Feature Archive: André Thouin and the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle

Each month, a researcher shares their experiences of using a particular archive. The overall aim of this section is to create a database of the different archives available to those working on French and Francophone studies that will be of help particularly to students just starting out in research.

Sophie Tunney is a fifth year PhD candidate in the history department at the Graduate Center, CUNY. Here she talks about using the Fonds André Thouin at the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle

The archive at the Muséum national d’Histoire Naturelle holds one of the best collections of letters on the French botanical network of the eighteenth century. The Fonds André Thouin includes eleven boxes of letters, catalogues, manuscripts, and drawings that were sent to André Thouin between 1747 and 1825. Thouin was the head-gardener of the Jardin du Roi (later renamed the Jardin des Plantes), and one of the central figures of the French botanical network during the late-eighteenth century. A good introduction to the botanical network can be found in Emma Spary’s French Natural History from the Old Regime to the Revolution, which looks at Thouin’s role in the expansion of the network across Europe and the wider world. At the height of Thouin’s career, he was in correspondence with hundreds of intellectuals, botanists, politicians, and merchants from around the globe.

When I began preparing for my research trip to France in 2019, I used the website Calames (http://www.calames.abes.fr) to narrow down the cotes that might be useful to my research. I quickly realized that it was vital that I dig through this archival collection. When I arrived in Paris in June, I immediately reached out to the archivists at the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle and let them know that I needed to see the entire Fonds André Thouin. Because I was coming from the United States, they understood that I had a limited time to see the collection and were very helpful in getting me set up. After arriving on the second floor of the research library, I was presented with my first box entitled MS THO A-C. The letters are organized alphabetically, based on the name of the correspondent or the institution. For example, many of the French botanical gardens have their own folders and are located in boxes MS THO IJ and MS THO J. In the case of “MS THO 325 – Jardin Botanique de Clermont-Ferrand,” there are 36 letters written by Antoine Delarbre between 1780 and 1799.

This collection of eighteenth century documents provides vital insight into the everyday experiences of botanists and gardeners and highlights the many transportation difficulties they faced when moving organic materials across France and the wider world. After going through those eleven boxes, I knew that I wanted to focus my dissertation on some of these actors including Antoine Laurent in Brest, Dominique Villars in Grenoble, and François de Paule Latapie in Bordeaux. If you ever go to the reading room of the Muséum national d’Histoire Naturelle, perhaps ask the archivists for one of these boxes and catch a glimpse of the complex and intricate world of botanical exchange in the eighteenth century. You will not be bored, I promise!

Sophie Tunney is a fifth year PhD candidate in the history department at the Graduate Center, CUNY. She is currently finishing her dissertation on the French botanical network of the late-eighteenth century, with a particular focus on provincial and colonial gardens.

Thank you very much for this, Sophie!


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