Having acted as repositories of natural diversity for over 350 years, the Muséum’s collections are still being enriched today for the benefit of current and future research, and with the aim of sharing knowledge with as many people as possible.
Curiosity first and foremost
In the medicine cabinet of the Royal Garden of Medicinal Plants, a dispensary where chemists would analyse the beneficial properties of plants, lay the items that would form the basis for the Muséum’s future collections. Gaston d’Orléans’ giant’s bone (actually a giraffe’s bone), for example, sat alongside special potions and guaranteed poisons: there was a pronounced taste for rare and unusual objects… Gradually, the curiosities and magical cures made way for ordered, systematised collections of similar objects. The divine and the wonderful were set aside and researchers looked for natural, recurring kinship and order. Thus, the royal medicine cabinet became an authentic Cabinet d’histoire naturelle (Cabinet of Natural History), a name it was given in 1729.
Pebbles found on volcanoes and in quarries made way for veritable collections of rocks, ordered by family; summarily pressed and dried functional plants were replaced by elaborate, comprehensive herbaria; hastily dried animals, crudely preserved hides and incomplete pieces gave way to increasingly successful stuffed animal exhibits… Insects were delicately spread open and mounted, and shells were carefully cleaned. The colourful finery and strange weapons of natives from foreign lands were followed by furniture and everyday objects from other civilisations, past and present. Thus the astonishing bric-à-brac presided over by the King’s physician, Guy de La Brosse, in 1640, was seamlessly supplanted by the Cabinet royal d’histoire naturelle (Royal Cabinet of Natural History), which Buffon was justly proud of in 1750.
When the medicine cabinet opened in the 17th century, scholars collected things for 3 reasons: to share botanical, medical and pharmaceutical knowledge with as many people as possible, as a reaction to the elitism of the Sorbonne, where classes were taught in Latin; to cure and learn how to cure disease by accumulating as many materials as possible (although some of their properties were uncertain at the time); and to help Europeans make sense of the profusion of new discoveries from foreign lands. In the 21st century, these motivations have been renewed or affirmed. We still collect to share knowledge and teach the public; we collect to study the whole range of variation in the items we receive; and we also collect to preserve specimens and cover any possible future fields of research. Lastly, there is one overarching aim: to make the swiftest possible progress in charting the world’s geodiversity, biodiversity and anthropodiversity, always with the aim of gaining a better understanding of our environment.