The Tropical Aquarium was installed inside the Palais de la Porte Dorée, designed by the architect Albert Laprade for the Colonial Exposition of 1931.
The curator of the exposition, Marshal Lyautey wished to show metropolitan France, in a lasting way, the diversity of the aquatic fauna of its colonies.
During 1934, Albert Laprade himself decorated the pit in the middle of the Aquarium with the help of a sculptor. Ponds and fake stones composed a “jungle corner” filled with African crocodiles, turtles, monkeys and birds. Science and show were combined under the auspices of the National Museum of Natural History. The complex was composed of a seawater tank, a freshwater tank and a terrarium for reptiles as well as a “gallery of products” exhibiting the industrial use of certain species (tortoise shell, crocodile skin, coral...). It was a very ambitious project: ornate decors, tanks with painted bottoms and plate glass of unequalled size... The installation was quite complex: work was delayed and continued after the inauguration of the site, but the Aquarium was still one of the “show stoppers”.
If great care was taken of the Aquarium from 1934 to 1938, World War II was a disaster for the institution: personnel sent to the front, power cuts, water heating cuts, poor maintenance of the tanks, food shortages... At the end of this dark period, new specimens arrived at the Aquarium, including ones brought by colonial administrators. The most famous of these were the adult Nile crocodiles, brought in 1948, with the help of Professor Théodore Monod, renowned scientist and then director of the Institut français d’Afrique noire (IFAN). The last of the original group of crocodiles lived until 2010.
In 1960, the future of the Tropical Aquarium was uncertain. Relations with the Ministry of Cultural Affairs under André Malraux were tense. Its success however allowed it to continue since a great number of visitors flocked to the doors of the Palace. After a period of stagnation, a new era dawned in 1968 sounding the death knell of colonial utilitarian and economic views. The dioramas presenting the use of colonial waters were thus replaced with new tanks, on either side of the turtle terrarium. A “neutral” presentation was adopted respecting geographic and esthetic criteria. Nevertheless, despite this major new orientation, the decline continued due to lack of funds and involvement. To such an extent that in 1984, there was no longer really any choice: should the Aquarium be closed or should major works be undertaken?
It was under the initiative of Michel Hignette that the renovation of the Aquarium was launched. Staggered since then, works were progressively undertaken without closing the building. What was essential in the first instance was to improve the animals’ living conditions without affecting the historic aspect of the site, dating for the most part to 1931. A larger tank was installed in the place of three older ones, while the original bays were kept: living space for the fish was thus significantly expanded. Water quality also necessitated improvements. New filters, tested on site, allowed the display of invertebrates (shrimp, corals...) inside an artificial seawater tank for the first time. The progressive control of water quality and a growing awareness of the educational nature of an aquarium profoundly shaped the organization of the site. A proper selection of species could now be undertaken. Each tank was arranged within a complete educational reorganization of the Aquarium.
The collection numbers some 15,000 animals and 750 species, but these figures continually vary depending on reproduction, mortality, exchanges with other public aquariums, purchases and gifts.
At present, the 90 tanks exhibit a variety of tropical saltwater and freshwater species. The Aquarium plays the role of stirring up public awareness of their beauty, wealth and fragility as well as the necessity to protect these natural environments.