wandering tourists generally tend to turn back before they discover it. It is here that you’ll find Paris’ Natural History Museum, which might sound very “science class field trip”– possibly another reason why so many people miss out on the city’s most curious wonderland…
But let’s go back a few years, when the museum’s future was not so certain…
After World War II, this great museum that had once dazzled the public when it first presented its zoological collections in 1889, had ironically become a public danger. With serious post-war funding issues, the building was falling apart, the electricity was old and with one million glass jars of different species of fish being preserved in alcohol and formaldehyde, it was potentially one giant explosive cabinet of curiosities waiting to detonate.
And so, in 1965, the Natural History Museum’s Grande Galerie was closed. A thick layer of dust settled on the glass cabinets and the silent herd of antique taxidermy was left to bathe in sunlight from the glass roof.
For 21 years, the museum sat like this in silence until museum researchers mobilised the government to intervene.
In 1986, the construction of a underground storage facility called the “Zoothèque” beneath the Grande Galerie, saw the animals finally moved into a space that held a total of 40km worth of shelving, which gives you an idea of just how many animals they have in their total collection.
Even today, the taxidermy on display is only 0.01% of what actually fills the aisles beneath museum visitors’ feet.
With the construction of the zoothèque, also began the renovation of the gallery, and a new era for the museum…
Over three years, hundreds of large mammals, birds, reptiles, fish and amphibians were restored by taxidermists. In 1994, the museum was inaugurated by the French President.
During the renovation, previously undiscovered ancient stone foundations were uncovered beneath the building. These impressive unexpected arches and their exposed red brick have now become integrated into the museum’s design, beautifully contrasting with the gallery’s Belle Epoque’s industrial shell built on top of them.
The building itself is half the attraction. While the more modern main gallery is a stunning tribute to the evolution of the natural world, there are some stunning architectural treasures to be found.
Probably my favourite thing about this building is the staircase– don’t forget to take the stairs!
Go find the secret southeast corner staircase behind an unassuming doorway in the shadows of a giant blue whale skeleton.
The staircases unveil a hidden layer of the building’s history when it was once the King’s own cabinet of natural history and an unparalleled scientific institution in the 1700s
The higher up you go, the more it looks like Harry Potter’s Hogwarts.
Throw open a window at the highest floor for a magnificent view over the gardens and greenhouses where, depending on the season, giant pumpkins and squash are growing out in the open.
We were completely alone up there and promised to come back next time with a sneaky bottle of wine.
As a mid-gallery stroll, the Jardin des Plantes itself is all part of the experience. You’ll find giant pumpkins and squash growing out in the open– not exactly something you’ll get to see in the famous Jardins des Luxembourg.
You can spend an entire afternoon within its walls, jumping from the taxidermy to the greenhouses and finally to the paleontology gallery. Again, this might sound more suited for a science class field trip, but again, you’d be terribly mistaken…
This is hands down the most impressive collection of skeletons you’ll ever lay eyes upon. Noah’s ghost army is in limbo here, waiting to march back to his ark, two by two.
The paleontology gallery however is one of the parts of the Natural History Museum which escaped renovation in the 1990s. My guess is this building has not been renovated in over a hundred years– and I don’t mind it one bit.
The walls are peeling and the floorboards are creaking. The paper labels in the cabinets are yellowed from age and the calligraphy is of another time.
You can peek up to the old archives on the top floor and see books covered in dust behind old glass bookcases.
I like a museum that’s accidentally just as interesting as the things it has on display.