Saturday is caught on the cusp of winter and spring, and the clouds don't know whether to let sun break through or throw down more rain. We were told to meet up at 2pm at the Musée Fragonard in Maisons Alfort, a short Metro trip from Paris, but it seems that people are having trouble finding the exact spot. I take what I presume to be a short cut through brick and stone stables, but when I see a 'Keep out - contagious disease' sign, I'm not sure I've made the right decision.
The stables are a surprise, but they shouldn't be. This is a vetinary school and a working animal hospital. As well as sick horses on site, there are also cats, dogs, reptiles and even cows, but these are the lucky ones. Alongside them, in the museum, are the bones, brains and disected innards of their bretheren and forefathers.
Inside, the guided tour begins. The museum is an integral part of the school and has been since 1765 when it was founded by Louis XV. Even today it is run by students, and it is one of them, a third year scholar called Marie-Aude, who shows us around.
As she points out immediately, this is an institution that has always had a rather awkward dual role. It was designed to educate undergraduates at the school, but Louis XV also wanted it to enlighten a wider audience from outside. To attract them through the doors though, it was clear that informative dissections would have to be balanced with examples of the outlandish and the freakish. The balance still exists, although students at the school today learn little from the exhibits, and its role is more of an artistic or historical one.
It is perhaps easier for us visitors to look at the rather gruesome cut-ups and jars of preserved objects from an aesthetic perspective too. The craft of the creators, men such as Petitcolin in the 19th century, is admirable in its meticulousness. Washed through and carefully blown dry stomachs and digestive tracts sit mounted in cabinets, impressive in their enormity. In another, the delicate bronchial trees of horses stand on shelves like a tiny petrified forest.
After the educational comes what Marie-Aude calls 'the monsters'. In fact, these are the abnormalities and deformities, mostly birth defects such as two-headed lambs and one-eyed pigs. These were displayed here clearly to impress, but they did initially help scientists to provide answers to age-old questions. Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire for example used these examples to point out that most mythological beasts were probably just well-known species with certain abnormalities.
After being quickly whisked through a room of skeletons, we arrive at the secret heart of the museum. Honoré Fragonard, always the main draw, gave his name to the institution, but today his work is tucked away in a small darkened room known as the 'cabinet des curiosités'. Eternal revenge on a man whose renown had grown too large, it is made clear to us that we are entering a science-free zone.
Honoré Fragonard was a cousin of the painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard, but the creations he left behind were perhaps more revolutionary than those of his more illustrious relation. He was a scientific man, a qualified surgeon and a member of the world's first veterinary school in Lyon. He was brought to the new school at Alfort where he worked for six years preparing thousands of anatomical pieces. He had mastered a new technique for preserving flesh, but it was one that he was determined to keep to himself. Whether it was due to this secrecy or because his success inspired jealousy, he was eventually fired from the school in 1771, ostensibly for being 'mad' and scaring visitors.
He continued creating outside of the school, selling his works to the aristocracy. His pieces became more and more theatrical, with creations such as a cavalier mounted on horseback. The objects, known as his 'écorchés' (flayed figures) have miraculously survived for over 200 years, mostly, as Marie-Aude informs us, because of his choice of varnish. This was not only the same as the one used by his painter cousin, but also had the benefit of being an insect repellent!
The final resting place of his 21 remaining creations is perhaps the most atmospheric in the museum, and there is silence as our group observes the wild eyes of one of his cadavres. It is impressive stuff, but it is perhaps best not to ask where he found the bodies!
Our visit comes to an end here, alongside a ceiling-high cabinet of carefully labelled jars and tubes. We push back through the doors, back into the light, back into the enlightenment. We have learned things, thanks to the clear explanations of Marie-Aude, but above all we have been thoroughly impressed by the collection. Perhaps we'll all meet again for next year's Obscura Day!
Note: the museum is open to visitors on Wednesdays and Thursdays, from 2pm - 6pm, and on Saturdays and Sundays, from 1pm - 6pm.
Listen to a podcast from this event here: http://www.english.rfi.fr/culture/20100418-pounds-flesh