An orangutan in Paris: pondering Proximity at the Muséum d’histoire naturelle in 1836

Richard W. Burkhardt

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


When the Muséum d’histoire naturelle in Paris learned in 1836 that it had the chance to buy a live, young orangutan, it was excited by the prospect. Specimens were the focus of the Museum’s activities, and this particular specimen seemed especially promising, not only because the Museum had very few orangutan specimens in its collection, but also because of what was perceived to be the orangutan’s unique place in the natural order of things, namely, at the very boundary between the animal kingdom and humans. Frédéric Cuvier, the superintendent of the Museum’s menagerie, urged that studying the orangutan’s mental faculties would help resolve fundamental questions regarding the similarities and differences between animals and humans. Archival and printed sources allow one to reconstruct the orangutan’s capture, acquisition, and subsequent career at the menagerie in greater detail than has generally been possible for animals of nineteenth-century zoos. Scientists, artists, the public, the press, and even musicians (Franz Liszt included) sought to engage with the orangutan, seeing in it not just another ape or monkey but a special creature unto itself at the animal/human boundary. Key to their fascination with the orangutan was the question of proximity—just how close was the orangutan to humans? The orangutan’s story illuminates not only how the animal-human boundary was conceived at the time but also the problematic status of the zoo as a site for scientific research and the roles of scientific and non-scientific actors alike in constructing how the orangutan was understood.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20
JournalHistory and Philosophy of the Life Sciences
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 1 2018


  • Animal/human boundary
  • Franz Liszt
  • Frédéric Cuvier
  • Orangutans
  • Zoos

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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