The epic metamorphosis undertaken in the six years since the doors of the Chaillot Palace were closed to the public has brought new life to the Musée de l’Homme, which will now tell the fascinating story of our species’ biological, cultural and social evolution in even greater detail.
In the past, it was customary for museums to display as many items as possible so visitors ended up looking at a great deal but seeing very little. The revamped Musée de l’Homme focuses on quality, coherence and narrative – using media and interactive tools to bring the story of humanity to life, even if that means displaying only a fraction of its 700,000 artefacts.
Cécile Aufaure, the museum’s heritage curator and project director, took France Today on a pre-reopening tour. The permanent collection is organised as a question in three parts: ‘who are we’, ‘where do we come from’ and ‘where are we going’? Our tour is punctuated by incomparable treasures, such as the 25,000-year-old Vénus de Lespugue figurine carved out of mammoth ivory, and original Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal fossils.
“The objective,” says Aufaure, “is to show how mankind is inscribed in the collective of all living things – as a species among others, not to be dissociated or placed in a dominant position over any other. Man has an effect on its environment and is affected by it in return, and so we must learn to belong to the ecosystem in a sustainable manner.”
What sets the museum apart is that it’s not a cultural entity, rather predominantly a research and teaching facility functioning under the Ministry of Higher Education. The story of man continues to be written, so in the new airy and lofty interior a ‘Science Balcony’ offers real-time exhibits which will enable visitors to connect with recent scientific developments and the research that’s currently being undertaken.
When ethnologist Paul Rivet created the Musée de l’Homme in 1937, the eminent chronicler of humanity merged the collection of the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro, founded in 1878, with the collections of biological and cultural anthropology kept by the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle. The new institution held a very special place in France’s national consciousness during the Nazi occupation, as the network of the Musée de l’Homme became the intellectual cradle of the Resistance. It fell into stasis in the 1970s, and after the new Musée du Quai Branly took over a large part of the collection in 2006, its very existence was put into question.
The lengthy refurbishment of the Musée de l’Homme has resulted in the creation of a visitor experience that distills the very essence of what it means to be human into a thrilling shared journey.
TIP: Plan a pause at the Café de l’Homme, where the windows offer a memorable, floor-to-ceiling view of the Eiffel Tower, the Jardins du Trocadéro and the Seine.
Musée de l’Homme, From October 17. Palais de Chaillot, 17 place du Trocadéro, Paris 16th. Métro: Trocadéro. Open daily 10am-6pm. Wednesdays until 9pm. Entry €10. Tel: +33 1 44 05 72 72
From France Today magazine