It was half-term and I was in Paris. Wandering through the Jardin des Plantes on a chilly Monday morning I wondered what to do. Hitch a ride on the Dodo manège? Or join outdoor tai chi to warm up?
But a trainee Alexander teacher never sleeps. The siren call of skeletons sang out from the nearby Gallery of Comparative Anatomy and Paleontology. The lure of bones was too strong and I stepped inside.
Over 600 skeletons came at me in a stampede as I walked in. It’s hard to believe these animals are long dead – they arrived in Paris in the 18th and 19th centuries, brought back by French explorers from overseas expeditions. Many lived in the nearby Menagerie and eventually the collection formed the basis for the study of comparative anatomy, then in its infancy.
The layout and display seem little changed since the gallery opened to the public in 1898, but it’s surprisingly light and full of life. Parisian children on half-term visits seemed content to wander, point and discover as they moved from hippo to giraffe, gorilla to whale or headed for the heavier bones of the fossil gallery upstairs.
At first I was overwhelmed. But as I spent more time among the bones, I saw the value of a collection like this. It’s entertaining and quirky, but it also forces you to compare and contrast and think for yourself. What are the differences between species, between modern and prehistoric, young and adult and ultimately between animal and human? I haven’t got the answers, but the questions are still ringing in my head and the impact of being with so many skeletons in one huge room will remain with me. I now have a clearer sense of how important bones are in providing structure, alignment and internal space. They give the framework for life and dynamic movement, and maybe that’s why it was so cheerful and full of energy and the children were so absorbed and engaged.
There wasn’t just science on offer but art too. All the displays had historical and anatomical value, but there was also beauty in their form and arrangement. And it was artists, not anatomists, who first used the écorché standing at the entrance – a model of a flayed human body produced to help understand muscles and how they work. The one here was made for art students in Aix-en-Provence in 1758.
Further on the arteries of the brain were as much an artwork as a scientific specimen.
And in 2016 the artist Quentin Garel made twelve giant animal skulls from wood and bronze, hiding them in the mass of skeletons for visitors to discover. It was difficult to tell if they were still there or not.
Lunchtime approached. The attraction of the animals began to fade and it was time to go. There was one last treat on my way out – Garel’s giant whale vertebra still sits in the gardens outside. Like the gallery itself, it was the perfect French marriage of art, science and delight.