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  • Angela Stienne

Controversial bodies at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris

In 2015, the Musée de l’Homme reopened in Paris after a five-year closure, with the aim to be a laboratory-museum, in keeping with founder Paul Rivet’s 1948 view that ‘humanity is one and indivisible, not only in space, but also in time’.

The Musée de l’Homme is heir to the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro founded in 1878, and the recipient of the human remains collections of the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle de Paris (MNHN). On the occasion of its reopening, the museum opened its first temporary exhibition, ‘Us and them, from prejudice to racism’. A highly interactive exhibition, it questioned understandings of differences through various intellectual, geographical and historical frames. In a room dedicated to the historical development of racial thinking, a series of individuals were mentioned, including Johann Friedrich Blumenbach and Georges Cuvier. Cuvier is the founding figure of the MNHN’s anthropological collections (based at the Musée de l’Homme), a point that was not clearly stated in this exhibition. In fact, the historical development of the Musée de l’Homme, its predecessors and its links to the collecting of bodies for racial studies - a historical practice rooted in nineteenth century colonial mindset - have been completely erased from the new museum.

Can the Musée de l’Homme act as a laboratory-museum celebrating humanity as one, while rejecting from its storyline the historical links it has to some of the most divisive chapters of history? Where is the Musée de l’Homme located in contemporary conversations on colonial collecting and the curation of human remains more generally?

Us and Them, From Prejudice to Racism

The human remains collection at the Musée de l’Homme

In 1816, a South African woman, Saartjie Baartman, died in Paris. Cuvier, then curator at the MNHN, studied her body while she was performing in Paris and after her death, claimed her body for investigation. Cuvier made a plaster cast of her body and then dissected the body to preserve her brain and sexual organs in jars; both the cast and the human remains were put on display at the MNHN. This series of events was one of a number of investigations of African women by thinkers who used the black body as a framework to compare, construct and assert racial theories.

Cuvier wanted to apply the comparative classification system he had developed for animals on humans and he complained in 1799 that there had not yet been such a study, stating: ‘Entire skeletons would be infinitely valuable. Can it be conceived that we have not yet, in any work, the detailed composition of the skeleton of the Negro, and that of the White?’. Cuvier was also interested in Egyptian mummies, at a time when discussions around the origin of the ancient Egyptians were widespread. Indeed, the expedition to Egypt by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798-1801 had amplified interest in ancient Egypt, but also brought to light a challenge: how could one reconcile the technological and philosophical advances of the ancient Egyptian civilisation with the location of Egypt on the African continent, in a period of colonial expansion? Although Cuvier did not study full Egyptian mummies, he did study a large number of Egyptian mummy skulls. Cuvier had his own cabinet at the MNHN which contained Egyptian human skulls, amongst his c. 11,000 preparations.

James Cowles Prichard reported on Cuvier’s investigations of Egyptian mummies in 1836:

‘M. Cuvier declares that he has examined, either at Paris or in other parts of Europe, more than fifty heads of mummies, and that none of them presented the characters either of the Negro or the Hottentot. He concluded that the Egyptians belonged to the same race of men as the Europeans.’

Cuvier’s study of Egyptian skulls was entirely shaped with the aim of asserting that ancient Egyptians were not a black people, comparing those skulls to extensive studies he had conducted on non-white individuals. In his report on Saartjie Baartman, Cuvier made additional comments asserting the absence of links between black-Africans and the ancient Egyptians, stating:

‘[Neither the] bushman, nor any race of Negros, gave birth to the celebrated people who established civilisation in ancient Egypt and from whom one could say that the entire world has inherited the principle of law, science and perhaps even religion.’

The appropriation of the ancient Egyptians as exclusively Caucasian was not specific to Cuvier’s research but rather an expression of nineteenth-century racial and colonial discourses that were repeated by numerous naturalists and philosophers. For example, in the 1840s, Samuel George Morton used skull measurements to conclude that ancient Egypt was ‘originally peopled by a branch of the Caucasian race’ and that Egypt was then penetrated by other people, creating what he called ‘an endless confusion of races’.

This theory was reused in 1844 by American Josiah Nott, who called the racial diversity after the original Caucasian presence, ‘barbarism’. The recycling of Caucaso-centric theories of the racial origin of the ancient Egyptians across the Atlantic illustrates the resonance of these theories in a context of developing colonialism which emphasised the superiority of Europeans and white Americans over Africans, using the ancient Egyptians as an example of Caucasian achievement.

