We didn’t wake up too early on January 1, being that we’d all gone to sleep just before dawn. We had a leisurely morning in the apartment and then headed over to the Grande Galerie de l’Évolution, one of the few things open on New Year’s Day. What better way to start the year than with natural history and a model of a giant squid?
The Grande Galerie de l’Évolution is in the Jardin des Plantes and was inaugurated at the same time as the Eiffel Tower in 1889. As you might have guessed from its name, it focuses on evolution and at its center is a huge procession of taxidermy animals. Biodiversity is definitely central to the museum, as the impressive collection of taxidermy shows the variety of forms life has taken on the planet. The grand congregation of African animals walking in unison definitely suggests an emotional unity through the species. Below this parade there is a large space full of ocean animals and models, even some really cool whale skeletons. French history is embedded in the museum collection. One of the rhinoceroses came from the Louis XV’s menagerie at Versailles. A lot of the taxidermy animals were game trophies of the Duc d’Orléans. There is even one rather bizarre taxidermy of a tigress leaping on top of an elephant who has an empty saddle and is laden with luggage. Apparently this tigress attacked the Duc d’Orléans while he was on his elephant and he killed it and then had this taxidermy created to commemorate his bravery against the tiger attack. The tigress got to be eternally terrifying. It reminded me of these lyrics from Jens Lekman’s “Rocky Dennis’ Farewell Song”: “Someday I’ll be stuffed in some museum/scaring little kids.”
The most breathtaking part of the museum was the room devoted to animals who are extinct or in danger. In French, the word for extinct is “éteint,” meaning extinguished, like a candle or light. The word for endangered is “menacé,” meaning to be menaced or antagonized. I find the French expressions to be much more powerful than the English. The room was very cold and lowly lit to protect the specimens, some of which are the only that exist of the species. There are taxidermy mounts of the thylacine, the quagga, the lowland gorilla, and the Barbary lion. There are also skeletons and incomplete specimens of mammals, insects, fish, reptiles, and other animals who have disappeared. The same space strangely had a clock given to Marie-Antoinette that was confiscated during the French Revolution. I could have spent all day in this room, I’ve never seen anything like it. These are animals whose names I barely know and whose faces I’d never seen. It made me think about the recent speculation on using specimens like these to clone and bring back extinct animals. I’m much more for the resurrection of animals who were destroyed by humans rather than animals like the woolly mammoth who died due to climate change. The amateur cryptozoologist in me would love to see a living thylacine, but I’m not sure if they could ever be reintroduced into the wild. I guess there was a successful implant of a thylacine gene in a mouse recently. But I think that the technology to successfully create a new thylacine is still a ways off.
I ended my tour of the Grande Galerie de l’Évolution with the historical documents, which mostly centered on French scientists and had surprisingly little mention of Darwin for an evolution museum. (Or Alfred Russel Wallace, to be fair.) We headed back to the apartment and later went out and had a dinner of the most delicious falafel I’ve had in Paris. The restaurant is called L’As de Falafel and is apparently quite famous. I guess it’s Lenny Kravitz’s place to get falafel, as there were pictures of him everywhere. Celebrity endorsement aside, it really was quite good and I especially liked the eggplant that came in the pita. We tried to go out later that night, but being that it was January 1, everything was closed. At about 2 am or something ridiculous we ended up at a really bizarre café that reminded me of Casa Bonita. Instead of a waterfall and a cave, it had a weird lobster lake. I guess you could order from it, although some of the crabs looked a little pale and possibly deceased. We bicycled back to the apartment on the empty Oberkampf streets.