The Natural History Museum

Though possibly a bit less pursued than its glamorous and gleaming counterparts in the repertoire of Parisian museums, the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle—and particularly the Galerie d’Anatomie Comparée et de Paléontologie—is a gem among them perhaps precisely because it lacks the sheen typical of tourist hotspots.

Nestled in the well-groomed grounds of the Jardin des Plantes (around which there are a multitude of runners, strollers, and gawkers in the spring and summer, which make for entertaining people-watching), the Muséum is a multi-building complex composed of gorgeous brick and stone structures that span the gamut of architectural opulence from the 1700s to the turn of the 20th century. While the Grande Galerie de l’évolution, an impressive, ivory-colored stone building of palatial leanings, commands immediate attention as the obvious centerpiece of the grounds, its sidekick, the Galerie d’Anatomie Comparée et de Paléontologie, a ruddy, aged brick building on the left side of the grounds (upon entry at the main gate), is compelling insofar as it keeps its secrets a bit more carefully.

Built for the world’s fair of 1900, the Galerie itself is a sort of museum of museums—replete, at first glance, with the expected Victorian flourishes (copious amounts of stunning iron scroll-work, ornate domed ceilings, endlessly-long oak storage bureaus), but also the oft-polished away marks of its 100+ years: cracked, peeling paint, hand-written identification cards that feign to be as old as the specimens that they guard, lo-fi informational posters from the 1950s, niches that have lost their original purpose and now feel strange and secret, well-tread floors, and the grime that has accumulated in its corners for over a century. As if yet in bygone days, scientists clad in white jackets occasionally emerge from the elegant doorways here to dust the bones with a ceremonious slowness, only to disappear again to their secret scientist-lair.

Though the guiding science may be less controversial than it was 100 years ago, the bone collection and its “interpretative” arrangement remain absolutely awe-inspiring (particularly the astonishingly-intact baleen whale skeletons), as are the contents of the glass cases that line the perimeter of the ground floor. The latter, brimming with specimens in formaldehyde, desiccated fishes, and the like, is as much a study of historical objects and the science of preservation as in comparative anatomy and natural aberration. For the casual observer, it’s moreover artfully arranged and well-complemented by the contours of the building. A destination for architecture, history, and museum buffs alike (as well as lovers of the bizarre), the Galerie is a must-see, whether for one day or several return visits.

The museums (and menagerie) each charge a separate fee (around €7), which is reasonable enough considering that each building could easily consume a day’s adventuring in itself. Entrance to the gardens is free, and is doubtless a destination itself in the spring in summer, whether for picnicking or for promenading.

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  1. […] already wrote a wonderful piece – with fantastic pictures – on the Natural History Museum that lies inside one of the […]

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