The main exhibition hall is eighty meters long, or anyhow roughly five fin whale skeletons could be stretched out lengthwise in it (in fact there is only one). There are thirteen iron beams supporting the roof, and as many high-set, arched windows on each side. The beams call to mind the Eiffel Tower, as well as the Brooklyn Bridge, and every other iron-girded architectural project of the era. The edifice conveys the spirit of the 1900 World Fair for which it was constructed, and one can just as easily imagine the space being used by men in top hats to showcase diesel engines, magnetic wire recorders, or tins full of vegetable cooking grease.
The first thing you encounter on entering the main hall is L'Homme écorché, a molded figure of a man with his skin peeled away, made by the sculptor Jean-Pancrace Chastel (1726-1793). He is wearing a fig leaf, and he is one of the only signs of pudicity in the entire Gallery. He is best ignored.
To his left is a glass case with a dozen or so skeletons of higher primates in it (including one of a human), and to his right a glass case, of the same size, with the skeletons of an okapi, a quagga, and a small wild ass, known in French as a hémippe or 'semi-horse'. The quagga, a cousin of the zebra last seen alive in 1870, is, along with the marsupial wolf, the Steller's sea-cow, and perhaps a few others, one of the only extinct species on the ground floor of the Gallery. First described and classified in 1778, quaggas differed from ordinary zebras in the pattern and colour of their stripes, and Balzac may have had this in mind in his story of Marmanus's intrigue.
Between and directly behind the primate and equid cases, there are twenty-seven skeletons of middling-to-large terrestrial and littoral mammals: a hyena, a panther, a panda, a sea lion, a walrus, and one identified as a 'wolf-bitch mongrel' (which, if the labels were replaced, would be changed to 'wolf-dog hybrid', and which, in the French 'loup-chien métisse', carries the additional antiquated racial connotation of 'mestizo').
Moving further into the hall, we find, to the left, the skeletons of two rhinoceroses, one black and one white, and also a Malayan tapir. On the right, an onager, also known as a 'hemione' or 'semi-donkey', alongside two famous skeletons, or, rather, skeletons of famous animals: one, the Rhinoceros of Versailles, to whom we have been amply introduced; the other, Rock-Sand (1900-1914), a British thoroughbred racehorse who won the Triple Crown in 1903, and who is said to have grown unruly and temperamental after being sold to a French syndicate in 1912.
The row of large beasts including Rock-Sand and the three rhinoceroses draws our attention to something that is not so apparent in the initial vanguard of equids, primates, and sundry quadrupeds: skeletons look very different, depending not just on their species, but also on their provenance, their treatment, their age, and what we might call their 'life history' (a history which begins after death). The white rhinoceros's skeleton is grey and petrous; it looks something like the pumice stone you might find in a shower. Rock-Sand is brownish-yellow, as if the blood and gristle were not completely boiled off, but had somehow stained the bones he left behind. The variety of tinctures and textures is vividly illustrated as one moves further into the hall and comes to the glass case, on the right side, containing the skeletons of mummified animals brought back from Egypt by Geoffroy: a dog, a cat, two Dorcas gazelles, a peregrine falcon, an ibis, and an enormous Abyssinian ox. They all look exactly as if they have been wrapped in bandages, soaked with their own bodily juices, for the past 2500 years. It is hard to say exactly why, but the bones of the rhinoceros of Versailles look like Enlightenment-era bones; the mummy bones, for more obvious reasons, look like true antiquities. It is hard to look at the ancient and modern skeletons next to one another and not to think of them as, principally, cultural artifacts, and only secondarily as the work of nature.
Symmetrical with the case full of mummies on the right side of the hall, to the left there is a case featuring marsupials, including a number of skeletons of various kangaroo species (such a variety of sizes!), as well as the extinct marsupial wolf. There is also long-beaked echidna, and a lone platypus, known in French by the beautiful Greek-rooted name ornithorhynque ('bird-snout'). These last two are the 'monotremes', so called because the urinary, defecatory, and reproductive functions that in mammals have been separated out into three distinct holes, and in reptiles into two, all take place in these parsimonious creatures through one hole alone, the cloacha.
Between the marsupials and the mummies there are two hippopotamuses, and further back still we find two giraffe skeletons, standing symmetrically on the left and the right, as if on guard. One of the two sentries is the famous Stadthouder giraffe, taken by Napoleon upon seizing Holland. Between it and its less famous partner stand sundry buffalo and elk, and an oryx. As we move in further, there is a reptile case to the right, and a case of exceptional birds, such as the ostrich and the condor, to the left. Between them, an Asian and an African elephant, an enormous manatee, an even larger dugong, and a Steller's sea cow, larger still, and extinct since 1768. With this massive sirenian we are half-way through the hall. We have passed 100 or so large, freestanding skeletons, and perhaps two to three hundred more skeletons, of adults, juveniles, and fetuses of mammals, reptiles, and birds, in the various glass cases.
