Collections of works of art and objects
The collections of works of art and objects are closely linked to the history of the Muséum and the activities of its many scholars. The statues at the Jardin des Plantes, the Bonnier de la Mosson cabinet of curiosities and the Vellum collection, alongside other lesser known collections - such as the anatomy, botany and malacology wax collections and the Coronelli celestial and terrestrial globes - testify to the close ties between the arts and sciences.
The Jardin des Plantes provides a backdrop of stone and greenery for works of art commissioned by order of the State, seeking to demonstrate its symbolic support for scientific progress. There you can admire several major sculptures of the 19th and 20th centuries, representing celebrated personalities such as the emblematic Monument à Georges Buffon by Jean Carlus (1907), naturalist figures, allegories and animals such as the surprising Dénicheur d'ourson (the Bear Cub Hunter) by Emmanuel Frémiet (1850).
The buildings are decorated with wall paintings such as the canvases painted by François-Auguste Biard in the mid-19th century to illustrate the French expedition to Spitzberg in 1839, visible in the vestibule of the Galerie de Minéralogie et de Géologie. At the entrance of the Grande Galerie de l'Evolution now hang two canvases painted by Raoul Dufy in 1939 to decorate the new monkey house at the Jardin des Plantes: Les explorateurs (the Explorers) and Les savants (the Scholars).
Additionally, the sculpted panelling of the Cabinet of Curiosities produced in the 18th century by the collector Joseph Bonnier de La Mosson demonstrate the beauty of the decorations of French natural history cabinets, the ancestors of today’s natural history museums and galleries.
The works of art kept in the Muséum’s libraries, such as the exceptional vellum collection, demonstrate the importance of figurative representation by painting or drawing in the natural sciences. This vellum collection was initiated in the 17th century by Gaston d’Orléans, brother of King Louis XIII. It is the fruit of nearly three centuries of work seeking to produce an illustrated repertoire of the living world. Directed by the scholars of the Jardin du Roi (the King’s garden) and then the Muséum, the artists painted plants and animals on vellum, a very fine parchment made from a stillborn calfskin. This collection combines scientific precision with artistic virtuosity, and the 7,000 paintings form a unique testimony to the dialogue between arts and sciences. In addition, a large collection of drawings and watercolours brings together the preparatory plates for the great scientific works published in the first half of the 19th century, scientific drawings serving as source materials for research and drawings of specimens observed in the wild or in collections by naturalist and scientific artists.
The personal belongings and scientific instruments of the scholars reflect the variety of missions and activities they undertook. The vasculum that belonged to Antoine-Laurent de Jussieu and the gold leaf electroscope used by Henri Becquerel inform us about the technological progress of their times. Other objects from scientific expeditions, such as the broken navigation bar from commander Charcot’s last boat, the Pourquoi pas?, recount the trials and tribulations of field research. Teaching activities are also represented by the educational objects of the collections, such as the models of agricultural tools used by professor André Thouin at the start of the 19th century, and the collections of botany, malacology and human waxworks.
Significant events in the history of the institution are also represented in various forms: commemorative medals, decorative or daily-life objects such as a diorama, plates, a sweet box and clothes iron, products resulting from the ‘giraffe mania’ induced by the famous giraffe Zarafa offered to King Charles X in 1826.
This vast collection was born when the Jardin royal des plantes médicinales (Royal Garden of Medicinal Plants) was created in the 17th century and was greatly increased by items confiscated during the French Revolution and allocated to the brand new Natural History Museum. It contains paintings, graphic works, sculptures, pieces of furniture, everyday and commemorative objects and scientific instruments. It has been continually added to throughout the history of the Muséum by donations and purchases, but also through public procurement, the “1% artistique” scheme and from the storerooms of institutions and learned societies.