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Emilie Robbe: the Musée de l'Armée and the ATHENA project

(Interview by DELAGE Irène )

Museum curators : Robbe, Emilie

 Bibliographical details

It's the rentrée in France, the moment when people go back to work, children go back to school, and the summer rolls to a close. It is also the moment for us to look back on the the Musée de l'Armée's ATHENA project. Launched in 1996, the project, to redevelop and modernise the Musée de l'Armée, has recently come to an end as we enter the third quarter of 2009. Irène Delage spoke to the curator of the museum's Modern Wing, Emilie Robbe, about ATHENA and what to expect from the redesigned galleries.

Irène Delage: The ATHENA project, to redevelop and modernise the Musée de l'Armée, was launched in 1996. Can you recap for us the details?

<i>Modern Gallery, Musée de l'Armée. Photo Luc Boegly</i>

Modern Gallery, Musée de l'Armée. Photo Luc Boegly


Emilie Robbe: Although created over a hundred years ago, in 1905, the Musée de l'Armée had only ever undergone one large-scale reorganization, at the end of the 1960s. Thirty years later, it had become clear that a process of modernization, which would take into account the expectations of the public, the wishes of the board of trustees, and the services offered by the museum, was necessary. The ATHENA project was thus conceived, the aim of which is to reinforce the bond between the nation and its army, whilst at the same time moving away from a museum built around objects to a museum of history. The name ATHENA is actually an acronym, evoking both the richness of the museum's collections and the diversity of themes that the museum considers: arms, techniques, history, emblems, nation, army. The acronym is at the heart of this modernization program which will reaffirm the museum's position as the most prestigious and most visited institution on the banks of the Seine.

I.D.: What issues were at stake in a project of this magnitude?

<i>Modern Gallery, Musée de l'Armée. Photo Luc Boegly</i>

Modern Gallery, Musée de l'Armée. Photo Luc Boegly


E.R.: ATHENA is a comprehensive project which covers every aspect of the institution and its operation. The most visible aspect of the project has been completed this year, with the installation of the Modern section's new permanent exhibitions. This follows the reopening of the "Ancien" and Two World Wars wings, and the creation of the Charles de Gaulle "historial".
Visitor service and orientation are crucial, which is why a large part of the program is concerned with redeveloping the welcome areas, improving the information displays, and modernizing the ticketing system, as well as updating our communication strategies.
The museum's evolution has also entailed certain essential improvements, notably in the redevelopment of the new reserves and the library areas, and the creation of new rooms to house temporary exhibitions. It should also be mentioned that such a project would not be possible without a reorganization of the museum's various departments; over the last fifteen years or so, a great deal of effort has been made in this respect to maintain the balance between our goals and the resources available to us.

I.D.: What are the key principles at the heart of the new rooms?

<i>Modern Gallery, Musée de l'Armée. Photo Luc Boegly</i>

Modern Gallery, Musée de l'Armée. Photo Luc Boegly


E.R.: As with every opening of a new room at the Musée de l'Armée, the Modern wing's new rooms are conceived as part of the museum as a whole but, at the same time, they also take into account the specificity of each collection on display. With regards to the rooms devoted to the period 1643-1871, the first section of which was reopened to the public for the last "Nuit des musées" event, we have tried to realise a number of different goals, which take into account the nature of the collections, their history, and the expectations of the public. 

Our watchwords in this case could easily be: show, explain, inspire. For show, we have placed the emphasis on the items and their relationship with the space. Not only have we opened up the exhibition space, but we have also varied the angles, through various tricks with mirrors and a window scheme which allows, as far as it is possible, to observe each object in its three dimensions. 
Explain has been one of the key missions in the museum's transformation from object-centric to history-centric. The museum's public has diversified since the 1960s. As well as distinguished experts, school groups and families, we now get a huge number of foreigners, many of whom are completely unaware of much of France's history and its armies. On top of that, the male-female visitor split is now fifty-fifty. This is why it was essential that we put in place information tools that responded to everyone's particular needs. More than one-hundred and twenty information panels have been added to the rooms that cover the period 1643-1814, organized based on their content and the type of information they display: general history, the items in the room, details concerning one unit or one campaign... Other aids which will allow the visitor to investigate more closely certain aspects of the history on display (object-life, science and technology, strategy…) will also be integrated into the rooms. These will include interactive displays and animated battle plans.
It is through marrying the aesthetic and the transmission of information that the museum hopes to inspire the public's interest for the history and collections on display.

