The Origin of Natural History Museums and Zoos

This post is about the earliest research-dedicated natural history museums of Europe. Their roots go back to the aftermath of the French Revolution. After the storming of the Bastille (14.07.1789), it was realised that the specimen collections housed in the royal collections in Versailles, Paris, and Trianon would be in danger.

At the time, Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck was the curator of the herbarium in the Jardin du Roi (royal botanical garden, Paris). In 1790, he published a monograph outlining his ideas to transform the herbarium and gardens into a national museum dedicated to natural history. As colleagues in this plan, he enlisted Barthélemy Faujas de Saint-Fond (mineralogy), Louis-Jean-Marie Daubenton (mammals, birds) and Bernard Germain de Lacépède (reptiles, fish); two other colleagues were also mentioned but not by name, one for insects and the other for other invertebrates. Burkhardt (1977) suggests that Guillaume Antoine Olivier was the entomologist and Jean Guillaume Bruguière the invertebrate zoologist. Lamarck took the botany, of course.

The royal gardens were closed from 1791 to 1793 during the political upheavals. On the 10th July 1793, it was decided by the politicians that Lamarck’s plans had merit, and permission was granted to set up the natural history museum along with 9 professorships. Daubenton was chosen to be the first director of the museum.

The effect of this step forward was enormous. Combined with the reorganised Institut de France and the opening of the École Polytechnique in 1794, Paris quickly became the center for the natural sciences of Europe. Cuvier (1817; p. ix-x) praised these developments, as you can see in the paragraphs highlighted above. For the non-French readers, here’s a translation I did (not word for word, just rough meaning):

This book [about the systematics of animals] would not have been possible to complete by a single person, even with a long lifespan and no other occupation, were it not for the prodigious advancement of science over the past few years. […] Living with so many taleneted naturalists; having access to their research as it appears; using their collections whenever I wanted; given space to form my own specialised collection; my work mostly consisted of using these materials and conditions that were available to me. I didn’t have to do much with the shells studied by Lamarck, nor with the tetrapods studied by Geoffroy [Saint-Hilaire]. Lacépède’s work on fishes merely had to be laid out for my fish plate. I adapted Levaillant‘s work on birds as it came in. My own research used and built on the work done by other naturalists, producing a work that I could not have built by myself. And when de Blainville and Oppel perused the cabinets I had prepared with reptilian anatomy and systematics, they could gain more insights than I ever could have figured out.

Tl;dr version: the natural history museum allows collaboration and synthesis of knowledge on unprecedented scales, leading to the ability to undertake larger projects (such as systematising the animals).

Part of this natural history museum was also a new type of garden to complement the natural history museum by being a “living” museum: the zoological garden, placed under the control of Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. At first, only the animals from the Menagerie Royale de Versailles (the royal menagery, Versailles) were released there, followed in 1795 by 2 elephants captured by French troops from the conquest of the Netherlands, and in 1827 by a giraffe gifted to France by the Egyptian viceroy Muhammad Ali. The zoo became a popular attraction, especially since it was free and open all day.

Note, however, that the very first real zoo is the Imperial Menagerie at Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, which existed as a private menagerie since 1752, and opened to the public in 1765. Menageries themselves have existed since ancient times. In Ancient Egypt they played a special role as some of the animals were seen as representatives of the gods; in China, they were a sign of wealth. The first public menagery was opened by Alexander the Great in Alexandria. Kublai Khan (1200s) kept a menagery. Montezuma (Aztecs, 1500s) had a particularly cool one, with not only jungle animals, but also human dwarves and slaves thrown in for curiosity.

The developments in Paris were groundbreaking and revolutionary from all perspectives (scientific, pedagogic, institutional), and the model was soon applied all over Europe. Alexander von Humboldt was an especially ardent pusher of the natural history museum. Having had the opportunity to work in the Paris Natural History Museum after returning from his expeditions, he founded his own at the University of Berlin in 1809 with the help of entomologist Johann Karl Wilhelm Illiger, focused on taxonomy and biogeography (obviously). After Illiger’s death, Martin Lichtenstein took over and expanded the museum to include a zoo.

In 1820, the Rijksmuseum van Natuurlijke Historie in Leiden was founded, housing the largest bird collection in Europe, that of Coenraad Jacob Temminck. In England, things started taking off in the 1820s. Sir Stamford Raffles, with the support of Sir Joseph Banks (the long-standing President of the Royal Society), pushed for the building of a zoo (with an emphasis placed on it being greater than the Parisian one) as soon as he returned from his travels to the East Indies. In response to this demand, the Zoological Society of London was formed in April 1826, and King George IV gave his approval, dedicating most of Regent’s Park as space for the zoo. In April 1828, it was opened; initially only for Society members, but tickets could be purchased by anyone by 1834, and it was officially opened to the public in 1846 (Ritvo, 1990).

The “zoo” shortening of zoological garden also comes from this zoo, from a music hall artist called the Great Vance, who sang the following in 1867 (Cherfas, 1984):

Weekdays may do for cads, but not for me or you, So dressed right down the street, we show them who is who… The O.K. thing on Sundays is the walking in the zoo.

The other notable openings in Europe of the first half of the 19th century were the St. Petersburg Zoologische Museum der Kaiserlichen Akademie (1832), the Nature Artis Magistra zoo in Amsterdam (1838), and the Jardin Zoologiques in Antwerp (1843). It was only in 1859 that the USA joined the party, with the opening of the Zoological Society of Philadelphia’s zoo.

While they are nowadays viewed as mere public attractions, at least the big zoos are actually scientific establishments, playing not only roles in conservation of threatened species, but also in routine experimentation, and this role has remained unchanged since those early days. As an example, Charles Darwin used the Zoological Garden in London to conduct several seed dispersal experiments – he fed seeds to the fish, and stuffed the mouths of dead sparrows full of seeds and fed them to the eagles, to see if seeds can survive the digestive tract of such dispersive animals. Nowadays, all sorts of studies from behaviour to ecological preference studies are conducted at zoos.


Burkhardt RW. 1977. The Spirit of System. Lamarck and evolutionary biology.

Cherfas J. 1984. Zoo 2000: A Look Beyond the Bars.

Cuvier G. 1817. Le règne animal distribué d’après son organisation, pour servir de base à l’histoire naturelle des animaux et d’introduction à l’anatomie comparée. Vol.1.

Ritvo H. 1990. The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age.

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