Magic at the Gallery of Compared Anatomy
For the writer Paul Claudel, The Gallery of Compared Anatomy was “rien de moins que [le] plus beau musée de Paris […]. À chacun de mes passages en France, je reviens visiter cette galerie sublime avec un sentiment de vénération religieuse, qui chaque fois, me donne envie d’enlever non seulement mon chapeau mais aussi mes chaussures.”
One of the most unusual museums you’ll see in Paris, the Gallery of Compared Anatomy and Paleontology, part of the Muséum first opened in 1898. They have an exceptional collection of skeletons (as well as organs) of all the terrestrial and marine creatures known to man, displayed as if they were marching all together towards the end of the earth. It is impressive all these bones in one place and it allows the comparison of sizes, forms and means of locomotion of these creatures. Look at a giraffe next to a horse, next to a cat and understand what they share and what makes them different. Upstairs is the paleontology gallery with skeletons and moulds of creatures and dinosaurs from the past. The Gallery of Compared Anatomy is itself a sort of museum of museums as the displays are in age old cases and described by faded handwritten cards which seem to date from the creation of the museum in the 19th century. The stone and metal building which is 80 meters long, hasn’t been renovated since forever and there in lies its charm. It still has original furnishings, large old windows, parquet flooring and wrought iron banisters with leaves and iris from days gone by. Another unusual aspect of this museum is that because of the large windows the natural light changes throughout the day giving the viewer different perspective and bringing different aspects to the forefront each time you round a corner. This gallery and its magic also recently inspired author Anthony Doerr who in All the Light We Cannot See, his bestseller about WWII, made it the heroine Marie-Laure’s father’s workplace. Visiting the Gallery while reading the book was a rich visual aspect to a story about a blind girl.
Today in addition to the skeletons and cases of museum history and natural history you can enjoy contemporary art that was also inspired by the magic of the space. The exhibition Magicien d’Os featuring Quentin Garel’s 80 kilo cat skull, four meter flamingo skull and ten other pieces will leave you marveling before the past, present and future. In this case the juxtaposition of contemporary and historical is rather subtle due to Garel’s choice of subject and materials. Garel’s sculptures of patinaed bronze and wood slip so nicely into the collection of skeletons that the only thing that gives them away is their scale. The visit is a bit of a treasure hunt to find them.
The Garel exhibition continues outside in the Jardin des Plantes with an enormous single vertebra and bird skull big enough to park a car underneath. These connect the gardens with the museum directly, serving as a call to visit inside. Their large scale is fitting for something outdoors yet completely out of proportion with reality thus becoming contemporary totems.
The Gallery of Compared Anatomy is part of the Muséum, France’s natural history museum in the Jardin des Plantes. Be aware the Gallery’s opening schedule is also a vestige of the past – closing at an early 5pm during the week but 6pm on weekends and holidays.
The Quentin Garel exhibition ends 12 September, but the Gallery is worth a visit anytime for children, history buffs, the science-oriented and those who love to draw.
“Si l’homme ne peut lire dans l’avenir, et c’est là une des plus dures épreuves de sa destinée, il peut essayer de lire dans le passé.” — Albert Gaudry, titulaire de la chaire de paléontologie et promoteur des idées évolutionnistes en France