It’s a fascinating collection of bones, all old, some extremely old. The Gallery of Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy has its origins in Louis XIII’s cabinet of curiosities, installed in his new botanic garden in 1633. The king’s vast collections, extended and enhanced under Louis XIV and Louis XV, included plant, insect and mineral specimens from around the world alongside skeletons, fossils and tribal artifacts. In 1793, after the Revolution, the royal collections were reorganised as the National Museum and twelve professors were appointed, each responsible for the curation of a specific collection.
It was Georges Cuvier, appointed to the Chair of Anatomy in 1802, who established the study of comparative anatomy and the systematic organisation of the collection of skeletons. The current purpose built gallery dates from 1889, part of the great building spree in the run up to the Exposition Universelle of 1900.
The comparative anatomy collection still retains something of the character of a cabinet of curiosities. Some displays have information boards highlighting adaptations, evolutionary relationships and extinctions but many still have simple handwritten labels in flowing copperplate script.
There’s much to wonder at in the variety of the animal kingdom on display, from delicate pygmy shrews to vast whales, but also in the strange, abstract beauty of the skeletons.
The Palaeontology gallery upstairs seems to be a favourite with parties of primary school children. Reconstructed fossil skeletons are supplemented by casts of fossil bones, models and informative displays. There’s much to study and wonder at here too – another day maybe.
(Click on any photo for a closer view)
The Galerie de Paléontologie et d’Anatomie is part of the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle. It is situated just inside the north-east gate of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris.