When the Écoles Centrales (“Central Schools”) were created in 1796, it is thought that the one in Rouen had a library, a museum of painting and a natural history cabinet made up of the assets confiscated during the French Revolution.
The library and museum of painting were soon relocated to the town hall. The natural history collections remained without a location, and until 1827 were housed in the buildings of the former École Centrale, which had become the Lycée Corneille.
However, numerous opportunities to add to the collections prompted the Marquis of Martainville, then the Mayor of Rouen, to need to find a larger building within which to house these new collections. The chosen building was the former Convent of the Visitation of St Mary, which dates back to 1640.
The project became a reality in 1828, when the natural history cabinet was transferred to this new site.
On 29 October 1828, the Marquis of MARTAINVILLE created a higher education municipal class in zoology, which joined the existing botany class. Félix-Archimède Pouchet, a young doctor from Rouen who had acquired good knowledge of the King’s Cabinet collections whilst studying in Paris, was appointed as the director of the natural history cabinet and the Rouen chair of zoology.
Scientific thought was freed from philosophical and religious pressures, in terms of the creation of the world, the origin of humans and their place within the animal kingdom.
Paris in 1828 was still in the midst of the great argument between those who believed in the fixist theory that CUVIER authoritatively upheld and those who supported LAMARCK, who introduced concepts about evolution through his theory of transformism.
As such, the exhibition galleries of the natural history cabinet were all dominated by Systematics, and appear in the more lofty scientific and philosophical conjectures of Félix-Archimède POUCHET, and especially in the evolutionary ideas of Étienne Geoffroy-Saint-Hilaire. Wholly supportive of this initiative, the town of Rouen donated a rhinoceros horn and a narwhal tusk from the town hall.
Deeming the presentation of the collections and the quantity of artefacts to be sufficient, F. A. POUCHET opened his first municipal zoology class at the Museum, and students gathered before the eight cabinets that protected the classified objects.
In 1831, Dr Achille FLAUBERT sent LAUMONIER’s first (skinned) anatomical wax-up to his former student, which depicted the arteries, veins and muscles of the head and neck.
1834-1845 – Welcoming the public
On 20 July 1834, the natural history cabinet was opened up to the public for the first time. H. BARBET opened the building’s second-floor room: display cases then occupied three quarters of its current length. The Museum was open on Sundays and on national holidays from midday to 4pm.
Through his various contacts in Paris, Pouchet expanded the mouldings collections with chimpanzee and orang-utan heads from the National Museum.
In 1839, the famous sailor Jean-Baptiste CECILLE sent a bow and pieces from a Māori canoe from the Chatam Islands in New Zealand.
Thanks to permanent additions, in 1845 Mayor H. BARBET opened the Bird Gallery. The natural history cabinet then included two galleries: the mammals gallery on the second floor and the birds gallery on the third floor.
1846-1858: The beginnings of popularisation
That same year, POUCHET travelled to England for the first time with his wife. This trip brought displays to his attention, marking the start of museology. In London, he visited the College of Surgeons, a large museum of comparative anatomy, with Richard OWEN. There he examined a moulding of the bones of the hindquarters of a Dinornis giganteus, created by OWEN. This giant bird lived in the Tertiary period and disappeared at the start of the quaternary era; its remains, which were twice the size of those of an ostrich, were found in New Zealand. Based on the information provided by these three bones, OWEN used analogies and comparisons to reconstruct the animal’s entire skeleton.
At the British Museum, POUCHET’s attention was particularly drawn to the display of fish made of skin mounted on stands.
In 1849, the construction of the railway tunnel underneath the hill of St Catherine provided large specimens of Ammonites rothomagense, the “Ammonite of Rouen”.
Something else exceptional happened in 1856, when numerous globe-headed dolphins, or Delphinus globiceps, entered the estuary of the Seine; one of them was bought by the Museum and stuffed.
Considering his museum work complete, Pouchet prepared to face PASTEUR in a debate that could be compared to the debate on Spontaneous Generation that had shaken Paris in the time of CUVIER and LAMARCK. For ten years, he devoted most of his time to his research on heterogenesis.
1859-1872: First publications
As part of his research work, Pouchet saw the need for popularising and, in 1860, he created the Documents of the Rouen Natural History Museum. On 1 December 1864, together with doctor, professor and botanist Dr Emmanuel BLANCHE, he founded the Rouen Society of Friends of Natural Sciences, whose cabinet brought together 17 people who wanted to promote the study of the natural environment, as well as to prepare regional collections and comprehensive documents about the natural history of Seine-Inférieure for the future.
In 1867, the question of heterogenesis was postponed by the Academy of Sciences, with Pasteur’s experiences being irrefutable. Exhausted by the years of struggle, F.A. POUCHET retired to his library to write his next work, The Universe.
The aging and unwell Pouchet was assisted by G. PENNETIER, whom the town administration appointed as Deputy Director. Ravaged by illness, F.A. POUCHET died on Friday 6 December 1872.
1873-1899: Truly looking to the public
From 1869, Georges PENNETIER became a substitute teacher of anatomy, physiology and agricultural zoology at the Rouen School of Medicine. A student of POUCHET, who thought of him like his third son, he held an increasingly high-level role at the Museum from 1857. From his appointment as the director of the natural history cabinet, Pennetier attempted to continue the work of POUCHET, expanding the collections through methodical acquisitions. Rejecting advantageous offers that would only have overstocked display cases and collections, without adding any pedagogical value, he selected representative and demonstrative items and worked on increasing knowledge about natural sciences amongst the wider public.
