Collections of prints and photographs
The wealth of the iconographic and photographic collections at the Muséum’s libraries is the result of both the long lifespan of the institution and the importance of figurative depictions in the natural sciences: the images are a vital complement to the text and an essential tool for the naturalist to describe and study the research subjects. They document the progress of research as well as the history of the institution and the disciplines studied there.
Over time, the Muséum’s libraries have collected a series of prints and photographs, organised into the different scientific disciplines. These were derived from plates delivered, surplus sheets from illustrated works, one-off prints and artist’s proofs. Several private collections have been added, such as the vast collection of volcano images by Katia and Maurice Krafft. In collaboration with the national Herbarium, the Bibliothèque de botanique (Botanical library) also conserves a very large set of prints organised under the current system of classification.
The documentary series focussing on the Muséum’s sites or on portraits of scientists provide an overview of the development of the Muséum since the 18th century. They include engravings on wood or copper, lithographs and old photographs, press cuttings, post cards and posters. Indeed, the Jardin des Plantes has been a source of inspiration for many photographers: at the end of the 19th century, the photographer Pierre Petit embarked on an exhaustive photo-reportage and produced more than 400 shots of the buildings, collections and gardens. Robert Doisneau also immortalised his immersion into the heart of the Muséum’s laboratories with a photo-reportage on French science in 1942-1943, then in 1990.
As soon as photography emerged, scholars understood the benefit of this new technique to represent nature, and contributed to its improvement. Thus, a vast collection of scientific photographs was constituted at the Muséum, estimated at several hundred thousand shots: photographs of specimens and the field and shots intended for teaching purposes. Several remarkable collections dating back to the beginnings of natural history photography reflect the variety of techniques used by the so-called ‘primitive’ photographers: daguerreotypes, direct heliochromes, salt prints, collodion-albumen prints, photomicrographs, photographs on glass and stereoscopic views. Anna Atkins’ cyanotypes illustrated the first botany book to contain photographs - British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions - published between 1843 and 1853.
Scientists on expeditions also favoured photography for field observation and to describe and disseminate their discoveries. From the anthropological shots brought back from Madagascar by Désiré Charnay in 1864 to photographs of polar expeditions taken by Louis Gain, a scientist who took part in the expeditions of Commandant Charcot, or by Paul-Emile Victor whose work heavily relied on using photography in the field, these collections are a mine of information about the daily organisation of scientific expeditions and constitute a precious testimony of the customs and ways of life of the people whom the explorers encountered.
The photography collections are also crucial to the Muséum’s research and teaching missions: the laboratories have progressively built large visual encyclopaedias of photographs, mostly on glass, from which the professors can choose to illustrate their lessons, conferences or publications. This is notably the case for the collection produced by Alfred Lacroix, a professor at the Muséum, mineralogist, petrographer and geologist, which alone comprises more than 14,000 glass plates.
The Muséum’s libraries’ work throughout the 19th and 20th centuries in compiling series of images and receiving series already compiled by a scholar or specialist has made it possible to create an iconographic collection for documentary purposes which also has considerable artistic merit.
Due to the interest in this new process by the professors of the institution, to serve their research, teaching and scientific expeditions, some important collections of photographs have joined the natural history drawings and prints, without however replacing these. The libraries’ collections have recently been enriched with vast sets of photographs that were, until now, in the possession of the laboratories. This collection work carried out by the Muséum’s services is regularly completed by donations of archive collections also containing photographs.