The Spaces of Anthropology in France and the UK

By Elie Danziger • MSc Medical Anthropology

Galerie de l’Homme at the Musée de l’Homme, Paris. Source: Musée de l’Homme

20th of June, 2018. Three days later, the UK celebrates the second anniversary of its decision to leave the EU. Less than a month later, France wins the football World Cup, and the English swallow their hopes. On that day at the Musée de l’Homme, the Museum of Mankind in Paris, Chris Dercon, former director of the Tate Modern, gives a talk about ritual spaces as part of the symposium Spaces to Think: Museums, Theatres, Libraries on the occasion of the Musée’s 80th birthday.

This event is meaningful in a number of ways. Firstly, it spurred a reflection on the nature of a space that communicates knowledge about humanity, i.e. anthropology. What’s more, the call for ‘ritual’ spaces echoes an idea of religious gathering, in a secular context — something that bears a rather different meaning in the words of an Englishman compared to French approaches to religion. But most interestingly, this 80th birthday is not estranged from Franco-British relationships and the countries’ respective values: 1938 announces the history of Résistance of the Musée de l’Homme during World War II; an idea of universal human rights materialised ten years later when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed at the Palais de Chaillot, the very building hosting the Musée. To me, Dercon’s talk is therefore the index of a spatial unfolding of the contrast between France and the UK: I believe that the political differences between the two countries transpire in their respective spatial display of anthropological knowledge.

Britain: Physical separation, interdisciplinary dialogue

The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, a collection of eclectic ethnographic objects from all over the world. Source: Wikipedia.

The UK is a country of multiculturalism, where human biology and social and cultural anthropology seem to inhabit different spaces while being in dialogue. In Oxford, the Pitt Rivers Museum offers an eclectic collection of ethnographic objects, side to side with the university’s Natural History Museum. The former can only be accessed through the latter, via a small door, but the two museums remain separate entities. In London, there is no dedicated museum of ethnography since the closure of the Museum of Mankind in 1997. Ethnographic objects in London belong to the British Museum, which is even more distanced from the capital’s Natural History Museum.

These natural history and ethnography museums thus appear as distinct ritual spaces, each with their own epistemological/anthropological confessions — a diversity that Britain likes to celebrate. Like different communities in the UK, they are separated but still conceived side by side with one another. Much inter-confessional dialogue takes place between these spaces, generally launched by charities like the Wellcome Trust with its interdisciplinary projects. However, without the action of such private entities, there is nothing guaranteeing that dialogue will occur between the separate communities from a public, institutional point of view.

Parisian ambiguities

The Musée de l’Homme in Paris, a part of the Palais de Chaillot, Place du Trocadéro. Source:

France is a country of universalism. Historically, the exhibition of knowledge about humanity was the realm of the Musée de l’Homme, itself the inheritor of the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro. The Musée explored humanity from the standpoints of prehistory, biological unity and cultural diversity, all under the same roof. It has always been a public space under the supervision of the Ministère de l’Enseignement Supérieur et de la Recherche. Described today on its website as a ‘citizen agora’, located close to the massive public spaces of the Trocadero gardens and the Champs de Mars, the Musée perpetuates the communal and humanistic spirit that characterised its resistance network against Nazism in the 1940s. The Musée de l’Homme has thus been the symbol of the Res-Publica, a secular ritual space that could not illustrate better how the concept of French laïcité is made to protect citizens of any confession against discriminations in the public space. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, some of the most famous sociologists and anthropologists walking in the corridors of the Musée de l’Homme were Jews feeling as French as any other citizen in the country: Emile Durkheim, Marcel Mauss, Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, Claude Lévi-Strauss (and more recently Dan Sperber), to name just a few.

Recently, things have become more ambiguous, however. Since the opening of the nearby Musée du Quai Branly, dedicated to ‘extra-European arts’ in 2006 (also on the 20th of June!), the Musée de l’Homme lost most of its focus on culture and ethnology, and concentrates more on human evolution . This landscape is reminiscent of the London dichotomy, but even more complex. The Quai Branly is more similar to the Pitt Rivers than to the British Museum (which resembles the Louvres) because it is dedicated to extra-European artefacts, but it does not endorse the label of an ‘ethnographic’ museum; it is about ‘art’. In this context, the Musée de l’Homme is less unique and universal in its message, and its affiliation as a mere site of the National Museum of Natural History (MNHN, in French) is emphasised more than before.

