A brief history of the National Museum of Natural History of Paris (MNHN)


We are far from knowing everything about nature. Animals, plants, rocks still have a lot to teach us. To do this, they must be studied relentlessly, especially since there is sometimes an emergency when species are threatened. In France, among the leading institutions finely developing this knowledge of nature, the National Museum of Natural History of Paris (MNHN) is a major historical institution. We invite you to discover the little history of this institution which counts a lot in the protection of the environment today.

Before the Museum

If botany has been practiced since Antiquity, it was not until the 18th century that it acquired the status of a scientific discipline in its own right. Gardens were created all over Europe throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. In France, the “Jardin du Roy” was created in Paris in 1635 under the influence of the doctor Guy de La Brosse. Intended for the cultivation of plants and scientific education, courses in French (and not in Latin as was done at the time) and free are offered so that the widest possible public can discover botany, chemistry and anatomy. Royal protection allows the institution to continue despite opposition from the Church, which judges research to be heretical.

In the 18th century, what was still only an apothecary’s garden, underwent considerable development under the direction of the count of Buffon. The historical period is then completely turned towards the most exhaustive possible inventory of the riches of nature and human industry. To see more clearly in this wealth of information, the collections are presented in a coherent order for the time. Scientists seek to classify knowledge.

Buffon had trees planted from all over the world: the royal garden became a research center and a museum. He is an important figure, best known for his Natural history, general and particular, with the description of the Cabinet du Roy, in 36 volumes published between 1749 and 1788. The success of the work is similar to that of the encyclopedia by Diderot, which appeared at the same time. The Comte de Buffon proved capable of attracting renowned scholars around him who contributed to the development of the prestige of the place.

Birth and development of the Museum

It was on June 10, 1793, that the Natural History Museum was born. The Menagerie, one of the oldest zoos in the world, opened its doors in 1794. From 1798, elephants, lions, camels, ostriches, bears, buffaloes made their entry. They are animals requisitioned by the armies during expeditions or gifts from foreign sovereigns.

The 19th century saw the construction of new buildings to house ever larger and more diverse collections. This century is marked by two important dates. The first is 1827 which sees the arrival of the giraffe named Zarafa for which the Parisians are flocking. The other date is that of 1870, siege of Paris by the Prussians. Animals die under the bombardments or the knives of a starving population.

During the 19th century, natural history museums developed considerably. Most large cities must have such an institution. Colonial expansion helps to make science materials more accessible. The collections are therefore considerably enriched. The Natural History Museum is adorned with Large Greenhouses devoted to the flora of New Caledonia, then an Art Deco winter garden. The gallery of mineralogy and geology is also created. In terms of scientific disciplines, botany is losing importance and giving way to zoology, anatomy and paleontology. In 1889, the gallery of zoology, today called “Great gallery of evolution”, Is inaugurated. It is described as “Louvre of science”. Ten years later, the Gallery of Comparative Anatomy and Paleontology was created.

Since the 20th century

In the 20th century, the National Museum of Natural History asserted itself as manager of scientific and cultural establishments: Vincennes zoo and Musée de l’Homme for Parisian institutions, but also Versailles-Chèvreloup arboretum, La Jaÿsinia alpine garden, Haute-Touche zoological reserve, the Val-Rahmeh Menton botanical garden, Concarneau marine station, are placed under the scientific competence of the Museum.

The study of nature has always been the main mission of the Museum. Locally acclimatized exotic plants were studied for their medicinal or food virtues. It was Antoine de Jussieu who, in the 18th century, grew Coffea arabica and discovered coffee, leading to its export to Martinique to develop its culture there. The organization of trips aimed at the study of exotic animals has kept traces of the dodo, now extinct.

After the Second World War, the decolonization movements limited the actions initiated in distant geographical areas. But the Museum does not lose its influence, taking an active part in a context where awareness of the negative impacts of human activity on natural environments is growing. The Museum thus contributes to creating the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 1948. In 1962, the Museum welcomed the Nature Conservation Service.

The National Museum of Natural History is a benchmark institution

It is all this long history that makes the Museum today a benchmark institution in the field of natural heritage. It constitutes an independent scientific body capable of carrying out expert missions for the French State, local communities, European and international bodies, but also companies.

In addition to expertise, the Muséum’s activities are developed around four axes:

  • fundamental and applied research,
  • enhancement, enrichment, conservation and availability of collections and data from natural and cultural heritage,
  • education and training,
  • education of the greatest number and dissemination of scientific and technical culture.

Each year the Museum recruits interns and apprentices. These are all opportunities for all young nature enthusiasts who wish to discover this great establishment and contribute to its very diverse activities.