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Galerie de Zoologie. Vue d'ensemble du grand hall, 1890 - Coll. du Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle © Pierre Petit
Galerie de Zoologie. Vue d'ensemble du grand hall, 1890 - Coll. du Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle © Pierre Petit

History of the Grande Galerie de l’Évolution (The Gallery of Evolution)

The history of the Grande Galerie de l’Évolution began in 1626 with the creation of the Jardin royal des plantes médicinales (Royal Garden of Medicinal Plants), which was turned into the Muséum d’Histoire naturelle after the French Revolution. The natural history collections, which are unique in the world and have been gradually built up, are presented in the Cabinet d’histoire naturelle (Cabinet of natural history) first, and then in themed galleries. The Galerie de Zoologie (Gallery of Zoology), meanwhile, was opened in 1889 and then closed in 1965. Mobilisation of the Museum culminated in the opening of the Grande Galerie de l’Évolution in 1994, following renovation.

From the King’s cabinet to the Galerie de Zoologie

In 1626, Louis XIII decided to modernise the way medicine was taught in Paris. With this in mind, he purchased some land for cultivating medicinal plants, as well as buildings for teaching and for a Cabinet of drugs and “all things that are rare in nature”.

The Garden’s medicine cabinet and chemistry laboratory (1676) - Sébastien Leclerc (1637-1714) © MNHN - Direction des Bibliothèques
Le laboratoire de chimie et le droguier du Jardin (1676) - Sébastien Leclerc (1637-1714) © MNHN - Direction des Bibliothèques

The Jardin Royal des Plantes médicinales opened in 1640. In 1718, it lost its medical role and became the Jardin du Roi (King’s Garden). In 1729, the Cabinet took the name of the Cabinet d’Histoire naturelle (Cabinet of Natural History) and the collections that it contained, formed the origin of the Museum’s collections.

Under the initiative of Buffon, who ran the establishment from 1739 to 1788, the garden became a scientific establishment which was unparalleled in Europe. The aim was to find out even more about “products of nature” and to research classification standards. Thanks to the donations, purchases, exchanges and collection campaigns carried out by naturalist travellers across the world, the collections of Jardin du Roi became the richest in Europe and required the Cabinet to be extended and renovated. They are divided into and presented in 3 separate kingdoms - animal, plant, mineral.

On 17 June 1793, the Convention Decree created the Muséum d’histoire naturelle and established a “Republic of Professors” with twelve professorial chairs.

With the increased number of specimens, the improvement of conservation techniques and the opening to the public, storage was becoming more and more critical. Some heated discussions about the organisation of the Cabinet led to several relocations: that of the comparative anatomy and paleontology collections in a temporary building and the Mineralogy collections in the first gallery built in France in 1840 to become a museum. The Cabinet d’histoire naturelle consequently only housed zoological collections.  However, despite the extensions and relocations, the cabinet could no longer accommodate all of the zoological collections. As such, in 1877 it was decided that a new zoology gallery would be built.

Cabinet d'histoire naturelle. A Paris, chez Jean, Rue St Jean de Beauvais, N° 10 © MNHN - Direction des Bibliothèques
Plan du Jardin des Plantes à son origine © MNHN - Direction des Bibliothèques

The new Galerie de Zoologie

It took 12 years to construct the building designed by the Museum’s architect, Jules André. Its exterior façades were typical of the recognised architecture of the end of the 19th century, while its interior exhibited perfect mastery of cast-iron architecture: a large central nave illuminated by a large skylight and structured using fine cast-iron columns.

Nouvelles galeries de Zoologie - Fonds Pierre Petit © MNHN - Direction des Bibliothèques
Nouvelles galeries de Zoologie - Fonds Pierre Petit © MNHN - Direction des Bibliothèques

But the building was never completed. Indeed, the former Cabinet d’Histoire naturelle, which was supposed to be destroyed to allow for the construction of the last façade of the Galerie de Zoologie, survived until the 1960s, between the new gallery and rue Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. Today, the vaults of the Bibliothèque Centrale du Muséum (Central Library of the Museum) can be found in the place it once stood.

The Galerie de Zoologie was inaugurated in July 1889 and showcased over a million specimens, organised according to biological systematics. An enthusiastic press hailed the marriage of science and entertainment.

On the ground floor, in a huge hall, are the largest animals (...) assembled in an original and artistic way which we are not used to seeing in natural history collections (...) This time we sought to make it as decorative as possible, and we succeeded. In this vast space, bathed in the illuminating light that streams in through the glass ceiling and makes one feel as if they are in the open air, the stuffed animals almost seem to come alive for a moment...