This affiliation is interesting because it is ambiguous. Every year since 2017, the MNHN publishes scientific manifestos stressing how contemporary human issues are embedded in nature, and praising the discipline of ‘natural history’ as the hallmark of the Enlightenment and rational thinking about humanity and its environment. This echoes the aforementioned republican indexicality of the Musée de l’Homme, but the meaning of this credo is less straightforward when coming from the MNHN. The latter’s main site, the Jardin des Plantes, used to be the Royal Botanical Gardens in the 17th century. The classification of plants and the discipline of botany developed in a not-so-republican context. So when the MNHN reclaims the legacy of the Enlightenment, it is somehow in disavowal of its monarchical past.

Statue of Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck at the Jardin des Plantes, main site of the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle de Paris. Source:

One could think that the Parisian situation today tends to resemble the British dichotomy, with a somehow shared royalist heritage of natural history, but the reality is still a bit more shifted — the French wouldn’t dare do the same as the Brits! In the Jardin des Plantes stands a magnificent statue of (French) Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck, the proponent of the theory against which (British) Darwin’s natural selection is defined. In the MNHN documentation and at the Musée de l’Homme, the role of Darwin is highlighted less than the broader concept of Evolution. In comparison, Darwin is omnipresent in British natural history museums.  One of the cafeterias of the London Museum is even called the Darwin Café. The French even went further: the rue Lamarck is one of the longest in the 18th arrondissement of Paris, with several bus stops and a Metro station named accordingly, but few people know that perpendicular is the tiny rue Darwin, juxtaposed there as if to ridicule the British thinker by contrast to the length of his colleague’s street. So to sum up, the Musée de l’Homme’s strengthened affiliation with the MNHN is meaningful in relation to the spatial unfolding of political differences between France and the UK, not only because it gives an ambiguous flavour to the Musée’s republican vocation, but mostly because it does so in a complex manner that negates the parallel with the British version of natural history.

The Musée des Confluences of Lyon

The building of the Musée des Confluences in Lyon, designed by Coop Himme(l)blau. Source:

As the Musée de l’Homme has been losing its clear humanistic symbolism to the benefit of an ambiguous version of natural history, another promising space emerged in the French anthropological landscape. In 2007 — just after the opening of the Musée du Quai Branly and the closing of the old Musée de l’Homme for refurbishing in accordance with its new intellectual line — the Musée d’Histoire naturelle-Guimet in Lyon also closed its doors in the midst of plans to construct a grand, new building rebranded as the Musée des Confluences. The rebranding explicitly rejected using the term “natural history”. Instead, the meaning of the word “confluence” is manifold. Firstly, it is located at the southern tip of the Presqu’île at the confluence of two rivers: the Rhône and the Saône. This acts as a metaphor for the confluence of various sets of knowledge about humans, namely natural history and anthropology. With its deconstructivist architectural design, said to resemble a floating crystal cloud of stainless steel and glass, the Musée at its core thus embodies a holistic understanding of humankind in a single building. Indeed, the first part of the permanent exhibition trail, Origins : Stories of the World, shows side by side the trajectory of human evolution from our common ancestor with primates, and myths of origins in Amazonian and Buddhist cultures. The second part, Species : the Web of Life, highlights both scientific and indigenous ontologies and taxonomies of the natural world. Likewise, in the section on death, entitled Eternities: Visions of the Beyond.

The first part of the permanent exhibition trail, Origins: Stories of the World — to the left is science and to the right is belief. Source: Green, 2019.

Overall, the Musée des Confluences succeeds in generating a public space talking about humans as a whole, and does so in a more refined manner compared to the block rationalist approach of the ‘Enlightened’ Musée de l’Homme-MNHN: it includes and highlights the multiplicity of voices united under the same public roof. The inclusion of these diverse French voices is the result of a process of de-centralisation initiated by Charles de Gaulle to distribute power outside of the almighty capital. The same Charles de Gaulle who, like the Musée de l’Homme, fought Nazism during World War II, but lead the Résistance from the UK — a country more open to the coexistence of voices, but which certainly lacks the tradition of public agora of post-revolutionary France. As an illustration of French republicanism, the Musée des Confluences, better than today’s Musée de l’Homme, thus shows how laïcité both acknowledges and protects cultural diversity while building a common ritual space for all those who identify as French, and in this case, as humans.


Green, C.D. 2019. Natural History Disavowed: Confronting colonial legacies in the Musée des Confluences. Museological Review 23:25-36.

Spaces to Think: Museums, Theatres, Libraries Symposium, 20/06/18 at the Musée de l’Homme, Paris:

Muséum Manifestos

  • What Future Without Nature? 2017. Editions du Museum National d’Histoire Natuelle. Reliefs Editions: Paris.
  • Migrations. 2018. Editions du Museum National d’Histoire Natuelle. Reliefs Editions: Paris.
  • Humans and Other Animals. 2019. Editions du Museum National d’Histoire Natuelle. Reliefs Editions: Paris.

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