The Musée Napoléonien: objects, performance and encountering the ‘spectacular past’ in the long nineteenth century

Laura O'Brien*

*Corresponding author for this work

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In the early months of 1903, a new play opened at the Théâtre du Château-d’Eau in Paris, La Chute de l’Aigle, telling the story of the weeks following Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. Though the play itself was not particularly remarkable, it is notable for the presence of a ‘Musée Napoléonien’, containing a selection of original Napoleonic objects, in the theatre’s foyer. This article takes this unusual coming together of Napoleonic display in theatre and material culture as a starting point to examine the interplay between these forms of historical representation in France in the long nineteenth century. It argues that, like theatrical performance, exhibitions of Napoleonic things – especially personal items and belongings – constituted part of the broader turn towards a ‘spectacular past’, where historical narratives and biography were mediated via entertainment and spectacle. It demonstrates how contemporaries read the display of the personal items of a historical figure in dramatic, narrative terms, underlining the interaction between the visions of the historical past being constructed in performance and in the display of historical objects. In looking at these popular opportunities for experiential engagement with the past, it suggests that – whether in theatre, in exhibitions, or, as in La Chute de l’Aigle, in both – such phenomena should be understood as important elements in how historical knowledge is acquired.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)468–486
Number of pages19
JournalFrench History
Issue number4
Early online date24 Oct 2023
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2023

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