Tag Archives: Museum de Histoire Naturelle

Utopia’s Garden

This past week’s study was a foray into the Jardin du Roi and how it, and many of its staff, managed to weather the French Revolution and come out as the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle.  E.C. Spary’s 2000 work is highly developed and pretty involved with the politics and poetics of natural history from Count Buffon and the Old Regime into the Republic, the Terror, and the annoying redating of things during the period that make it more difficult to follow the historical narrative. Thankfully Spary gives the regular dates in parenthesis. I will also give an early warning that there are sentences in here that have higher word counts than some of my students’ essays.

Book cover
Book cover

The beauty of the book comes from not getting bogged down in the details of the revolution that is happening all around the Jardin except where it specifically crosses over into the lives of those taking care of the garden.

The book is equally useful for tracking the broader historiography through its copius footnotes (which probably double the length of the book) and the enormous bibliography ranging from general history of science canon to unpublished manuscripts.

The first two chapters manage to set the scene and argument establishing a list of work that Spary pulls from and modifies as needed. This includes a lengthy focus on Count Buffon’s Histoire Naturelle.

The entire work can be summed up as an account of how the Jardin survived the revolution in ways other royal establishments and institutions did not. Its staff rolled-over even if they changed specialties in the case of only having one avenue of employment (think Lamarck as a zoologist without a physicians position), and it revealed how nature, and the study of natural history does not break at the Revolution–even if that is an accepted and oft used marker for major changes in historical analysis.

Natural history in the period pursued social implications and practical uses and it was Buffon’s magnum opus Histoire Naturelle that highlighted practices of classifying, cultivating, and preserving; subjects as divers as man, the freshwater polyp, and the potato” (5-6). This new natural history required a new expertise that was demonstrable.

It was this demonstrable quality that allowed the Jardin to move from the old court patronage system to the new multiplicity of political patronage and eventual bureacratization of the Museum. New politics of active citizenship arose through exploitation of natural resources. These decisions shaped the way a new generation experienced and interacted with the world. Cuvier is said to have colored in the illustrations in his (or his parents’) copy of Buffon’s book.

Spary maintains that “Natural History was based upon a material economy of objects which had to be controlled by a social economy of morals” (47). It is through the discussion of such economies–moral, political, material–that the works gets tedious and honestly hard to follow. This is broken up by a quick aside on how the Jardin was to maintain the essence of the Romantic period and resemble the erotic “gardens of romance” portrayed in art. The story goes that a man followed his wife into the garden believing her to be visiting with her lover. Upon finding her with her galant starts a fight. The two are brought before the head of the Jardin, Andre Thouin, to pronounce sentence. After much deliberation Thouin decided that the husband was to be installed in the exhibit and held on display next to the elephant skeleton that had come from Versaille. This was partly do to the fact that the cuckholded husband apparently was “so little informed of the ways of his country.” (53).

I will take a moment here to talk more about Thouin less as the able bodied commodore of the Jardin throughout this period, who adequately managed to navigate many of the changes needed in order for the Jardin–and his own position– to survive and more about the fact that I eventually had to give up trying to not call him Thorin as I was reading. A completely unfair comparison to the Tolkien dwarf, but one that happened with such repetitiveness that it became impossible to not draw up his image. This is compounded by the fact that it isn’t even the literary Thorin I see, but Peter Jackson’s movie version. This might have been better alleviated had Spary given some description of Andre Thouin, but probably not.

Behold, I am Roi and this is my Jardin
Behold, I am Roi and this is my Jardin

The idea of patronage has had a lot of ink spilled over it in the past decades of scholarship, but Spary’s account provides a multifaceted and more nuanced view of those relationships in general and as they worked in a time of crisis. Even is one was a protege of a patron they could still provide patronage to someone else, and not always in the established ways. For instance “keys [to various parts of the Jardin] could be seen as the physical emblem of the ways in which power was diffused though the Old Regime Society” (57).

Objects are important to Spary’s analysis (and one that is a large part of my work as well). The Jardin itself is an object and an institution, but this is more than an institutional history. It is the change from the King’s Garden to a National Museum that highlights the ever-growing relationship between the public and science. With the reform and the switch to the museum of natural history the institution was “reified” and correspondences took on the appearance of different bureaucratic “appendages,” not patron and protege (183).

The examples of all this are various and sundry and make up the meat of the book in Chapters 3 and 4. Spary works in the establishment of a menagerie at the Jardin post revolution (the beginning of France’s later National Zoo). My first thesis began with the establishment of national zoos as a means of portraying national power so this short subsection was more interesting to me than it would be to most readers. The more exotic the homeland of the animals on display was directly proportional to the vast holdings and transit systems ran by the government in question.

As the new republicans broke up the private collections of the French aristocracy from piles of things that “resembled treasure chests” and not collected systems of learned society the public could come into contact with the exotic, the marvelous, and the “other.” I wish this book, or at least part of it, would find its way into every French Revolution course, just to point out that even the least black and white versions of the changes between 1789 and 1800 are still too stylized.

The strongest tie for me was just how important natural history was in establishing order, authority, and law based on nature. Religion, politics, even kings were helpless in the face of natural laws that governed the world outside the court, France, or even Europe. This reveals just how powerful something like the Beast of Gevaudan would have been.

A feral beast attacking would have been proof of nature's great displeasure with your modern system of governance
A feral beast attacking would have been proof of nature’s great displeasure with your modern system of governance

Even the famine that struck after the Revolution was proof that the revolution itself would not bring plenty, and that the government had made mistakes outside natural laws and the people where starving. Nature and natural laws were the way to run a system of government and even individual lives. Those who understood those laws were invaluable to the establishment of a new system of government. The Jardin du Roi was set up in a place that allowed it not only to survive, but also to help steer the direction of scientific inquiry into the 19th century.

Tangentially related and loosely based on the tangential book aside above is the film Le Pact de Loup. It has very little to do with the Jardin, but is an enjoyable movie knowing nothing of the situation behind the intrigue. However, knowing a bit about what was going on in natural history and politics in France at the time, it is even more fun. The North American Indian sidekick reveals just how widespread the tendrils of French Natural History was in the 18th century. It also has some very exciting fight scenes. I am going to watch it again this week because of this book.