Wednesday, 13 January 2016

French Army Museum - Les Invalides - Paris

Founded by Louis XIV in 1670 to house wounded and retired war veterans, it houses an astonishing collection of military items.

With such a rich history in the middle of Europe it's not too surprising that France has such an extraordinary collection of war history yet it's only a quarter of what there was before the revolution. So many precious items were stolen, sold or dispersed, destroyed at that time. However the collection of 500,000 arms, suits of armour, artillery pieces, decorations, emblems, uniforms, paintings and photographs is pretty impressive. Covering more than 900 years it's amazing to see how technology evolved; some of the ancient weapons are surprising in their mechanical complexity.

The arquebus, the cannon, the pistol, the rifle, the sabre and the epee, the elegant and deadly swords. Seige weapons and modern warfare also feature. It's an extensive display in a beautiful building. I also visited one of their temporary exhibitions Knights and Bombards there. It was well done and I especially liked the thought that had gone into preparing little worksheets for children to make information scavenger hunts throughout, in English too. I enjoyed seeing the illustrated books and even real treaties from renaissance times. The battle of Agincourt in 1415 featured strongly, even if it was a disaster for the French, as it marked a change in military technology and strategy.
This temporary exhibition also features the Hundred Years war and the Italian campaigns of the kings of France including campaigns where Cesare Borgia fought on the side of the French against certain brutal Italian state rulers. Francis 1 features, of course. I got a closeup look at his suit of armour so intricately put together for him. There were excellent multimedia presentations on how a knight or ruler was dressed in his armour; the process and the equipment.

I didn't get to finish viewing the display as we were suddenly and hurriedly told to leave the building. An unattended suitcase had been seen in that wing and no doubt they were worried about terror attacks. It was really annoying to miss the rest of that exhibition though later I noticed people had been allowed back in. Too late for us to go back and see it before closing time.

The gold-domed chapel is where Napoleon's tomb is located. Well it's reputed to be him but who really says for sure. No one is prepared to do a DNA test and/or release the findings. He's enclosed within 5 separate coffins of various materials - rather like a pharoah. In fact this building consists of two churches and includes several sarcophagi.

 The two World Wars of the twentieth century featured information well-known but the artifacts and uniforms were still interesting. French colonisation made a hug impact and you can see the uniforms, and military hardware resulting from policies and struggles, especially in Algeria. It's pretty shameful but that's colonisation, isn't it.

You can't make a lightening visit to this museum. We underestimated it's scope and didn't really see everything available. There's a shop catering for all budgets with both tacky souvenirs and hand-crafted replicas. Many visitors were walking around wearing cardboard copies of Napoleon I's hat. Look for his imposing statue overlooking the honour courtyard filled with cannons from various battles. I couldn't resist taking a photo of his feet surrounded by cannonballs. 

The millions of men he killed as a result of his campaigns, ego and the rest. Sobering.

I hate war and killing machines but I still found the workmanship of the exhibits admirable, particularly the items from the middle ages and reformation. There are literally rooms and rooms of armour.

Open most days the museum features the following major sections:
Artillery in the cours d'honneur,
The dome church/ tomb of Napoleon I,
Antique arms and armour from the middle ages to 1643,
From Louis XIV to Napoleon III from 1643-1871,
The two World Wars from 1781-1945,
Charles de Gaulle Historical
Temporary exhibitions

Pay a little extra and get a Multimedia guide. It's much better than an audioguide. It's like a large smartphone or small tablet and gives you audio information of what you are looking at but also a visual commentary. This provides a rich experience, like having a personal historical guide; a great use of current technology. If you can't get hold of one at the usual entrance go to the other end of the site and ask at the shop. They tend to be more helpful.

Friday, 1 January 2016

A meeting with The Little Prince

I travelled to Espace Richaud, at Versailles, to see an exhibition on one of the world's best-loved children's books. The Little Prince (Le Petit Prince) is a book for children written for grown-ups, written by author and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. It can be read on many different levels for readers of all ages and makes comment on the human spirit.

The exhibition centre, located on Boulevard de la Reine, was once an ancient hospital from the seventeenth century. It has been beautifully renovated, with most of the wings sold off as private apartments. Inside, the exhibition was tastefully presented on several levels with a small shop were one could buy memorabilia, mostly for children. I got a mug and a hardcopy edition of the book. Outside the venue you notice one of the utility boxes, scattered around central Versailles, tastefully portraying the fables of La Fontaine.

The book has become a global marketing phenomenon, with roadshows in other countries, films, records and CDs, comics. A shop dedicated to the book is now open in Paris 57 Boulevard Arago, 75013 Paris.  There's also an online store which will handle international sales. Go to  Comics have been created about the story and one touching one features the author talking to le Petit Prince as he, the author, dies in his plane wreck on the bottom of the Mediterranean.

The book's story goes like this..

The author, an aviator, crashes with his aeroplane in the middle of the Sahara desert. While he is trying to repair his aeroplane, a little boy appears and asks him to draw a sheep. The author learns that The Little Prince comes from asteroid B-612 where he has left behind three volcanoes and a rose.

Before reaching Earth, he has visited other planets and met some strange people: a king, a conceited man, a drunkard, a lamplighter, a geographer.  Since arriving on Earth, he has spoken to a fox who has taught him that to know someone or something, you must « tame » them, and that makes them unique. « What is essential is invisible to the eye, says the fox. »   You'll have to read the book if you want to know how it, rather sadly, ends.

I don't remember the first time I met The Little Prince but it was decades ago, maybe at Teachers College where I was studying children's literature. This book is so famous it has been translated into more than two hundred languages.

 Its author disappeared - shot down by a German fighter pilot while on a reconnaissance mission in 1944  and mystery surrounded this for many years. In 1988, off the coast of Marseille, a fisherman picked up in his  nets an identity bracelet bearing Saint-Exupéry’s name. Then, early this century, the wreck of a P-38 Lightning was found in the Mediterranean. The serial number on the plane identified it as the one Saint-Exupéry was flying on his last mission.