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Napoléon – L’Exposition: A Surprisingly Unbiased Retelling

If you have visited Paris over the past several months, you may have noticed that the city has come down with a serious case of Napoléon fever. From special exhibitions to nighttime spectacles, Parisians have been inundated with images of Napoléon Bonaparte all summer. And there’s a reason for that. As I noted last May, this year is the 200th anniversary of Napoléon’s death in 1821. And what better way to mark the occasion than a series of retrospectives and expositions dedicated to the first Emperor of France. The biggest of these is Napoléon – L’Exposition, currently running at the Grand Hall at La Villette. The biggest, and also surprisingly, the least biased examination of Napoléon’s legacy that I’ve seen in France.

Napoléon – L’Exposition

This exhibition is a joint production between La Villette and the Grand Palais. They also collaborated with many of the top museums in Paris, including the Louvre, Versailles, and Invalides, to bring together over 150 historical pieces that tell the life of Napoléon from start to finish. The exhibition begins with his childhood in Corsica, and traces his rise and fall as the leader of France’s First Empire. In addition to the original artefacts and paintings on display, there are also numerous screens and videos on hand to visually depict his conquests and battle strategies. It was the perfect blend of static museum displays and modern digital technologies.

An Unbiased History?

However, what truly impressed me about this exhibition was its measured approach to Napoléon’s legacy. I think it’s safe to say that he will always be a decisive figure in history. However, he is certainly still revered in France. For this reason, I expected this exhibition to fall along those lines. It would hold up the Battle of Austerlitz and conveniently omit the disaster that was Waterloo. But instead, Napoléon – L’Exposition presented a surprisingly objective retelling of Napoléon’s life. Sure, there was a fair bit of pomp and grandstanding. But overall, this exhibition was refreshingly open about Napoléon’s faults and many failings. In fact, I came out of it wondering if anyone else in history has failed upwards quite as spectacularly as Napoléon. My guess is no, but I’m no expert.

A Life that Shaped a Continent

Napoléon – L’Exposition is running until December 19th at the Grand Hall at La Villette, and I highly recommend a visit. Napoléon had an outsized impact on the European continent as a whole, and this exhibition does a fantastic job of highlighting this. Therefore, even if you’re not Napoléon’s biggest fan, there’s a lot to discover and learn. Especially if you’re a fan of European history.

Also, museums of the world, please take note. Every single screen in this exhibition had a timer in the corner showing how long until the program would be over and the video would restart from the beginning. No more guessing where you came in or how long you have to wait to watch from the beginning. Is it too much to ask to make this an industry standard?

Laura Moore is a professional storyteller who loves history and the many stories that make Paris one of the most fascinating cities in the world. Join one of her signature tours to learn the story of a city.


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