What happened to these remains that testify to the history of museums collecting races? The cast and the remains of Saartjie Baartman were transferred from the ‘anatomie comparée’ room at the MNHN to the ‘galerie d’anthropologie physique’ at the Musée de l’Homme when it opened in 1937 and were put on public display. In total, from their display at the MNHN up to their removal from display, the remains of Saartjie Baartman were on display continuously for 158 years, between 1816 and 1974. This includes her skeleton, her remains (including her brain and genitals), the full plaster cast and an oil painting of her portrait. The skeleton was removed from display in 1974, and the body cast in 1976 (although the cast was displayed again at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris between 16 March and 12 June 1994 for a temporary exhibition). Nelson Mandela asked French president François Mitterand for the repatriation of the remains during the latter’s official visit to South Africa in 1994. This request was repeated on many occasions and the process took a total of eight years until, on 6 March 2002, the remains of Saartjie Baartman were brought back to South Africa.

Today, the Musée de l'Homme holds an extensive collection of human remains, which are divided on the museum’s website into ‘mummies’, ‘modern human remains’ and ‘paleoanthropology’. The MNHN’s mummy collection is composed of 63 complete mummies, including 33 Egyptian mummies, as well as 52 isolated mummy heads from Egypt and South America, and other body parts. The modern human remains include over 1,000 skeletons, 18,000 skulls, including non-European bodies. Finally, the palaeontological collection includes more than 600 original human fossil remains. The controversy surrounding Saartjie Baartman is not an isolated one; a highly contested part of the human remains collection is the collection of skulls from Algeria which are still in the holdings of the Musée de l’Homme. These human remains, which are not on public display, attest to a dark chapter of France’s colonial history, and epitomize contemporary attitudes in French museums towards human remains and objects from the colonial era in general.

The Musée de l’Homme’s website states that ‘for reasons of conservation and ethics, they [the mummies] are rarely displayed in public’. However, the Egyptian mummy of a small child is on display in the space dedicated to death, next to a Peruvian mummy. The museum has an extensive collection of human remains on display, which includes the skull of Descartes (which was collected by Cuvier after having been lost during a transfer and passed from hand to hand throughout Europe) and a number of European skulls. Can the museum champion the ethical treatment of human remains when it has on display the mummy of a child, a Peruvian mummy, and a stolen skull, the body of which resides in a tomb in Paris?

The cast collection and the new installation

The Musée de l’Homme also holds a collection of plaster cast busts, including some on display in a new installation called ‘L’envolée des bustes’. These busts are casts made of living models; they are the legacy of a further colonial practice in nineteenth century France, that of the display of living individuals in French colonial exhibitions. How efficient is the new display at the Musée de l’Homme in exploring the controversial history of the making of these casts?

In 1877, a new type of exhibition was presented in the Jardin d’Acclimatation, located in the West of Paris: a number of animals from Somalia and Sudan were put on display in the garden, together with fourteen ‘Nubians’. Outside of public opening hours, these individuals were studied by anthropologists to explore questions of race, in the same fashion Cuvier studied Saartjie Baartman. The Société d’Anthropologie de Paris noted on this exhibition that:

Men of science, those who are especially concerned with anthropology, did not wish to allow such a good opportunity to study a group of humans from the great African continent to pass them by. As soon as it heard of the exhibition, the Société d’Anthropologie immediately designated a committee under the direction of its eminent general secretary, Dr Broca, charged with examining carefully the natives camped at the gates of Paris.

This kind of exhibition was in no way unique and exemplified the contemporary interests in the study and display of otherness, both as living people and as casts. These exhibitions proved immensely successful, and although there was some criticism from a few isolated members of the Société, the general reception from scientists was favourable. Soon enough, these exhibitions lost their scientific acumen and focused on the production of spectacular shows, as exemplified by the West African Ethnographic Exhibition of 1887. Another important example of the display of living people is the 1931 Paris Exposition Coloniale Internationale, which took place only a few years before the opening of the Musée de l’Homme (established in 1937) and included a similar showcase of living persons from the colonies.