This approach saw the stuffing of numerous animals, including a female giraffe bought from the BIDEL menagerie; the skin was mounted on a plaster mannequin, and the skeleton was completely reconstructed for exhibition in the comparative anatomy room.
In 1894, the Eastern wing of the former convent was burnt down, prompting the School of Fine Arts to be moved to the Haute Vieille Tour tower. Pennetier quickly annexed this wing of the building. Reconstruction works were completed, enabling six new rooms to be created. As a result, the institution more than doubled in size. On the top floor, Pennetier added the two most fashionable scientific topics of the era: prehistoric times and ethnography.
In 1896, as the realignment of Rue Beauvoisine reduced the agricultural zoology room to a third of its previous size, the diorama of the farm had to be removed. Pennetier took advantage of this, carrying out extensive museum works with the help of the architect Jules Adeline and the set designer from the Rouen Arts Theatre, Charles Rambert. A new aviculture room appeared at the back of the birds gallery; the effect was striking, transporting visitors to a veritable farm site on a hillside in Bihorel with a view of Rouen, from St Catherine Hill to the slopes of St Gervais. Standing out in the blue sky you could see the spire of the cathedral, the double steeples of St Ouen and Joan of Arc Tower; even the ferry bridge was visible. The chickens peck in the farm’s courtyard, the pigeons coo on the roof and the ducks frolic in the water. A white dog, Dr LEUDET’s Newfoundland, guarded the enclosure. It was a real lesson for the public in observing nature.
This wonderful 1899 inauguration, and the lifelike scenery designed by G. PENNETIER, shifted public opinion and the Museum focused on the general public: within one year the number of visitors reached 38,650.
1900-1925: The taxidermy period
In this early period of the twentieth century, Pennetier worked with both taxidermist Cléron and Charles Rambert to stage new collections for the appreciation of the ever increasing public. As a result, upon entering the F.A. POUCHET room you saw a puma attacking a sheep, the group standing out against a background of three-dimensional rocks. Further in, a whole model of a globe-headed dolphin captured in 1857 was reconstructed.
In 1906, retired forestry inspector Gaston de la SERRE offered the Museum a section of one of the branches of the recently felled oak tree from the Leux forest in Roumare, which had been photographed numerous times by Henri Gadeau de Kerville.
G. PENNETIER had wanted to add an elephant to the collection for a long time; in 1911, he bought the hide of an animal that had been exhibited at the Saint Romain Fair before dying of bronchitis after bathing in the Seine. A. CLÉRON mounted the skin on a frame made out of wood, iron and fibrous plaster, enabling the skeleton to be exhibited.
In 1916, the birds gallery was expanded to include a scene depicting a landscape of Antarctica featuring penguins, petrels, black-faced sheathbills, crested penguins and cormorants brought back from the CHARCOT Mission of 1910.
In November 1923, Pennetier died one evening at the age of 87 years old at his home on Impasse de la Corderie. He had been the director of the Museum for half a century.
Robert Régnier succeeded him that same year. After studying zoology at the Sorbonne, Régnier was appointed as the director of the Rouen entomology department from 1919 and pushed forward progress in the field of scientific museology, inspired by his numerous trips abroad (England, Germany, Switzerland, Scandinavia, United States).
1925-1976: Effective management and continuous activity
Aside from the dioramas, which were veritable “living scenes”, the Museum was still permeated by nineteenth-century classification methods, marked by 95 years of management unity: displays were crowded and focused on higher education.
As changes in personnel occurred, Régnier attempted to acquire expertise by replacing caretaker roles with positions for qualified workers. At his insistent request, electricity was installed in the entrance lobby, the caretaker’s accommodation, the director’s office, the taxidermy laboratory and the mammals gallery. To mark the arrival of the International Ornithological Congress in 1938, special credits were awarded.
By the Decree of 4 February 1937, the Society of Friends of Sciences was recognised for its public utility, becoming the Society of Friends of Sciences and of the Museum of Rouen.
1976-2007: Hope then closure
On 1 March 1976, POTEL resigned and was replaced by Jean Paul DUPONT, a researcher in the laboratory of sedimentology at the Rouen Faculty of Sciences.
In 1978, under pressure from JP Dupont, electricity was installed in the palaeontology, prehistory-ethnography, embryology, and fish rooms, as well as on the Louis XIII staircase. All the rooms of the Museum were now illuminated. After starting with 100m2 when it first opened, the institution now covered almost 2,200m2. The expansions of 1845, 1858 and 1894 provided a temporary solution to the Museum’s lack of space; in view of the growing collections, this became a real problem once again twenty years later. The Museum was at a standstill. What is more, JP Dupont had other ambitions for the Museum’s future.
Over the course of a quarter century of leadership, JP Dupont and his team would devise at least three major plans either to extend the Museum into the annex buildings of the former Faculty of Medicine, or to create a new facility at the Sever Centre or opposite the Jardin des Plantes. Each of these plans would provide a real breath of fresh air for the team during the design phase, before turning into a disaster when each of these three plans was brought to a halt.
Throughout this period of reflecting about the creation of a new museum, little maintenance work was carried out on the old buildings of the Order of the Visitation convent. At the end of 1996, the axe fell following an unfavourable opinion by the safety committee: the Museum closed its doors, prompting over 10 years of doubt and uncertainty about the future of the institution and its collections.
Since 2007: The Sustainable and Responsible Museum
Since reopening in 2007, the Museum of Rouen has gradually been transformed into a Sustainable and Responsible Museum under the leadership of Sébastien MINCHIN.