I.D.: Due to the new changes, some objects will no longer be on display: how do you make a decision on what stays and what doesn't? What happens to these objects that are "rejected"? Have you envisaged a system of rotation or thematic temporary exhibitions?

E.R.: The new displays coupled with new regulations concerning public safety and general accessibility in the museum forced us to reduce ever so slightly the number of objects on display. In order to carry out this process of selection, we kept the guidelines simple: if, instead of three similar objects, we could only put one on display, that one would have to be the most important, the most authentic and the most attractive example available. We thus carried out a critical and exhaustive process of selection, in order to eliminate any copies, late additions or objects that were simply too fragile or had been damaged – often beyond repair – due to work carried out in the past. The items that, following this selection process, have not been kept on display will be stored in the museum's reserves. In the future, they may be incorporated back into the displays – although some will require “de-restoration” before being shown again - but in most cases, they will be included in temporary exhibitions on more specific topics. 
As well as this, some of our objects are particularly sensitive to the light, which can cause serious and often irreversible damage. This means that we have to operate a policy of rotation, in the case of paper-based objects, or indeed of temporary display. However, if we had had to incorporate a similar policy of rotation for our textile collection, we would have had to cut those parts of the permanent exhibition by almost one third. Not only is our textile collection not as extensive as our other ones, but it also has fewer ‘duplicates'. In order to meet the public's expectations and put on permanent exhibit, for example, Napoleon I's grey overcoat worn on St. Helena, we took the decision to illuminate the display using a weaker ambient light-form. This we hope will satisfy the majority of our visitors and allow us to keep on display such a noteworthy and anticipated object.

I.D.: As curator of the modern wing at the Musée de l'Armée, which items have particularly interested you?

E.R.: That's quite a delicate question: there is a great variety of objects in the museum's collections, all of which offer a wide range of emotions to those who are willing to give it a go. Some items, however, are of particular interest to me as historian: the splendid "Gardes de la Manche" partisan, decorated by Jean Bérain, or indeed the superb set of pistols made by N.-N Boutet for Napoleon I, all evoke the splendour of the State, the greatness of the men who governed it, and the importance that they accorded to military art.
Other examples are testament to the technological progress made in France and the work of engineering innovators, such as Honoré Blanc and Jean-Baptiste Vaquette de Gribeauval, designers of the "1777 model" rifle. The museum possesses a n° 1 workshop copy of the rifle and a kit, still in its entirety, for verifying the components before assembly.
And then there are pieces that evoke the sacrifice and suffering that anonymous soldiers endured, in the name of the Nation's ideals, at a time when the Nation was in the process of developing its own identity. Maréchal de Turenne's cuirass, General de La Roncière's uniform, ripped apart by eleven sabre slashes at the Battle of Wagram, General d'Aboville's prosthetic shoulder, and the simple pistol found on the battlefield at Waterloo are all such examples.
Finally, there are some pieces that touch me as an art historian, such as the two magisterial portraits by Gros: one shows General Lasalle at the capture of Stettin, the skilful mix of heroism and modesty so becoming of the bold victor clearly evident; the other, more poignant, more intimate, but no less heroic, is of the parting moment between General de Lariboisière and his son at dawn before the Battle of Borodino.

I.D.: What would you hope that visitors to the museum, both French and foreign, retain from their visit?

E.R.: We hope that our visitors, depending on their interests and their goals, will leave the museum having understood a little bit about modern-day France's (military) foundations, having satisfied their historical curiosity, but also having been moved by the heroism of yesteryear and, who knows, even perhaps having been surprised by what they have found.
One final thing that I would like to add is that these wings are and will continue to be constantly updated. Every day we are working on improving the displays and the way we welcome our visitors. Museography, just like History, is a discipline that must be continually renewed to avoid becoming stale.


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