Alexis Lemaitre, “L'institut de France et nos Grands Établissements Scientifiques” (1896) (The institute of France and our Great Scientific Establishments)

After the Second World War, the Museum wasn’t able to upgrade the gallery’s presentations and maintain them while upholding the scientific activities of the research laboratory. As a result, the gallery, whose collections had continued to grow since it opened, had to be closed to the public for security reasons in 1966.  In 1966 the skylight, which was damaged by shrapnel during the Liberation of Paris, was covered with a zinc roof, which protected the collections from light and the elements. It marked the beginning of a long sleep.

 Galerie de Zoologie. Vue prise de la rue Censier (vers 1885) - Fonds Pierre Petit © MNHN - Direction des Bibliothèques
Galerie de Zoologie en 1892 - Fonds Pierre Petit © MNHN - Direction des Bibliothèques
Galerie de Zoologie en 1892, grand hall. Squelette de la baleine bleue - Fonds Pierre Petit © MNHN - Direction des Bibliothèques
Galerie de Zoologie en 1892, hall, Groupes de Pachydermes - Fonds Pierre Petit © MNHN - Direction des Bibliothèques
Galerie de Zoologie en 1892. 2e étage. Vitrines d'entomologie - Fonds Pierre Petit © MNHN - Direction des Bibliothèques
Galerie de Zoologie en 1890. 1er étage. Salle des poissons - Fonds Pierre Petit © MNHN - Direction des Bibliothèques

Renovation of the gallery: Grande Galerie de l’Évolution

Prior to the closure of the gallery and until the 1980s, researchers at the institution, including Francis Petter, Jean Dorst and Claude Lévi, rallied around and alerted the media and public authorities. In order to restore the gallery, they made proposals that were centred around zoology, but we also saw the emergence of ecology linked to the rise of environmental issues and the evolution of species.

In 1986, a large vault, the zoothèque (zoological collection), was built which meant that collections, which had been kept in the gallery until that point, could be stored. That same year, during an extensive consultation with the institution’s researchers, initiated by the director of the Museum, Philippe Taquet, Evolution emerged as the most unifying theme for the gallery’s new exhibitions. Shortly afterwards, the first synopsis of the gallery is written by Michel van Praët who turned the strictly educational and didactic approach, favoured by museums at the time, on its head and put forward the principle of a museum of objects/museum of ideas.

In 1987, a coordination team was created to write the gallery's museological project: it was the forerunner of the Galerie de l’Évolution, headed by Mr Van-Praët.

In February 1988, the international jury chose, from among the six teams competing in the architecture competition, the project by Paul Chemetov, Borja Huidobro, Ponthus Hulten and René Allio.

In July 1989, ownership of the project was given to the Secretary of State for Great Works, Émile Biasini.

Work began in April 1991. On 21 June 1991, large mammals that hadn’t been added to the zoothèque due to their size, were no longer housed in the gallery and left in the pouring rain. They were to be restored like most of the animals chosen to illustrate the scientific purpose of the gallery.

Construction de la zoothèque en 1981 © MNHN - Bernard Faye
Construction de la zoothèque en 1981 © MNHN - Bernard Faye

Over the course of 3 years, a thousand animals were restored by taxidermists: 350 mammals, 500 birds and more than 100 reptiles, fish and amphibians.

And so the gallery began its spectacular makeover. The architecture plan envisaged an entrance in the longitudinal axis of the nave. To achieve this, the galerie de Vénus (Venus Gallery), which was the gallery's only source of natural light, had to be destroyed. Next, the nave was dug into to create two additional levels; this was one of the most delicate stages of the works. This excavation unearthed gritstone foundations and unexpected arches. The nave was then filled using a contemporary metal structure which interplayed with the cast-iron architecture of the 19th century.

René Allio was entrusted with the scenography of the gallery, and he, along with the architects, advocated “Allusion rather than illusion”. It defines the fundamental principles which observe the scientific ideas of the Grande Galerie de l’Évolution: a scenography of our time (no representations of nature in the form of dioramas), an aesthetics of emptiness and fullness, animated walls, completely engineered.

Retour des animaux naturalisés après la restauration de la Galerie © MNHN - Laurent Bessol
Retour des animaux naturalisés après la restauration de la Galerie © MNHN - Bernard Faye

The Grande Galerie de l’Évolution was opened on 21 June 1994 by François Mitterrand.

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