Monday, March 28, 2016

Le Musée National d'Histoire Naturelle

A year or so ago I read Elizabeth Kolbert’s opus “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.” It was sobering to say the least, dealing with what is slowly emerging as the sixth time the Earth has undergone a major reduction in species. Former events ranged in time from 450 to 66 million years ago and were associated with all kinds of natural phenomena, including comets, asteroids, giant lava eruptions, sea level variations, and atmosphere changes. The only one that’s moderately well explained occurred at the Cretaceous-Palogene border (66 million years ago) and is attributed to the Chicxulub asteroid impact. Its evidence includes a rather large crater beneath the ocean off the coast of the Yucatan, and a thick layer of gray clay found around the world that was formed by the ejecta from the explosion. This event resulted in the loss of 75% off all species and ended the age of the dinosaurs, paving the way for the emergence of mammalian species.
The term “extinction” was not well understood until the middle of the 19th century when Jean Léopold Nicolas Frédéric Cuvier coined it based on his extensive work with fossils that were collected around the world, in part by the armies of Napolean. Prior to this, the scientist of the day had not analyzed the data in a way that led them to the conclusion that millions of species had existed in the dark past and had disappeared entirely for some reason or another.
Born in 1769, Cuvier was an extraordinary scientist and work is considered the foundation of vertebrate paleontology. He also broadly expanded the Linnaean Taxonomy by not only adding the concept of phyla, but including the skeletons and fossils of both living and extinct animals. Interestingly, he also took a strong stand against the nascent concept of evolution, arguing that his life’s work analyzing skeletal remains did not support the idea that species change over time.
Where this round-about background is taking us is back to Kolbert’s book, which covered the life and work of Cuvier in some detail. In addition to his standing as one of the great scientific minds of all time, he was also the founder of Le Musée National d’Histoire Naturelle, France’s national museum devoted to science. When I read the book and discovered this, and that the very bones Cuvier spent his career analyzing were right there on display for each and everybody to walk right up to and see in close proximity, I about kicked myself because we had just returned from our first trip to Paris. Ships passing in the night and all that. Well, when planning this trip I made sure I filed a mental note to make sure I didn’t miss a second opportunity.
Yesterday’s unsettled weather continued more violently into the night. Lots of rain and strong winds, making all the construction scaffolding and tarps outside our window clang and whip like crazy. We also had the pleasure of being intermittently bathed in cigarette smoke through our open bedroom window, no doubt from some husband 2 floors down who is told to smoke on the window sill in the air shaft when he doesn’t feel like taking the elevator down to the street. Skunks at home, skulking smokers here. The universe doesn’t want us to sleep, clearly.
When we got up and got going, the weather seemed a bit less ugly, at least from our vantage up the two air shafts. Blue sky, sun, and scudding clouds. We saddled up and headed downstairs and out on to Rue Vaneau where Mother Nature showed her hand – she’d been sandbagging us. The wind was blowing hard up the street and pushing rain in our faces. Out with the umbrellas as we leaned into the tempest. The decision about walking versus Metro was made for us, before we’d even cleared the first block. Rounding the corner on to Rue de Sèvres we cleared the 10 meters to the Vaneau Metro station and hobbled down the stairs buying tickets from the machine and choosing the correct platform. This being Easter Monday in France, I expected more people but the platform was empty. The train arrived in perhaps 2 minutes and it was largely empty too, so we grabbed a couple of jump seats by the door and settled in for the 5 station ride.
The weather at our destination was more like that of the early hours of the day – howling wind, rain coming down in sheets. Of course that was the moment one of our previously pretty reliable Eddie Bauer umbrellas decided to blow itself inside-out and throw a rib. I jammed it as best as I could, like a pigeon with a broken wing, into my messenger bag as we ducked into a bistro to warm up over a cup of coffee.
Fifteen minutes later and after a bit of Google Mapping the sun came out, we paid (after being complimented on my perfect pronunciation of “l’addition” or, “the bill)and we were back out on the street in bright windy sunshine with nary a rain cloud in sight.
Google Maps had told us it was a 4-minute walk to the museum, just across Rue de Cuvier. Well, that was sort of true while actually the place marker for the museum was an outright lie – the museum is a set of multiple buildings set in a pretty enormous city park called the “Jardin des Plantes” that includes not only the paleontology museum, but a zoo, many gardens, an enclosed botanical pavilion, a building devoted to evolution and another to gems and minerals. Thanks Google Maps! You’ve done it once again. I suppose I should be grateful that the directions didn’t instruct us to walk into the Seine. Using a map in the park, we figured out that the place we wanted was just about as far from where we were standing as could be. Heading off on a diagonal zig-zag we got there in about 10 minutes. The weather was still holding and the walk through long lines of emerging spring flowers was very nice .
Arriving, I was relieved to see that it was open (this being a holiday) and uncrowded. The security guy who was supposed to be checking bags weapons and bombs was busy texting so we walked right past and paid and went in. Stepping up and into the large entry doors, we were immediately struck by the grandeur of what was in front of us – a giant room, large city library sized, chock full of skeletons. Big animals on platforms in the middle, little animals in cases all along both sides. So many bones that the place looked like a giant white hedgerow. Truly jaw dropping.
As museums go, you wouldn’t say this one was “world class” since the descriptions were solely in French and there wasn’t a lot of interpretative information. Rather, this was sort of a museum of a museum - the displays were largely in the condition in which they were originally produced with ancient faded description tags, many in Cuvier’s own hand. We strolled down one side and up another, looking at what caught our eye. From a Fin Whale skeleton that dominated half the space to a tiny case with 27 individual Hummingbird skeletons, every imaginable size, shape and species was represented.
We spent about an hour among the bones, picking out some favorites. Things like a display showing the evolution of the foot of the horse and the skeletons of Roseate-billed Spoonbills, one of our Mexico favorites. The most poignant display, hands down, was that of the Dodo who was represented by both a skeleton and a reconstruction. Having made the circuit, we went up the stairs to the second level which was dedicated solely to fossils. Not as dense as the bone museum, but still impressive with dinosaurs, Pleistocene animals (such as Mastodon, Ground Sloth, Cave Bear) and even an Archaeopteryx. The Giant Crocodile was quite amazing, as was the broadly racked Irish Elk. Best though was the view from the balcony overlooking the skeletons on the floor below. We decided to pass on the plant fossils featured on the third level and left the museum, thoroughly satisfied with our visit and happy to see that the weather was still in our favor. We took an easy stroll out of the park and made our way back to the Jussieu Metro station. The sky was still pretty nice and the only gray clouds were to our east, in the direction of the Seine. Tt looked like we’d be clear for a walk home, but not being able to see what was being stacked up for us on the western horizon, we decided to take the subway a second time. More stair work, tickets, my usual feeling that we’re taking the wrong train, a quick ride back to Vaneau and up into the world where our choice was validated. It was not sunny and calm in our neighborhood. We ducked into Carrefour for some groceries and came out into a mild shower that held most of the way up our street. I was able to finally stop at the ATM and what a great one it is, allowing you to pick the distribution of the bills. I selected 3-20s and 4-10s and just as I finished up it started to rain in earnest. Gladly we were not far from home, just a few more minutes and we were off the street and making a nice lunch to reward our perseverance. 

(click on photos to enlarge)






















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