I think my love for Paris’ quirkly musées insolites is well-established at this point. Most occasional tourists don’t get to them. Let’s face it, after in the space of a few days, you’ve seen the impressionist big shots at the Orsay, paid your respects to Napoléon at Invalides, walked through the hôtel Biron and the gardens at the Musée Rodin, caught the Waterlilies, done the Pompidou, and tried to cram in as much of the Louvre as possible before your brain melted, do you really want another museum on your plate? For those of us who live here, it’s way too easy to visit these giants once and never again, constantly “meaning to get over there one of these days.” (If that’s you, I suggest you give this a go). So, in addition to the many roving special exhibits at the big museums above, these smaller, less-known ones are a good excuse to take an afternoon to get out there and appreciate some of the great art, history and culture this city has to offer.
And, there’s so many of them, scattered all over the city, practically hiding in plain sight. You do have to seek them out, but once you do they’re not that hard to find. Plus, that’s part of the fun. Hunting down that little, likely underappreciated corner of the most visited city in the world can be pretty thrilling, not to mention an excuse to go for a walk/bike ride or explore a new neighborhood.
This week, my explorations of littler-known Paris led me to the the Université Paris Descartes and the Université Pierre et Marie Curie. These medical schools on rue de l’école de médecine, just behind Odéon in the 6e, house the beautiful Musée d’histoire de la médecine and the much more macabre Musée Dupuytren, respectively. I should tell you that I lived just around the corner from these campuses for an entire year and never knew these museums exhisted. There’s no signage, at least on the outside of the buildings, and you’ll have to do a little wandering through the campus to find them. But, when you see how cool it is behind those walls, I’m pretty confident you won’t mind. (Nanterre, we really need to step it up, here!)
My first stop was the Musée d’histoire de la médecine. To get there, enter the main university building at number 12 through the greenish doors to the right of the courtyard and follow the signs posted on the walls. You’ll go up a few flights of stairs and pass the university library and numerous medical students, but keep going. Once you see these two guys with the camel, you’ll know you’ve made it. Head up the stairs and go through the big wooden door on the right.
Beginning in 1769 as a small cabinet d’anatomie on the first floor of the building Collège de Chirurgie; today, the museum is housed in the former salle des instruments. During the revolution this space was used as a plasterworks factory. After a fire in 1992 caused the museum to close, it was restored and reopened to the public shortly afterward. I’m not sure which shocks me more, that I can’t think of a greater waste of a beautiful space than to make plaster here, or that it’s still this stunning today after all of that wear and tear.
The museum focuses mainly on surgery, and the instruments for things like amputations and the removal of kidney stones are predictably chilling. There was a temporary exhibit going on as well, whose beautifully-shot photos confirmed any lingering doubt that medicine and surgery are not the professional fields for me. The permanent collection ranged from the really interesting to the downright strange.
The museum is just one room with two levels, although one half of the upper portion was closed off when I visited. General admission is 3€50 and the student rate is 2€50. Museum hours are 14hto 17h30 and last entry is a half hour before closing. From September 1 to July 15, the museum is closed Thursdays and Sundays. In July and August, the museum closes Thursdays and Saturdays.
Next, I headed to the Musée Dupuytren. To get there, cross the street and walk south a few steps until you see the entrance to the Centre de Recherche des Cordeliers and walk into the courtyard. To your right is the entrance to the building. You should immediately see a big directory on the wall with the Museum’s name on it. Walk through into another courtyard and take a left. Walk straight down the colonnade until you see this door and ring the bell.
A very nice older gentleman greeted me and walked me though a few musty rooms with filled with dusty stacks of old books and creaky wood shelving and cabinets. The only other person working there, a frowny woman who mumbled “bonjour ” in response to my greetings coming and going without ever looking up, I am convinced, is kept on the payroll purely for the ambiance she adds. The nice man took my 2€50 (prices here are the same) and ushered me into the room.
Immediately, I thought of my cousin who, when I told her I wanted to see these museums, eeked, “Celui avec la chambre des horreurs?” And, for many this will certainly rise to that level. Dedicated to anatomical pathologies, this one-room museum is full of glass cases with a parade of freak-out worthy material that makes the opening credits to American Horror Story look laughably tame. Not for the faint of heart.
I certainly wouldn’t recommend it for the squeamish, but give it a go if you’re curious, a medical/pathology buff, or just plain into that sort of thing. During my visit was a couple who were clearly on a date. Because nothing gets you in the mood like a formaldehyde-preserved exploded goitre. Am I right, kids? So, I know you’re out there. Hours are Monday through Friday 14h to 17h, except during the winter holiday break from December 17 through January 2 when the museum is closed.
All in all my afternoon at the medical museums was fascinating with a significant ick factor. But, I suppose this can only be expected from museums about the study and treatment of the human body, both great examples of the curiosities that make it so that I am never bored by this city.
Musée d’histoire de la médecine
12, rue de l’Ecole de Médecine, Paris 75006
+33 1 40 46 16 93
September 1 – July 15: closed Thursday and Sunday
July and August: closed Thursday and Saturday
15, rue de l’Ecole de médecine, Paris 75006
+33 01 42 34 68 60
Closed weekends and winter break December 17 – January 2.
Still want more?
You can read an interview with Marie-Véronique Clin-Meyer, the curator of the Musée d’histoire de la médecine, here. (en français)
A Libération article on “le musée le plus occulte de Paris.” (en français)