Natural history collection at Rennes high school

The Émile Zola high school in Rennes (Brittany Region, France) keeps a vast collection of old teaching materials in one of its former chemistry labs. The collection shows the evolution of scientific teaching at one of the oldest high schools in France.

Instruments used for navigationRégion Bretagne

Exploring and measuring the world

The 18th and 19th centuries saw a growing number of voyages in the name of scientific exploration. Explorers were looking to discover untapped riches, map out new regions, and make astronomical and meteorological observations. Many instruments were needed for these explorations.

Octant (1780/1790) by Gregory & WrightRégion Bretagne

Maritime navigation was aided greatly by the invention of the octant, predecessor of the sextant, in 1731. Up until then, it had been extremely difficult to calculate longitude which was an essential measurement when calculating the exact position of a ship and directing its route. With the octant, sailors could measure the height of the stars and determine an angular value in relation to the reference meridian.

Nollet marine compass (1744) by Le Maire le FilsRégion Bretagne

A compass is a vital tool for navigation, because it tells which direction to take. This 1744 marine compass was equipped with gimbals to offset the rolling and swaying of the boat.

It is finely crafted, with a sea monster depicted at the center and a fleur de lys to indicate North.

Astronomical and terrestrial telescope (c. 1880) by Jules DuboscqRégion Bretagne

The astronomical telescope, developed by Galileo in the 16th century and continuously improved on to this day, is a device made up of a system of glass lenses to enlarge the apparent size of faraway objects.

Detail of the astronomical and terrestrial telescope (c. 1880) by Jules DuboscqRégion Bretagne

On the one depicted, a small telescope directly parallel to the large one, known as "finder", provides a larger field of vision for spotting a celestial object before observing it through the large telescope.

Fortin barometer (1850/1900) by LehalleRégion Bretagne

Invented in 1643 by Torricelli, mercury barometers measure atmospheric pressure. In the 19th century, in order to make them more accurate and transportable, the physician Jean-Nicolas Fortin changed their shape and mounted them on tripods. Now portable, the barometers could offer meteorological forecasts wherever they were needed.

The flexible reservoir at the end of the barometer meant that the level of mercury in the cuvette could be measured accurately.

Thanks to the vernier, you could read atmospheric pressure within a fraction of an inch.

Hébert room (natural science collection) (1880/1890)Région Bretagne

Knowing and understanding the world

The voyages of exploration opened the door to new scientific discoveries. Many zoological and botanical specimens and geological samples were brought back to Europe and these helped to advance natural history. In 1852, the board for state education confirmed this by reforming natural history science programs in schools. Teachers had to use visual aids in their lessons in the form of a model, a representation, or the object itself.

Dolphin skeleton (1871/1888) by Émile DeyrolleRégion Bretagne

Diversity in zoological collections is vital in comparing the anatomy of species. According to school textbooks from the 19th century, the dolphin is a sea-dwelling cetacean, shaped like a fish, which enables it to survive there.

Flying dragon (1800/1900) by unknownRégion Bretagne

The draco lizard is a saurian reptile from the forests of Southeast Asia. It has wings with a membrane connected to the body, which means it can glide over short distances. It is kept in a jar of formaldehyde (a now-banned fluid once used to preserve specimens and zoological samples).

Case of lepidopterans (1896/1937) by Les fils d'Émile DeyrolleRégion Bretagne

Collecting and keeping insects, especially butterflies, was very fashionable in the 19th century. Amateurs, specialists and researchers would build up entomological collections. For natural history lessons, teachers would use specimens of hunted butterflies that had been mounted with pins and then spread in a frame. The positioning had to be both aesthetic and educational.

Cast of a fossilized fish (1871/1888) by Émile DeyrolleRégion Bretagne

The program reform was followed by the emergence of shops selling teaching aids such as models and reproductions to schools. Such was the case with the Maison Deyrolle, founded in 1831, which created casts of fossils that were less expensive and more easily accessible than the real thing. With these casts, students could study both the evolution of the species and geology.

The stamp certified the provenance of the cast.

Poisonous plants chart (1862/1864) by Achille ComteRégion Bretagne

In 1866, the collection of zoological, botanical and geological charts of Achille Comte saw huge success. The collection was published as large wall charts, accompanied by books to explain the captions. This one on "common" poisonous plants was the 24th botanical chart, and was printed on a black background and carefully colored.

Anatomical model of the a maybug (1850/1900) by Établissements du Docteur AuzouxRégion Bretagne

During the 19th century, the cockchafer was considered the enemy of farming; feared as a root-eating larvae, and as an adult for eating leaves. To aid studies, Doctor Auzoux developed anatomical and deconstructable (clastic) models.

Anatomical model of the maybug, spread wings (1850/1900) by Établissements du Docteur AuzouxRégion Bretagne

This one of a cockchafer is not life size (it is 12 times larger than an actual cockchafer) and can spread its wings.

Anatomical model of the maybug, dismounted (1850/1900) by Établissements du Docteur AuzouxRégion Bretagne

The cockchafer model can be separated into two parts.

The left side of the model depicts the reproductive system and certain muscles.

The organs can be found in the right side.

Educational case on manioc (1850/1950) by Ministry of the colonies (France)Région Bretagne

Knowing and exploiting faraway riches

The main aim of the scientific exploration voyages was to make an inventory of the riches of new colonies. To ensure the development of industry and commerce, inspecting raw materials was very important to the European powers. The Minister for State Education wanted these new riches to be taught about in schools.

To ensure the best teaching, the Minister of Colonies would send themed boxes to schools. They would contain various samples and photographs showing the production phases of the plant and its different uses.

Educational case on coffee, Ministry of the colonies (France), 1850/1950, From the collection of: Région Bretagne
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Educational case on rice, Ministry of the colonies (France), 1850/1950, From the collection of: Région Bretagne
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Sea coconut (1800/1900)Région Bretagne

The largest fruit in the world comes from the Seychelles. It weighs 10–25 kg and, because of its shape, is known colloquially as the 'coco-fesse'—or 'buttocks nut'. Its fibers are used to make ropes, and its shell is used to make containers. The fruit was first cited by Pierre Sonnerat in his Voyage to New Guinea (Voyage à la Nouvelle Guinée), written 1771-1772.

Crocodilian (1800/1900) by unknownRégion Bretagne

Many objects from the colonies made their way around Europe, especially in schools. Taxidermied animals from other climates broadened the collections in schools and museums. This provided a safe way to show "feared" species to the public. Considered "dangerous" in the 19th century, crocodilians supplied new and exceptional leathers for the production of luxury leather goods.

Seal (1800/1900) by unknownRégion Bretagne

In the second half of the 19th century, school programs would identify zoological species by using the principles of classification. According to the system, the seal belonged to the branch of vertebrates, of the class mammal, of the order of pinnipeds. In addition to these categories, the seal was also identified among the mammals "useful to man" because of its fur and fat.

Credits: Story

Conception & writing: Justine Malpeli, Région Bretagne

Photographs: Délia-Gaulin-Crespel, Région Bretagne

Under the responsibility of Elisabeth Loir-Mongazon, Head of Service for the Inventory of Cultural Heritage (Service de l'Inventaire du patrimoine culturel), Région Bretagne

Acknowledgments: Jean-Noël Cloarec, Bertrand Wolff and the members of Amélycor

© Région Bretagne, Service de l'Inventaire du patrimoine culturel.

The Brittany region (région Bretagne) is in charge of equipping and operating breton public high schools. It is also responsible for the inventory of cultural heritage.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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