The second half of the floor of the exhibiton hall is designated the 'Cetaceum', it was conceived by Georges Pouchet (1833-1894), a professor of comparative anatomy at the Muséum, who is said to have been passionate about cetaceans and to have brought together the eight complete whale skeletons in the cetaceum according to 'an aesthetic and systematic logic'. The pièce de résistance is surely the fin whale at the center, the second largest species of animal ever to have existed. To its left there is a southern right whale, with its massive baleen hanging down, tapering off at the ends into fine hairs that must once have served as the ecosystem for countless marine parasites. There is a humpback whale, a coalfish whale, a northern bottle nose, a giant beaked whale, a minke, and, finally, the whale that sustained the 19th-century energy industry with its blubber and with the 'sperm' from which it derives its name. Mixed in among these skeletons are various porpoises and dolphins of both sea and river.
It was of course Herman Melville who most fully realized Nabokov's advice, while applying it to whales rather than trees. The 'Cetology' chapter of Moby-Dick, occasionally cut by unscrupulous and illiterate editors, is surely one of the greatest celebrations of the names and histories of great creatures in the history of great literature. It makes one afraid to say anything more. What can I say? Their skeletons are stunning; there are vastly fewer of them than there are of the terrestrial beasts here at the Gallery, yet they take up the same amount of space. Some are beaked, some toothed, some endowed with a massive sieve over their mouths for the filtering through of infinite krill. Both as skeletons and in vivo, the cetaceans look as though they are smiling, but of course they are not.
This completes the inventory of the main floor of the exhibition hall, but in truth we have just begun, for the bulk of the collection is contained along the walls. There are twenty-seven plaques between the windows, numbered in the Roman style, with skulls mounted on them, each plaque devoted to animals in the same broad class or family. One plaque feature boars and warthogs, the next various antlered animals. In all these plaques add little to the exhibition, other than to make it feel rather closer to a hall of hunting trophies than it otherwise would.
The alternating plaques and windows are located above a stretch of glass cabinets that go around the length of the hall, numbered clockwise from 1 through 110. Beginning at the left, we find mammalian skeletons, then reptilian, then fish osteology and general anatomy, then a small section devoted to teratology; next, continuing down the right side of the hall, we have a display of the various bodily systems, consisting mostly in the digestive, respiratory, and circulatory organs of various animals in jars of formaldehyde. The tour wraps up with a few glass cases (numbers 96 through 110) that have an overtly didactic tone rather at odds with the rest of the exhibit, where we learn that skeletons are the 'witnesses of evolution', and that the skeleton has its own 'alphabet'. It is as if the disease that has thoroughly deformed the Great Gallery of Evolution has begun to creep in here as well, having infected, for now, only a few of the late-numbered glass cabinets.
Starting from cabinet number 1, we first encounter primates. The idea seems to be one of descent down the scale of being, from primate to felid to monotreme to frog and so on. Yet by this criterion things get off to a peculiar start, for in cabinet 2 we are introduced to an indri and a gibbon, and then in cabinet 3 we find an entire skeleton of a Homo sapiens, only after which the descent begins in earnest. Cabinet 5 shows rows of higher primate skulls in various stages of development: fetal gorilla, juvenile gorilla, young gorilla, etc., and the same for orangutans, chimpanzees, and humans, all with the aim of showing that at the outset there is scarcely any difference. In the final stage of development the human skull looks freakish: the cranium is far too large, as if pushed out on all sides by some rare tumor; the teeth are far too small, and no good for biting much of anything.
The primates continue on, getting cranially more diminutive until we arrive at the macaques, and then the lemurs, and then, finally, in cabinet 13, we cross over to the bats. There are hundreds of miniature bat skulls under glass domes, and a few full skeletons splayed out on velvet-covered planks. Next come various other insectivores, such as those of the family of Potamogalidae, including various shrews and tenrecs. Most of the Latin labels are so color-damaged as to be practically illegible, and many of the names are no longer accepted.
Next are a dozen cabinets devoted to 'carnivores', which as a taxonomic term refers to an order of mammals including bears, wolves, civets, and all the others we can easily picture eating meat. There are various felids, a bear-cub skeleton mounted in a case, and a moulage of a walrus fin. And next, four quick cabinets for what in French are delighfully called rongeurs or 'gnawers', which we know much less evocatively as 'rodents'. The Gambian pouched rat and the South American paca, whose Linnean genus Cuniculus makes it out to be a sort of small rabbit, both stand out among their fellow Rodentia, though probably only because of their names. At the skeletal level, the truth is they all look more or less the same.
Cabinets 32 through 34 are devoted to perissodactyla, which is to say the order of odd-toed ungulates, followed in 35 through 42 by their even-toed counterparts, the artiodactyla. These orders together give us that fundamental distinction between the beasts that are 'cloven of hoof', on the one hand, the even-toed pigs and boars and goats, and on the other those that are not. Famously, a number of dietary and symbolic significances would flow from this distinction, which, if you think about it, or if you speak of in terms of even and odd rather than cleaving, is perfectly trivial.
