The museum was formally founded on 10 June 1793, during the French Revolution. Its origins lie, however, in the Jardin royal des plantes médicinales (royal garden of medicinal plants) created by King Louis XIII in 1635, which was directed and run by the royal physicians. The royal proclamation of the boy-king Louis XV on 31 March 1718, however, removed the purely medical function, enabling the garden—which became known simply as the Jardin du Roi (King's garden)—to focus on natural history.
A decree of 12 December 1891 ended this phase, returning the museum to an emphasis on natural history. After receiving financial autonomy in 1907, it began a new phase of growth, opening facilities throughout France during the interwar years. In recent decades, it has directed its research and education efforts at the effects on the environment of human exploitation. In French public administration, the Muséum is classed as a grand établissement of higher education.
Map of the main location of the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, at the Jardin des Plantes.
Four scientific sites, the Institut de Paléontologie humaine in Paris, the Centre d'Écologie générale de Brunoy, the Station de Biologie marine et Marinarium de Concarneau and the CRESCO (Centre de Recherche et d'Enseignement sur les Systèmes Côtiers) in Dinard.
The Gallery of Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy and other parts of Jardin des Plantes was a source of inspiration for French graphic novelist Jacques Tardi. The gallery appears on the first page and several subsequent pages of Adèle et la bête (Adèle and the Beast; 1976), the first album in the series of Les Aventures extraordinaires d'Adèle Blanc-Sec. The story opens with a 136-million-year-old pterodactyl egg hatching, and a live pterodactyl escaping through the gallery glass roof, wreaking havoc and killing people in Paris. (The Gallery of Palaeontology and Comparative Anatomy returned the favor by placing a life size cardboard cutout of Adèle and the hatching pterodactyl in a glass cabinet outside the main entrance on the top floor balcony.)
The Friends of the Natural History Museum Paris is a private organization that provides financial support for the museum, its branches and the Jardin des Plantes. Membership includes free entry to all galleries of the Museum and the botanical garden. The Friends have assisted the museum with many purchases for its collections over the years, as well as funds for scientific and structural development.