Wednesday 23 September 2009

Hôpital St Louis - le Musée des Moulages

The recent Journées du Patrimoine gave me the opportunity to visit a museum that had long been an unobtainable grail for me - the very private Musée des Moulages Dermatologiques (museum of dermatological casts) within the walls of the Hôpital St Louis. An extraordinary experience, but certainly not one that I would recommend to everybody!

Living close to the hospital, I often find myself wandering around inside. A hospital is a city within the city, and the barriers between the two are very clear at the walled Hôpital St Louis. It is a place that was designed to be cut away from the rest of Paris, left apart to live alone and treat the outcasts and virulent sufferers. Today outsiders are welcome, and families come to picnic in the 17th century quadrangle at its heart.

In one corner there is a building that has always fascinated me. The Musée des Moulages. The doors have always been resolutely closed, apparently open only at sporadic times and then only to students or professionals that have previously requested a visit. Last Sunday though, I finally found them open. At first sight, the interior seems a little like that of a light and airy country house. Busts of famous doctors stand in the hallway alongside paintings, bookcases and a statue of Saint Louis. To one side, a sweeping staircase leads visitors past a procession of leading dermatological specialists upwards towards the museum.

The building dates from 1889 and was designed to house the growing collection of casts. The Hôpital St Louis was still on the periphery of the city and because of its self-sufficient autonomy had developed a world-renowned speciality in infectious skin diseases and afflictions. Three doctors were responsible for the creation of the museum. Alphonse Devergie donated his collection of paintings and drawings, but it was the doctors Fournier and Lailler who added the collection of casts. It is an institution which always had the intention of teaching and educating, and the two doctors believed that it would be more useful if the exhibits were three-dimensional.

The sight that greets you as you push open the doors is remarkable. A rectangular room bordered on all four sides by a double level of wooden display cases housing literally thousands of casts. The earliest dates from 1867 and the most recent 1958, but all share a gruesome, realistic form. The collection includes full heads, mouths, tongues, noses (or lack of!), arms, feet...and more intimate parts of the body. Any unusual or exceptional skin disfunction was quickly captured by the team at the museum.

The majority of the collection was produced by a man called Jules Baretta. It was the Doctor Lailler who found him, producing paper mache models of fruit in the Passage Jouffroy in Paris. He was so taken with the quality of the work that he immediately invited him to take up a post at the hospital. It was a radical change for Baretta, but he took to the work, producing incredibly realistic models which included features such as hair and colourings.

The collection is sorted by affliction, but I didn't want to look too closely at the details. Photos of the exhibits were not permitted, but respect for the 'patients' (and for my readers!) would have prevented me from taking any pictures anyway. I did want to capture the particular atmosphere of the place though, an installation that is almost unchanged 120 years later. Apparently students would learn little from a visit today (some diseases have been eradicated and many remedies are now known to be wrong), but it remains a fascinating historical monument (recognised by the state in 1992). One can only imagine the suffering as a plaster cast was placed on a painful or intimate place, but perhaps the patients were reassured by the fact that they were helping to further science and medicine.

I was there as a tourist of history and architecture, and this is part of the beauty of this hospital for me. It is history dragged into the modern day, centuries old stones that still exist for the reasons they were first put down. As I left, I saw that it is impossible to separate the reality of these buildings from the grim remnants of the past and today's thin, worn out individuals who are wired up to drips but still pulling on guilty cigarettes. We like to think we live in a safe, modern world, sheltered from the kinds of afflictions found in this museum. The reality is that we are towers of sand next to the solidity of these bricks and stones.

Note: If you are interested in visiting the museum, it is theoretically open from Monday to Friday, 9:00 - 17:00. However, you will only be allowed to enter if you have previously arranged a visit, and generally you will need to have a good reason for visiting (if you work in the medical profession for example). To contact them, call 01 42 49 99 15 or mail them at

There is a lot more to say about the Hôpital St Louis, but I'm not sure that a blog is the best place to do it. For this reason I am working on a walking tour of some of the most interesting hospitals in the city, including this one.


PeterParis said...

Obviously you were rather alone during the visit? Too frightful for most of us (smokers or not)?

Thanks for this complete information!

The hospital tour will certainly be interesting!

Le Mag' said...

Wow, creepy... I'll try this museum during the next "journées du patrimoines"!

Cergie said...

Un de mes grands oncles était un éminent professeur en dermatologie, il était même doyen de la facukté de médecine de Paris, il me semble, cela faisait drôle de voir ses écrits dans des revues scientifiques, il était spécialisé dans la lèpre. Je ne porte plus ce nom de famille qui m'a poursuivi autrefois (un autre grand oncle était encore également très connu lorsque j'ai fait mes études à Nancy et pas forcément très aimé)

Cergie said...

Au Maroc j'avais des amis médecins qui faisaient leur coopération militaire comme mon mari, ils disaient qu'ils voyaient des cas qu'on ne voit plus que dans les livres...
C'est terrible...
Mon plus jeune fils a visité à Montpellier pour les journées du patrimoine l'institut de je ne sais quoi et a vu beaucoup de "choses" dans le formol
Ce fils est intérresé comme toi par l'humain, le vivant et l'insolite.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely fascinating!
By the time we make it back to Paris for a visit, you'll have completed so many walking tours that we'll have to stay an extra week!

henk van es said...

What especially fascinated me in your wonderful story is, that there apparently has been a mr Jules Baretta, who for so many years has been making very realistic replica. Kind of an artist. And his creations ar displayed in a museum the general public normally is not permitted to enter... Very, very fascinating

ArtSparker said...

I think I saw a Dr. who epiisode like this. The one that has the cat nuns.

CarolineLD said...

Fascinating, and lovely, atmospheric photos.

Thérèse said...

Fascinating and something I'll keep in mind for further exploration.

Adam said...

Henk: You have certainly pointed out two of the main points of interest here. Mr Baretta was clearly an artist, but initially working in the interests of science. The fact that his work was supposed to be educational and because of the need to protect the privacy of the patients meant that it had to be private. However, now that a certain time has passed, and because the educational message has less importance today, what is left to appreciate is the artistic quality of his creations.

Of course, they are intimately linked with the environment in which they are situated. The dimmed lights, the closed curtains, the parquet flooring and heavy wooden cabinets. Perhaps I should also point out here that each exhibit is described in a typed note which includes the age, sex and profession of the patient (and sometimes this has relevance to the affliction. It is easy to imagine the hands of a lady who had spent many years doing people's washing for example!)

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