Museum of Natural History – La Rochelle


The renovation of the Museum of Natural History in La Rochelle was the opportunity to create a unique 2500 square meter museum harmoniously integrating contemporary scenography into a historic, 18th-century building full of rich collections.

The museum began as Clément Lafaille’s « cabinet of curiosities » which he left to the city of La Rochelle along with his library to create a museum. His collection, which has remained intact, was restored during the 18th century, conserving its pilasters, friezes, sculpted cornices, glass shell cases and massive mahogany shell closet which got back to its original yellow and red tones.

Another historically important hall is the 19th century zoological room on the first floor. Restored to its original state, it still has its 19th century glass cabinets showing specimens from around the world which have been organised according to the French biologist, Georges Cuvier’s classification.

Besides the building’s architectural richness, the La Rochelle museum owns an eclectic collection of famous objects and specimens from faraway lands in a variety of themes fully representing the natural sciences : zoology, botany, geology and ethnography-archeology.
For example, there is the giraffe offered in 1826 by the Egypt’s Pacha to King Charles X, the first living giraffe to arrive in France. After living 18 years in the Jardin des Plantes zoo, « Zarafa » became a taxidermied specimen in the National Museum of Natural History collections which then offered it to the La Rochelle museum in the 1930’s. Other famous zoological specimens include Josephine’s orang utang, the Duke of Orleans’ lion and Alcide d’Orbigny’s condor.

In this historical building with its diverse presentations and objects, the lighting objective was to emphasize the works presented without disturbing the architecture of the museum. To meet this goal, luminaires – adjustable ceiling mounted or recessed fixtures in a pure, discreet design - were uniformly installed throughout the space. To virtually conceal them from visitors, their color is similar to the surface on which they are attached. They are easily reachable and generally placed outside the display cases to avoid extreme temperature changes, eventual falls and to disturb curator during maintenance work.

Projectors on tracks enabled to adapt to the architectural configurations of each room (roof timbers, extended beams and roof frames).
Two types of light sources were used: fluorescent T5 tubes for the general lighting of display cases and halogen lamps, with an excellent color rendering index, for accent lighting on objects. The 3000°K color temperature supplies a warm mood and visual comfort by day or night.

Particular attention was paid to fragile pieces such as feathers, fabrics and painted leathers. Special devices were installed to control the lighting of these objects (dimmers, mechanical filters, dichroic filters, optical filters, optical fibre …).

The close collaboration between the architect Philippe Dangles, in charge of the museography and the lighting designer, helped convey (achieve) the many moods which contribute to the museum’s richness. The lighting is neutral in the historical halls and more dramatic in the 3rd floor rooms focusing on beliefs and rituals.