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.


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