On Weird Science in Paris


Since I discovered it, the Galerie d’Anatomie comparée et de Paléontologie, has been among my favorite places in all of Paris and, perhaps, the world.

A three story building with all the charms of its location alongside the Jardin des Plantes, the gallery has on display thousands of specimens, bones, organs and anomalies of animal life (both human and non-human). Many of the objects on display (the ear of an adult ape, for example, and a pig fetus with two bodies and a single head) are still labeled with the hand written note cards that must have been very carefully created for the place when it opened in 1898.

It is bizarre for a museum so well attended in that the pleasures it offers visitors are much more about what has not changed about the space and the things on display than any contemporary curatorial project. It is, in a phrase, old and weird.

Anyone who visited me in Paris or with whom I have had the pleasure of roaming in the city has joined me at the gallery and none were disappointed.

Pinning down what it is that’s so compelling about it for even those not particularly intrigued by anatomy or biology is hard to do. But I think it may be that in addition to peering through a glass case at a thing that once lived, that had the bizarre and inexplicable capacity to move and breathe and perhaps feel, a thing that certainly did somehow die, one is also taking a peek at the strange evidence of the endless human project to understand what life is and how it works. This is to say: the endeavor to know life is on display at the gallery, not just the evidence of its incredible variety.

I’m not sure anyone walks away from the museum thinking they’ve put their finger on it–evolution, the gnawing animal universal of mortality, the structure of the thing that is more than a thing because it lives. But they do (or, at least I do) leave thinking hard about bones and bodies and about the wildly persistent desire we human creatures seem to have to map and dissect, to (even if always only partially) know life.

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