Talking Point with Thierry Lentz > Napoleon in majesty at La Villette

Author(s) : LENTZ Thierry
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Finally now that museums and exhibitions have re-opened here in France and elsewhere, we can really say that the bicentenary is up and running. Indeed, most of the “Année Napoléon” exhibitions are now open, and the remaining few will follow suit later in the year: Of note amongst these are those at the French National Archives, the Musée de l’Armée, the Château de Malmaison, the Museum of Sens, Santiago de Chile, Ajaccio, Thionville, Issy-les-Moulineaux, Fontainebleau and the Mobilier National. [See our 2021 Partner pages for more details]. In an ideal world you wouldn’t want to miss any of them. But I do want to say a few words here about the most spectacular exhibition of them all, the “Napoléon” exhibition at La Villette. There is no doubt that it will be unforgettable.

Talking Point with Thierry Lentz > Napoleon in majesty at La Villette
Thierry Lentz © Editions Perrin 2020

It has everything you’d ever want to slake your thirst for Napoleonica, and every piece is the real deal: paintings, statues, busts, furniture, decorative arts, reconstitutions, weapons, uniforms and court costumes, the hat and the ‘redingote’, and a huge pile of gold coins from the Banque de France (I don’t think anyone has ever seen so many gold napoleons in one go!).

The display is “up to date” but without being excessively so: there are screens, both great and small; the explanatory panels are neither too short nor too long; the special areas explaining “the controversial issues” are just the right dimensions; and there are banners, carpets, and goodness know what else that has for now slipped my mind. Added to this, the sheer space (a ‘mere’ 1,800 m2), the thorough and historically precise itinerary, not to mention gentle air-conditioning (which is not a luxury with the arrival of summer) and, just in case the experience wasn’t memorable enough, there’s also a souvenir catalogue. It’s true that this is not quite as sumptuous as the rest but it’s nevertheless worth reading and keeping. In short, there’s a grandeur that matches the subject matter.

You have to hand it to them. The Réunion des Musées Nationaux (a French cultural umbrella organisation comprising 34 national museums) and La Grande Halle de la Villette did the right thing, despite the huge constraints (notably lack of time, since it only took a year and a half to plan and set up the exhibition), and indeed the doubts of some people, and the few emotional outbursts that are unfortunately unavoidable nowadays.

And let me tell you – and here I know what I’m talking about (there’s a chapter on it in my book Pour Napoléon [For Napoleon]) -, this excellent result was not a foregone conclusion. There were some, outside the circle of historians and curators, who voiced their doubts as to whether there was any the need to “commemorate” Napoleon with this exhibition, an exhibition which will surely be a worthy successor to the one organised at the Grand Palais in 1969 [for the Bicentenary of Napoleon’s birth]. These doubts were raised during the preparatory meetings; we sometimes had to fight against the moaner-groaners who would have had us bend over backwards to accommodate the infamous “contemporary sensibilities” (which in any case we weren’t planning to ignore); there were even whispers that in very high ministerial circles, some figures would have been quite content for this exhibition never to have happened. In the end, the heads of the institutions stood firm, the organisers stuck to their schedule, the curators worked their socks off, the teams at the RMN and La Grande Halle de la Villette moved at a furious pace in order to be able to present to the public this magnificent exhibition… and here we are today.

I’m not going to hide the fact that, as the second biggest lender of the exhibition, the Fondation Napoléon is delighted that such an exhibition is taking place, and we strongly encourage you to take advantage of it! You can bet that you won’t soon see another such event, in which so many great museums, great institutions, and such talent have been brought together . And after it is all over, on 29 December 2021, we can all say: I was there.

Thierry Lentz
Director of the Fondation Napoléon
June 2021

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