Paris Museum of Mankind reopens after brush with extinction
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It’s been looted to fill a rival museum and shuttered for years. Now the Musée de l'Homme, one of the world’s greatest museums of anthropology, is reopening in Paris with a revamped building and a new sense of purpose.
When the Musée de l’Homme (Museum of Mankind) closed to the public in 2009 for what should have been a three-year refurbishment, some wondered whether the venerable institution would ever reopen.
A few years earlier, then president Jacques Chirac had ordered its vast Asian, African, American and Oceanian ethnographic collections packed up and moved across the River Seine to the brand-new Quai Branly museum – his legacy project, housed in a glitzy glass building complete with hanging gardens and rooftop fountains.
Meanwhile, the remaining European collection was sent south to the MuCEM museum of European and Mediterranean civilisations in Marseille, part of efforts to breathe new life into France’s second-largest city.
With half its collection gone and visitor numbers dwindling, France’s leading anthropological museum was threatened with extinction. To many critics, it had also lost its raison d’être, with its sprawling and ill-defined subject matter overlapping with too many Paris landmarks, from the Quai Branly to the Natural History Museum, its own parent institution.
“The museum has known difficult times,” says anthropologist Evelyn Heyer, the Musée de l’Homme’s main curator, who went on strike a decade ago to call for its survival, “when many thought it was doomed”.
Heyer says the loss of the ethnographic collections was an opportunity to reinvent the museum to focus on the evolution of mankind as a “biological and cultural construct”, shaped by nature and, in turn, shaping its environment.
The Musée de l’Homme has its own history of evolving. Its ancestor, the Museum of Ethnography, opened for the 1878 International Exhibition in the then brand-new Palais du Trocadéro. The Moresque structure soon fell out of fashion and was replaced by the majestic Palais de Chaillot ahead of the 1938 edition of the world fair, at which point the museum adopted its present name.
This week it begins a third life, following a €96 million overhaul. French President François Hollande unveiled the refurbished museum on Thursday, two days before it opened to the public.
Seen from the outside, nothing has changed at the iconic 1930s palace, one of the most popular spots to soak in views of the Eiffel Tower. But behind the monumental façades, the stuffy, old-fashioned structure has been gutted and replaced with a modern frame, adding intermediate levels linked by glass and steel staircases.
The main exhibition space is divided into three segments, each answering – or attempting to answer – a fundamental question about human beings: Who are we? Where do we come from? And where are we heading?
Part one recalls man’s unexceptional status as one of among more than 8 million species inhabiting our planet. But it also stresses humans’ “particular role in transforming our environment to the extent that we influence our own evolution and that of other living species”.
The scientific evidence is juxtaposed with sculptures, drawings and other artifacts representing the many different ways in which human cultures have portrayed our world, our place in it and our ultimate fate.
Our evolution from tree-hugging apes to Homo Sapiens (the immodestly named “wise man”) is examined in part two, which holds the museum’s greatest treasures, including an impressive collection of skeletons and the world-famous Venus of Lespugue, a 25,000-year-old statuette in mammoth ivory discovered in the southwest of France.
This segment dismisses the common misconception – still taught in many schools – of a linear evolution from the very first Homo species to our own Sapiens, pointing out that our ancestors, Neanderthals and even the Hobbit-like Homo Flores, were at some stage contemporaries.
It also seeks to explain why Sapiens’ superior cognitive abilities helped it conquer the planet, when the more muscular Neanderthals and all our other siblings vanished – an extinction Sapiens may well have played a part in.
The museum’s third part is the most speculative and ambitious – and also the least rewarding. It highlights existential threats to our planet and important ethical questions raised by our ability to fix and “improve” the human body. But its exhibits on globalisation leave a sense of déjà-vu only partly offset by the use of innovative displays.
Until next June, visitors will be able to wrap up their tour with a temporary exhibition on the museum’s remarkable history. They will learn about its prominent wartime role in the Resistance against Nazi occupation – liaising with General De Gaulle’s exiled administration in London and publishing the clandestine magazine “Résistance” – and its long-established status as a hub for scientists working in a variety of fields.
The revamped building provides working space for 150 researchers covering a comprehensive range of scientific disciplines, from biology and anthropology to philosophy and history. Its high-tech labs allow scientists to analyse ancient DNA samples and devise 3-D models of prehistoric humans and fauna.
Staff at the Musée de l’Homme like to compare their scientific work with the Quai Branly’s “purely artistic” approach, in some cases betraying more than a hint of contempt for the upstart from across the Seine.
At the press opening on Wednesday, journalists were easily outnumbered by in-house researchers eager to answer their every question. Asked what was specific about the exhibition space at the Musée de l’Homme, geologist Brigitte Senut highlighted the “history and context behind each display, whether or not it is a beautiful object”.
English-speakers hoping to inform themselves will be relying heavily on the 61 touch screens spread around the exhibition halls, which offer detailed descriptions of nearby objects as well as further reading.
‘Destructive’ part of biodiversity
Senut, whose work is split between the Natural History Museum and the Musée de l’Homme, says the latter’s main merit since the refurbishment is to have portrayed human beings in the context of their broader environment, with its own far greater lifespan.
“If we had to cover the Eiffel Tower in leaves to represent the timeline of our ecosystem, then mankind would be no more than the last leaf,” she says, quoting her former professor. “It put things into perspective.”
And yet our imprint on the world is far greater than that of any other species. As Senut put it, “We’re just a part of biodiversity, but a particularly invasive and destructive one.”
The forthcoming UN climate summit, which Paris is due to host in December, has given special resonance to the museum’s reopening and emphasised its concern with mankind’s effect on the environment.
The Musée de l’Homme takes a long view of how mankind has shaped its habitat, from the emergence of agriculture in the Neolithic period to today’s large-scale ecological disruptions. It also qualifies the notion of omnipotent human beings who might stave off climate change.
“We cannot prevent climate change, but we can try to limit our impact,” says Senut, for whom the present challenge “may tell us just how smart Homo Sapiens really is”.
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