Eight-legged lambs? A two-headed cow? A baby mermaid? It may sound like some sort of freak show, but it’s actually just another day at a Parisian museum.
The veterinary museum, the Musée Ecole Nationale Vétérinaire – also known as the Fragonad museum, but no, not the perfume one – has been on my list of things to do for a while. This month I finally visited it, and it was worth the trek.
Located towards the end of the metro line 8, the museum is just outside of Paris’s city limits in Maisons-Alfort. It began in 1766 as a way to educate the students in the veterinary school, and today, after renovations back in 2008, it’s one of the quirkiest and most interesting museums that Paris has to offer.
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Upon arriving and climbing the stairs to the museum, I was greeted by the smell of formaldehyde. The audio guide that’s included with each entry (7 euros). It’s in English and French, though both are pretty long-winded if you ask me. I started getting impatient, and there was way more information than I needed, but at least I wasn’t left with any questions.
After learning a bit about the museum’s history, I made my way to the displays. Bones, preserved organs, stuffed specimens – it was all very scientific at first. Beautifully crafted sculptures of internal organs, like GI tracks and bronchioles were on display, sending me right back to bio lab, freshman year of high school. It was pretty cool to think that this was how students were learning back in the 1800s.
Further on, I arrived at the section that really caught my attention – anomalies and monstrosities. This was the true freak show of the collection, with models and preserved specimens including a young baby with fused legs suspended in liquid, giving it the appearance of a mermaid. Siamese twins, including goats and calves, showed the various ways that two beings could share bodies. There was even a beautiful watercolor of two calf heads, with the heads placed next to them. Freakish yet entrancing all at the same time.
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Past the monstrosities, there is a large collection of bones, including entire elephant and giraffe skeletons. They were the last prelude before the museum’s big stars: the Fragonard collection.
Past the skeletons, we pushed through a dark door into a room that is carefully air conditioned and shielded from too much light. Here, the famous écorchés, or flays, are on display. They are essentially the 18th century versions of the “Bodies” exhibit that tours the world. The audio guide and wall displayes explained that Honoré Fragonard, a veterinarian under Louis XV, developed innovative and top secret ways to preserve anatomical specimens, and he seemed to have a bit too much fun with it.
In the room stands a fully flayed and preserved llama, a person riding a horse, a human man holding a club, and a whole antelope, among others. The process involved cutting open the specimen, preserving the veins and arteries, essentially mummifying the skin and organs, and drying the human or animal in a specific pose.
It gets a little morbid at times, like the dancing fetus or the clapping monkeys, but I couldn’t stop staring. It was unbelievable how much detail went into each écorché. I spent as much time as I could examining them, a wall of glass separating me from each gruesome figure. Some might say it’s not kid friendly, but there were enough children cycling through. I just hope parents didn’t have to explain to them why the standing man had a penis injected with wax to give it a permanent turgid position…
I try not to think of how many amazing things there are to do in Paris that even most locals overlook during their lifetimes. It just gets frustrating. Instead, I felt totally accomplished once I left, happy to have ticked the museum off my Paris bucket list.
If you decide to visit, it’s only open Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday from 2-6PM, but there will hardly ever be a crowd except the occasional school group. Take line 8 to Ecole Vétérinaire de Maisons-Alfort, and then just follow the signs.