The Musée de l’Homme is host to a number of casts which come from a similar interest in the representation and characterization of individuals, not according to their name, but rather their ethnicity. The display called ‘L’envolée des bustes’ includes two types of busts – bronze and plaster casts – in a new display that sees these nameless individuals displayed together in what is meant as an aesthetic and artistic display. The bronze busts were created by Charles Cordier who produced busts for the Ethnographic Gallery of the MNHN from 1851 to 1866. The website of the Musée de l’Homme states that the casts ‘served as the basis for 19th century hypotheses on the characterization of the human species and remains an internationally representative reference on human diversity’.

Rather than rejecting the history of characterizing individuals with evident, accepted racial bias, the new display is reinforcing – and idealising – the study of racial characterization. There is little to no narrative accompanying the display, and no contextual grounding to explain why these came into the collection. More importantly, there is no justification as to why these are on display now, and why the choice of display strategy turned these important and controversial objects into an aesthetic exhibition. Even more controversial is the choice to have on display, behind this structure, the busts of some men who were involved in the scientific study of races – including Geoffroy Saint Hilaire who was a great supporter of the display of people at the Jardin d’Acclimatation, and Georges Cuvier who studied and dissected Saartjie Baartman. With a complete absence of contextual grounding, and any narratives linking these individuals, this display is not just unnecessary – it is deceptive.

L'envolée des bustes at the Musée de l'Homme. own picture.

Human remains and colonial past in French museums

The Musée de l’Homme is paradigmatic of contemporary attitudes surrounding human remains and objects from colonial era in European museums. Contrary to the UK, France has scarcely engaged with the question of human remains in museums and their displays remain unchallenged. In addition, there has been relatively little research and discussion surrounding the Musée de l’Homme since its reopening. It is Sally Price’s publication Paris Primitive on the Musée du Quai Branly which opened the path to thinking about the absence of contextual narratives about colonial collecting at the Musée du Quai Branly – and at the Musée de l’Homme as well. The Musée du Quai Branly is the latest in the thread of museums that have been constructed around the collections of the MNHN and hosts the collection of non-European objects from the Musée de l’Homme.

The release of the Sarr-Savoy report in the Autumn 2018 generated a huge amount of attention around the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris and its collection of artefacts, especially the colonial context of its collecting. However, the Musée de l’Homme seldom appeared in conversations on the future of French museums. This is surprising considering its collection of contentious human remains, especially the skulls from Algeria that have been the subject of repatriation claims; and the ties both the Quai Branly and the Musée de l’Homme have to the MNHN, which has been the recipient of objects (especially human remains) that were directly linked to scientific racism and colonial heritage. Was the revamp and rebranding of the Musée de l’Homme so successful that France has collectively forgotten this museum’s heritage?

What is evident from the case studies presented here – the display of Saartjie Baartman, the dichotomy between the museum’s purported stance on ethical display and the actual display of a child mummy, and the problematic plaster casts in their new exhibition – is that the Musée de l’Homme has not thoroughly delved into the question of its historical collections and the narratives associated with it. It is evident that the new Musée de l’Homme aims to be a museum that is visually and narratively pleasing with a new architecture that is accessible and a storyline that is attractive: humanity as one.

The new Musée de l’Homme is in a unique position to challenge practices within the 21st century museum, with a collection of controversial bodies and casts that have the potential to narrate a complex history which has not been dealt with. It has so far elected to follow the path of the Musée du Quai Branly in silencing the historical practices of its collecting; certainly, the current debates surrounding the Musée du Quai Branly and the Sarr-Savoy report suggest that this cultural amnesia surrounding collections from colonial era is going to be challenged and that the contemporary relevance of these collections will finally be questioned.

The speech given on the day of the repatriation of Saartjie Baartman to South Africa in 2002 read:

‘We cannot undo the damage that was done to her. But at least we can summon the courage to speak the naked but healing truth that must comfort her wherever she may be’.

This speech delves into the truth of Saartjie Bartmaan: a woman collected as a specimen, and an example of ‘otherness’ at a time when racial classification was the norm in museums and other institutions with the aim of proving the superiority of a white race. It is a pursuit that fundamentally shaped the collecting of human remains and casts at the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris, and that continued to shape displays in its following institutions, including the Musée de l’Homme. To reuse the phrasing of the speech given at Saartjie Baartman’s reburial, museums must ‘summon the courage to speak the naked but healing truth’; and there is a long way to the healing path when it comes to France’s colonial history.


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