The history of the Museum

From the medicinal garden designed in the 17th century to the research and teaching establishment of today, four centuries have shaped the originality of the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, a unique establishment. Our history, shaped by enlightened men and founding texts, and our collections, which are among the most bountiful in the world, nourish our lifelong passion for understanding living organisms and studying the relationship between Man and Nature, which is already writing our future.

From school garden to research centre

In a prosperous Europe converted to botanical gardens, the Jardin royal des plantes médicinales was created in 1636 at the behest of Louis XIII. This was followed by five years of work and sowing before it was opened to the public and became an immediate success. And for good reason! Its triptych of courses - botany, chemistry and anatomy - was free, accessible to all and, moreover, taught in French (and not in Latin). The Faculty, dominated by the clergy, opposed - without success - the research carried out by the Garden, considered heretical by the Church, such as the study of blood circulation.

Statue de Buffon par Jean-Marie Carlus, Jardin des Plantes, Paris

© MNHN - A. Iatzoura

The French Revolution's ideal of scientific popularisation prompted the Constituent Assembly to give the establishment its own legal existence: in 1793, a decree gave birth to the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle. From then on, the new institution was headed by a director and already had concerns that are still relevant today: research, public education and collection management. Teaching was divided into twelve professorial chairs.

During the first half of the 19th century, the Museum experienced a period of great prosperity and benefited from important political protection, such as that of the ministers Chaptal and Thiers. With the appointment of the chemist Chevreul as its director in 1836, it turned towards experimental sciences. It was on a par with its rival, the University. This period came to an end with the promulgation of a decree in 1891 that signalled the return of natural history, which remained in force until the eve of the Second World War. In 1907, the Museum took a new step towards autonomy. The Finance Act gave it its own budget.

Anonyme, « Vue du jardin du roi (côté de l'Amphithéâtre) », [1808], lithographie en couleur, 214x278 mm, IC 3527

© MNHN

New areas of research

The 19th and 20th centuries, the high point of scientific exploration, saw the collections grow. In parallel with these new fields of activity, the Museum began to expand outside the capital. In 1849, it was entrusted with the management of the Sansan Paleosite, in the Gers (opened to the public in 2018). To promote its research activities related to the sea, in 1928 it set up its maritime laboratory in Dinard (Ille-et-Vilaine). As his botanical activities were booming, he became the owner of the Chèvreloup estate (Yvelines) in 1934. He also inherited the property of the entomologist Jean Henri Fabre in Sérignan-du-Comtat, near Orange, in 1822. Today, the Museum has 13 sites in mainland France, including 3 in Paris.

After the war, it became involved in raising awareness of the ravages inflicted on natural environments by the expansion of the human race, pollution and the over-exploitation of the Earth's resources. In 1948, the Museum was involved in the creation of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Later, it set up a nature conservation service (1962), the Wildlife and Plant Secretariat (1979) and a permanent environmental delegation (1992). The provinces were not forgotten, with the acquisition in the 1950s and 1960s of the abri Pataud (Pataud shelter) in the Dordogne, le Parc animalier de la Haute-Touche (the Haute-Touche animal park in the Indre), the Jardin botanique de Val Rahmeh (Val Rahmeh botanical garden) in Menton and the marine biology station in Concarneau. Lastly, organisations such as the Nature Conservation Service have set up shop within its walls.

Biodiversity, between exploration and preservation

Since the time of the Jardin Royal, the observation of nature has been the main mission of the Museum. Under the Ancien Régime, this was done through the prism of botany: plants brought back from various voyages were acclimatised in the garden. These plants were then studied for their medicinal or alimentary virtues. Antoine de Jussieu grew Coffea arabica and discovered the benefits of coffee. A few years later, in 1721, the coffee plant was shipped to Martinique, where the exploitation of this plant in the West Indies began. Later, Alexander von Humbolt's expedition, from 1799 to 1804, led to the creation of a herbarium of 5,800 species, which was handed over to the Museum in 1804. Other trips led to encounters with exotic animal species, such as the now extinct dodo, discovered in 1771 by Pierre Sonnerat on the East India route. So much so that the institution soon issued recommendations in L'Instruction pour les voyageurs et pour les employés dans les colonies, published in 1824, on the art and technique of collecting, preserving and sending natural history objects.

H. de Blainville, G de Bièvre, Engelmann, « Dodo », planche I, dans Nouvelles annales du Muséum national d’histoire naturelle, vol.4, Paris, 1835, Pr 260

© MNHN

Claude Aubriet, Jasminum Arabicum, Lauri folio, cujus semen apud nos Café dicitur, Acad Reg, 18e siècle, aquarelle sur vélin, 46 x 33 cm. Collection des vélins, portefeuille 41, fol. 28

© MNHN, Dist. RMN/Tony Querrec

Georges Edwards, « The Dodo », dans Gleanings of natural history, Londres, 1758-1764, planche imprimée, 4o Bn 287

© MNHN

Today, with climate and biodiversity in crisis, researchers are scaling up to advance science. Of course, maritime missions are continuing, such as La Planète Revisitée, which will be installed in Corsica until 2022 to sample the species of algae and marine and terrestrial invertebrates of the Island of Beauty. But space exploration is also a focus of energy! The arrival of the Perseverance mobile robot on Mars, in February 2021, opens a vast multi-mission campaign involving the Museum. The objective: to determine whether the Red Planet has been home to life.

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