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Spreading the Message about Biodiversity Conservation at the Paris Natural History Museum

Contributed by Maïté Delmas, Service des Cultures, Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle, 43 rue Buffon,75005 Paris, France and Gaud Morel, Service de l’Animation Pédagogique et Culturelle, Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle, 36 rue Geoffroy St Hilaire, 75005 Paris, France

The Start of the Museum

The Royal Garden for Medicinal Plants was created by King Louis XIII in 1635 to complement the lectures given to the future apothecaries and doctors at the School of Medicine. Three disciplines were taught: plant chemistry, botany and human anatomy. The institution has a long standing educational tradition and an amphitheatre was built in 1788 to house 600 people; the lectures were open to the public free of charge.

In 1793, during the French Revolution, the garden became the Museum d’Histoire Naturelle and started out with 12 laboratories. Today the Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle (MNHN) is a scientific establishment managed by the Ministry of Education, Research and Universities. The organisation employs 1800 researchers, teachers, engineers, administrative, maintenance, and service personnel. Its 26 research laboratories are devoted to the study of natural sciences and its evolution and to the management of national natural history collections. The tradition of education continues and its public education mission concerns all parts of society.

Conservation at the MNHN

Conservation has been added to the three original missions stated at the creation of the garden: research, preservation of collections and education. The year1955 saw the creation of a Laboratory of Ecology and Nature Preservation, followed by the Department of Natural Heritage and, in 1995, the Institute of Ecology and Biodiversity Management.

How is the MNHN Implicated in Conservation and Education for Sustainability

Sustainability is dependant on the wise management and rational use of natural resources. This necessarily implies a thorough knowledge of nature and all its components, its interactions and evolution through time. Since 1635, the Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle has been at the forefront of the study of biodiversity and is thus in a unique position to evaluate the state of its degradation. Its scientific teams travel all over the world to explore, discover, list and describe the natural and human resources of our planet.

The 70 million objects in its collections; from meteorites to fossils, plants, and animals; as well as the expertise of its scientists, constitute invaluable sources of information. These collections and expertise serve not only for scientific research but are also used for education programmes and are of great help in decision making on environmental issues.

The Public

For the visitors, the Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle is a complex place, with a range of public galleries, research laboratories, a botanic garden (the Jardin des Plantes) and a zoo.

Due to its location, in the immediate proximity of a main train station and several universities, people have a tendency to pass by without stopping to look at what is around them. It is therefore important to catch their attention. The public is diverse with different expectations: from strollers seeking peace in a garden environment, local residents with advanced education background, to visitors attracted by the atmosphere of the place in this dense urban area. The garden is a public space with no entrance fee or precise figures available on visitation. It is estimated that the different establishments which form the institution receive almost 2.5 million visitors annually. In 1998, 1.5 million visitors payed an entrance fee to one of the following buildings: glasshouses, Evolution, Mineralogy and Paleontology Galleries, or the zoo.

Exhibits on Conservation at the MNHN

An annual environment week was initiated by the Ministry of Environment to promote the understanding of plants and the need for conservation. For its participation to this national scheme, the institution organised a series of exhibitions on general themes. These exhibitions were informative, with a series of posters and debates led by scientists; however the general tone was rather austere and the content too scientific and specialised for the general public.

The Department for Scientific and Cultural Events was created to support the different laboratories in their communication and help them produce educational tools. In 1995, it launched the first Journées de la Conservation de la Nature, a 3-week programme held annually in June with exhibitions, conferences and guided tours in the Jardin des Plantes. Since 1998, living collections, animals and plants alike, have been used in this event and have largely contributed to its success and evolution.

Reaching the Public - Journées Nature

A new less formal approach has been chosen to ensure that the annual meeting has a more convivial atmosphere than the previous exhibitions in an attempt to reach a broader range of people.

In 1998, IUCN’s 50th anniversary was celebrated in Paris where it was first created. A very interesting debate brought together journalists with a special interest in environmental issues to look at the role of the media in conservation. Different events were organised around the theme of biodiversity conservation and included a promenade-exhibition, theatre events, oral presentations, guided tours of the zoo, alpine garden and systematic collection, a gardener’s information desk, and children’s workshops. Several associations were also invited to present their own programmes. There were a vast array of activities to choose from, appeal to, and satisfy, a diverse public.

The objective of the department was to make sure members of the public enjoy themselves while learning and ‘hearing a different language’ about nature and our responsibility to protect it. This year’s promenade-exhibition was based on the following themes:

  • a familiar theme – the montane flora and fauna one might encounter during holidays;
  • a current theme - a protected insect stops a motorway project; and
  • a scientific theme - the endangered tropical flora studied by the botanists of the Herbarium.

For this last theme, researchers were once again urged to participate. The Herbarium staff were consulted and asked to organise, in conjunction with the Plant Collections Department, a joint presentation on endangered tropical plants and habitats using posters and plants from the live collections. These were presented in a small, elegant glasshouse which was lent by a private company; it helped to catch people’s interest by its unusual placement within the garden.

A series of theatre events for the younger public dealt with urban waste management, workshops were organised on the protection of montane species and a conference was presented on the Madagascan Flora. In addition, the popular Gardener’s information desk was maintained.

The Future

The increasing success of the Journées Nature has shown us the importance of regular meetings with the public on environmental problems in order to strengthen long-term interest. The support from the institution staff, as well as regular visitors, helped spread the word.

New environmental issues presented to the general public using familiar themes such as The Plants from Your Holidays or The Management of Urban Waste are extremely successful. These are relayed by background scientific explanations.

Held in the central part of the Jardin des Plantes, the Journées Nature with its free exhibitions and varied activities, scientific as well as ludic, are attractive to the different garden visitors. Preparations for the year 2000 are underway and will follow a similar approach with the following themes: the fauna and flora of the seashores, scientific news, and nature conservation in Europe.