It has often struck me that no greater misfortune can befall a natural history museum than for it to come into enough money for renovations. These typically take the form of interactive screens displaying 'fun facts' directed at eight-year-olds, and they require the removal of anything that reeks of the past, which is to say also the removal of the very idea of natural history, in favor of some eternally present, unceasingly entertaining, Chuck E. Cheese-like arcade.
Just think about it: what kind of adult goes to a nature museum these days? I mean an adult who does not have some child in tow: a child, it is presumed, in need of perpetual edification? I mean a proper, auto-edifying, end-in-him-or-herself adult. These days, museums that are not about art are about nature, nature is about science, science is about education, and education, as we know, is for the kids, insofar as they, finally, are the future.
Art for the grown-ups, then; nature for the kids. But education must be fun, so out with the rancid body parts in formaldehyde with calligraphic labels in Latin; in with the touch screens that tell you, as if you did not already know this since the age of two or so, that dinosaurs are birds, that Pluto is no longer a planet, and, in case you forgot this for a fraction of a second, that learning is fun. But all this thoroughly and disgustingly ideological rebranding requires money, which, as I've already suggested, the best museums of natural history do not have.
Or which, perhaps, in the case of the stunning, sublimely unreconstructed Galérie d'Anatomie Comparée at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, they scorn, because they understand why this stuff matters, why it's worth looking at even, or perhaps especially, if you are not a kid, and no longer strictly speaking need to be educated, and certainly no longer need your education to come sugar-coated in fun. The adult seeks it out, I maintain (and I believe Buffon, Cuvier, et al. well understood this), because it is philosophical, it is an aide to philosophy: it triggers reflection upon the diversitas unitate compensata that is nature; upon the predicament of mortal corporeal substances such as, but not only, ourselves; and upon what still remains in a certain sense the utter implausibility of there ever being such a person, to speak with Kant, as a 'Newton for the blade of grass'. The natural history museum is in this respect unscientific if not anti-scientific. It works like art. Hell, why not just come out and say it? It's infinitely better than art.
Except that, well, it is art, too. This is something that Damien Hirst well understood with his shark and stuff; the only fault is with the spectator, who did not realize that natural history museums had already been delivering substantially the same spectacle for several centuries. In the case of the Parisian gallery, the art in question is 18th- and 19th-century European art, and its medium is bones, skin, organs, and tissues. The remains on display are both the things themselves, and at the same time representations of the things: representations according to the vision of nature of the naturalists who collected and displayed the things (and who did not at all share in today's reigning ideology of 'science', its importance for the kids' future, etc.). And this is what is thrown away when natural history museums are renovated: a window onto nature through keen-sighted naturalists, who also brought with them a now-unfashionable aesthetic and philosophical sensibility about nature that is worth preserving as much as the things themselves are.
The project of exhaustively collecting and describing the basic kinds of large animal, and analyzing and displaying these animals' bodily parts and systems, is a project that gained momentum in the late Renaissance and that was largely completed by the end of the 19th century. Like, say, realist painting in the Western tradition, it is a project that has a bounded history (indeed the two histories fairly closely overlap one another). This means that an alpaca intestine displayed in formaldehyde is a sample of a part of a South American camelid; but it is also an artefact of a modern European knowledge project. In this respect a proper natural history museum, that is to say an unreconstructed adult natural history museum, is really two museums at once: it is a museum of nature, but also a museum of the history of a very singular attempt to know nature quite literally inside-out.
This is probably more than a child is ready to appreciate. Fine. Take your kid to some inane exploratorium. Or just get it over with and head straight for Chuck E. Cheese. I'll be at the Galérie, sans enfants, quietly meditating on nature's incomprehensible prolificness, and upon the noble effort of a few great men and women to come to know it in full.