Fifteen years ago, the Musée de l’Homme in Paris seemed headed for extinction, after a large part of its collection was reassigned to the Quai Branly museum. Six years after closing its doors, however, the respected institution has entirely reinvented itself in its new, prestigious home in the Chaillot Palace, set against the striking backdrop of the Eiffel Tower and across from the Trocadéro gardens.
When eminent ethnologist Paul Rivet created the Museum of Mankind in 1937, the way to impress visitors was by the sheer quantity of displays and artifacts. In the internet age, however, impressing us requires a different approach, so the MDH team rose to the challenge, wiped the slate clean, and came back with a bang. With fun, interactive, narrative exhibitions, using media and interactive tools, the permanent collection tells the story of mankind in three acts: Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we headed?
During the visit, the heart skips a beat when we come upon unfathomable objects, like the 25,000-year-old Venus de Lespugue figurine, which could be mistaken for a piece of contemporary art, yet was carved out of tusk ivory when mammoths still roamed the earth. Our eyes open wider and wider as we encounter the original fossils of Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal humans: thought-provoking reminders that every human alive today is a distant relation, our cousins 120 times removed, and, at the same time, each a very unique individual.
The exhibit invites us to look at man as one of a myriad of living species, not to be dissociated or placed in a dominant position over another. We learn about our effect on the environment, and also how looking after our ecosystem in a sustainable manner is a matter of basic self-preservation.
There is so much more to the museum than first meets the eye. This is, in fact, an active research and teaching center, housing over 150 scientists under the aegis of the Ministry of Higher Education and Research. Visitors can peek at their progress from the ‘Science Balcony’, where objects, multimedia publications, and interactive exhibits explain what researchers are currently working on.
The setting is spectacular, with Café Lucy offering one of the best views of the Tour Eiffel from the museum’s second floor. And there’s even more to look forward to: a gourmet meal at the Café de L’Homme, which, despite its name, is actually an elegant restaurant, expected to open in November, as well as a calendar of constantly renewed temporary exhibitions.