Cabinets 43 through 45 are unlabelled, and their hodge-podge of specimens: a bison-cow mongrel, an aardvark (orycterope), and various armadillos, all suggest that we are now well along in our slide down the scale of being. This suspicion is confirmed when we arive at the édentés of Cabinet 46, an abandoned 19th-century designation, meaning 'toothless', for the various orders of anteater, pangolin, and sloth, and, finally, in cabinet 47, we pass as if imperceptible from these alien orders into a different class altogether: the Reptilia.
Snakes and lizards are treated hastily, before moving on to the 'ichthyopods' or 'fish with feet', an abandoned category that appears to have once denoted amphibians. Of course, the fish with feet, though it lost its place in nomenclature, remains in an important respect the singular symbol of evolutionary science, the successor to natural history: think for example of the emblem seen on the rear of cars, of a proper ichthyopod bearing the word 'Darwin' inside its body, perhaps mounting or devouring one of those footless ΙΧΘΥΣ fish beloved of Christians. On the old nomenclature, every single frog and toad represented a sort of living Darwin fish, a testament to and recapitulation of that fiat lux moment at which some ambitious pisces, or so we like to imagine, set itself the task of pushing out a set of quadruped stubs.
It is with the ichthyopods that we first see something in the display cases besides skeletons and artificial molds: now, for the first time on our tour, the Gallery reveals the fleshy specimens, in jars and tubes, that inflect every visit there with an unmistakable element of unease. Skeletons are part of the bodies of animals too, of course, and no small violence has to be carried out in order to extract them. But in ther final state they are pristine and sterile, and they are cleansed of that property that fundamentally defines for us the biological world: they are not soft and wet, but hard and dry. Skeletons are the part of the body that, being hard and dry, is not subject to decay. With the soft parts we can trick nature by immersing them into fluids such as formaldehyde that are so inhospitable to life as to keep at bay all the microorganisms that ordinarily see to the decomposition of their macro confrères. But of course the vitality of the soft parts cannot be retained, and a frog trachea that sits in a jar of pungent liquid for a century, as its label dulls and fades, transforms over time into something entirely unnatural, ashen, dull and ghastly. This is the Gallery's great aesthetic counterpoise to the stark and clean osteology of the great mammals.
We are now half-way through, and are standing at the rear end of the hall, directly behind the cetaceum. There is a bust of Henri-Marie Ducrotay de Blainville (1777-1850), Lamarck's successor as the Muséum's chair of natural history; then there is a two-door emergency exit, then a bust of Geoffroy, and then the Gallery's most sensational specimens: its teratological cabinets, with the two-headed goat and the cyclops pig and various other monsters, and with their archaic and somehow excessively scientific nomenclature. It is said that Geoffroy was representative of a broad shift in the history of teratology: from the Renaissance preoccupation with monsters as portents of God's wrath (the word 'monster' after all, suggests that something is being shown or de-monstr-ated), by the late 17th century a process of normalization had begun, a process of which Geoffroy's 1812 Essay on the Classification of Monsters is a sort of culmination. In this process, birth defects came to be seen rather as opportunities to better understand organic development in general, as exceptions that illuminated the rule. Yet it is hard not to conclude that Geoffroy was no less prone to wonderment at the sight of these animal freaks than any 16th-century village deacon would have been. Monsters are peculiar, and if modern natural history was able to inscribe them into the larger order of nature better than premodern people had been, this may have only illustrated that that entire order is itself peculiar.
Cabinet 58 displays a lone glass tube with an eight-inch dolphin fetus inside. There is nothing monstrous about it, yet it is certainly peculiar, and one wonders why it was placed there, by itself, between the teratological cabinets to its left, and, to its right, a cabinet filled with the diminutive, faux-grinning skeletons of twenty or so human fetuses.
The next large section of wall cabinets, from 60 through 94, takes up, in turn, various systems of the animal body: first the ensemble de viscères or the totality of inner organs, including an impressive mold of a cross-section of a camel, a lamprey and a macaque, each cut open length-wise down the front and placed in formaldehyde; then digestion (a jarred camel caecum, a dried and mounted gorilla jejunum, etc.); then respiration (including a pair of jaguarundi lungs); next, circulation (a macaque thyroid, the brachial plexus of a bradypus); the nervous system (civet spines, human brains). Cabinet 91 is dedicated to skin, and 92 through 94 to sense organs, particularly hearing, since this is the one sense that, in the ossicles, leaves a bony and preservable trace.
Cabinet 95 features a splayed iguana, for no apparent reason, and then, in 96, the aforementioned heavy-handed science education commences. Cabinet 108 interrupts the lesson momentarily with a curious historical artifact: the radius of a giraffe, a bone that in 1760s the Marquise de Pompadour (1721-1764) had tried to pass off as the thigh of a giant, but that Cuvier was able to identify as properly girrafid only after the Stadthouder of the Hague had had his specimen seized by Napoleon's army and brought back the Muséum. Cabinet 110 shows Cuvier's own osteological display case for the bones of a Lophius piscatorius, called variously in English a sea-devil, an angler, and a frog-fish. This creature is nearly all mouth, and when its skeleton is still whole it looks as though it is smiling an ecstatic smile far beyond the anatomical reach of any mammal, which it may in fact be doing.