Le Diable au Musée
The Devil at the Paris Museum
If you visit Paris, you may be lucky enough to encounter the devil at the museum. Most visitors come across the devil quite by accident. My own first encounter with the devil was surprising, a bit frightening, but also puzzling. I needed to put on my skeptic detective hat, to figure out just what the Paris Devil is.
I had during many previous visits to Paris gone to the Jardin des Plantes. A quiet park, filled with plants and pathways, is an oasis of calm in a city that can at times seem over run with tourists. I enjoy looking at the peculiar statues, a favorite being the bear killing the hunter in front of the toddler playground. I also enjoy the fairy tale buildings of the zoo. The Paris zoo is petite, with few animals. However the animals live in fairy tale houses, seemingly designed by the Grimm Brothers. Also who couldn’t love a park with a large statue of Darwin?
Despite many visits to the area, I had never yet made it into the older Natural History Museum. I had been visiting the Mosque which was closing for lunch.
However, rain was pouring down. I needed to be someplace inside. The Museum national d’historie naturelle was right across the street from the mosque. I entered a beautiful Victorian building, shook off the rain, and felt like I had stepped back in time. The best link I can find to give you a real feel for the museum is from a young visitor.
The place simply takes your breath away. It’s filled with bones. Bones in the most perfect setting for them. The bones reside in a large room where an entire whale only fills about half the length. A visitor is taken aback at just how beautiful the animal bones are. When I was visiting the first time it was just a few French families with young children and myself. One thing I soon noticed was how easy it was for not only me, but also for the very young children, to know exactly what each animal was simply by looking at its bones. The young children were happily pointing and identifying “serpent”, “chauve-souris” and “singe” without being old enough to read the hand lettered cards of identification. We are indeed the shape of our bones. One young girl inquired of her father, while looking at a case of primate skeletons “are those our family?” The father told her “yes those are our ancestors”. All the children I’ve ever seen at this museum are enchanted with the collection.
As wonderful as the first floor was, I was eventually drawn to the upper floors. You go up a perfect old wooden staircase, being sure to pause on the balcony to look out over the first floor. The perspective of the animal bones from above is amazing. The next floor up is filled with animals that are long extinct. The bones are for the most part behind ropes or in huge glass display cases. But as you walk down the middle, you are confronted by the Paris Devil.
The devil, or rather devil head, is simply at eye level. He is mounted on a pole, but it is placed on a simple wooden table. The desk is old, and even a little ratty. It looks like an old school desk. There, without much fanfare or fancy display, is a fossil that makes your heart race. It is simply the skull of the devil. You can’t imagine what else it could be. Of course being a skeptic, I know it’s not Beelzebub. It has to be some sort of animal. Your brain tries to imagine what this skull would look like with flesh and fur, but you keep coming back to the devil. Even the small card gives you no clue about what sort of animal this skull belonged to. I had to note the name written, and later back at my hotel look up the name.
As you can see, the museum has played a joke on the visitor. The skull has been tipped up, and what you see as eyes are actually nose holes. It is simply an ancient type of rhinoceros, a herbivore with 2 large horns. Still, I had to imagine what the first person to dig up one of these skulls thought. During my first visit, and the visits I have made since to the devil, I found great pleasure in watching the first reactions of people to the skull. The same shock and “what is that?” reaction happens over and over. I had to participate in the “put your head in the skull” photograph. The guard doesn’t seem to mind, and will even take the photograph while you pose.
Certainly I don’t know any modern museum that would dare to display a skull in such an unscientifically incorrect way. Still, without even a drawing of what an Arsinoitherium looks like, the visitor is left with homework to solve the mystery. While a modern museum may have animated dinosaurs and interactive displays, the Natural History Museum in Paris gives the delights of a devilish mystery. I read with dismay a “review” of this museum online. Tourists complain that the museum needs to be “updated”. But the museum is a perfect mix of history and education. I hope it will remain as it is, hand lettered signs, two faced kittens and freaks, bones galore, and the devil to cause a shiver of fear in every visitor.
- An evening walk in Paris with friends (scottybecca.wordpress.com)
- Stairway to Heaven (theweekendinparis.com)
- Weekend Away: Paris (babyccinokids.com)