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The energy was palpable at the pre-opening press conference for the newly re-invented Musée de l’Homme— the Museum of Mankind– which is welcoming the public for free for its inauguration (October 17 for three days). Perched on the Trocadéro with glass windows framing the Eiffel Tower, the anthropological museum was closed for a six-year renovation that cost 92 million euros. The building itself—part of the historic-listed Palais de Chaillot—underwent a top-to-bottom overhaul.
When it originally opened in 1938, this anthropological museum was influenced by its colonial socio-political context– when visitors gaped at “primitive art” and “ethnic curiosities”. The billboard ads that are now plastered all over the city make reference to this: “Man (humanity) evolves. His museum does too.” Hailing the new project, “so much more than a racist cabinet of curiosities,” The Guardian says, “it’s high time London got its own (anthropological museum).”
The new museum is a state-of-the-art study of the evolution of humanity which seeks to explore three questions: “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?”
There had been much soul-searching among the scientists and anthropologists associated with the museum—when half the collection was mined by former President Jacques Chirac to populate his Quai Branly museum (2006). But the Musée de l’Homme has survived… and it’s better than ever.
The highlight of the museum is La Galerie de l’Homme- a vast two-level gallery stretching the length of the building, and overlooking the Eiffel Tower. Tracing the evolution of humanity and what it means to be human, the multimedia exhibits harness all the latest technology. (A giant wall map, for example, depicts the origins of diverse languages; pull on a “tongue” and you’ll hear a recording of that language.) The collection encompasses 700,000 prehistoric and 30,000 anthropological objects including the skull of French philosopher René Descartes alongside the skull of a Neanderthal man.
Treasures include a 18th century collection of anatomical wax figures, like André-Pierre Pinson’s “Femme à la Larme” which—in its depiction of a woman’s serene crying visage alongside the anatomical inner workings—unites the worlds of art and science. These spectacular wax figures had been in storage at the Natural History Museum.
I was mesmerized by the tomb of “la dame du Cavillon”, discovered in a cavern in 1872 and now on display. The authentic fossilized skull, decorated with shells and ochre in a demonstration of elaborate funerary rites, represents the Cro-Magnon, the very first homo sapiens.
Bref, a visit to the Musée de l’Homme is a thought-provoking experience that’s not to be missed.
Musée de l’Homme, 17 Place du Trocadéro, 75016. Tel: +33 1 44 05 72 72. Open every day except Tuesday from 10 am- 6 pm, and on Wednesdays, the museum stays open until 9 pm. Full ticket price is 10 euros.
Lead photo credit : courtesy of Musée de l'Homme/ jcdomenech