Paris has a long, complex and often controversial history with its anthropological museums. I’ve written before about the history of the Cité Nationale de l’Histoire de l’Immigration, which is now a modern immigration museum, but was once the imperialist Musée des Colonies, home to the 1931 Exposition Coloniale Internationale. I’ve also written about the network of museums that make up the Muséum National de l’Histoire Naturelle, with their stunning collections of taxidermy, gemstones, dinosaur fossils and other preserved items from nature. For the jardin des plantes, now home to the natural history museums as well as the Paris zoo, needs to be understood in its context as the historical site of human zoos. And in my day job, I am currently working on a journal article about the Institut du monde arabe. Though it is monumental and beautifully constructed, the museum of the Arab world is strangely silent on the history of French colonisation of many Arab territories in North Africa.
But one anthropological Paris museum that tends to pass under the radar is the Musée de l’Homme. Housed in the monumental surrounds of the Palais de Chaillot, alongside the Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris and the Musée de la marine, and with the Eiffel Tower looming through almost every one of the museum’s floor-to-ceiling windows, the Musée de l’Homme is a polished and refined museum space.
Yet some would say this museum’s heyday has passed, since the original collection was largely emptied out (along with that of the Palais de la Porte Dorée, now the aforementioned immigration museum) to fill the city’s largest and most vibrant anthropological museum, le Musée du Quai Branly. However, this upheaval upon the opening of the Quai Branly in 2007 may have actually been a boon for the Musée de l’Homme, for it gave the museum the opportunity to offer a fresh take on anthropology.
Interactive multimedia exhibits present the complexity of, and links between, the thousands of languages of the world. Elegant maps show the pre-historic and historic movements of people around the globe. Skeletons and other archaeological pieces map not so much the differences between groups, but the common traits of human evolution and our departure from our simian ancestors.
It’s far from easy for historical, anthropological and ethnographic museums to surmount their colonialist and/or hierarchical pasts. Some Paris museums succeed in reinventing themselves better than others. Fans of archaeology, linguistics, human evolution and anthropology can visit le Musée de l’Homme and judge for themselves. But there’s nothing beating that view.