Army Museum & Napoleon's tomb
One of Europe's premier military museums, which amongst many things has extensive sections about World War One
(including bits about the Holocaust
) as well as one on the Cold War
, thus making it interesting from the point of view of dark tourism too. As a bonus, this Paris
institution also boasts Napoleon Bonaparte's hugely oversized tomb.
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info:
This grand museum at the Les Invalides complex in Paris
is one of the oldest and most prominent military museums in the world, even though it is somewhat short on large exhibits that most military buffs tend to be after especially (no planes or big tanks). But as far as information and coverage go, it is quite a good museum all the same. And while it (naturally?) often tends towards a glamorizing portrayal of military success, it frequently doesn't spare visitors the grim sides of war. It is therefore also a recommended museum from a dark tourism perspective.
The Army museum, or Musee de l'Armee, is over a hundred years old, having emerged from a merger of the even older Artillery Museum and the Military History Museum in 1905. The building complex, known as L'Hotel national des Invalides, is even older still, dating back to the 17th century and the reign of Louis XIV, who initiated it as a hospital and home for old and "disabled" ('invalide') soldiers.
The complex's centre piece is the Eglise de Dome (Dome Church), whose golden dome visually dominates the whole area to this day and remains a major Paris landmark. Under the dome several greats of France's military history have been placed in pompous tombs. The very largest of them all, and taking pride of place in the centre directly under the dome, is Napoleon Bonaparte's colossal marble sarcophagus. Of course, Napoleon was originally interred on St Helena
where he had died in exile in 1821, but a few decades later his remains were moved to this infinitely more glamorous place.
The rest of the complex actually consists of several museums under the umbrella of the Musee de l'Armee, also including massive collections of medieval suits of armour and weapons, which are of less interest to the contemporary dark tourist. The modernized sections about the 20th century, especially World War One
as well as the Cold War
are a lot more relevant, though, and overall excellently presented.
What I found conspicuously absent, though, is a section about the Algerian war … while there is frequent reference to the colonial history of France
and colonial soldiers' participation in the wars on European soil, this particular campaign was probably deemed to unglamorous to be represented here in a section of its own. That would be my suggestion for the future further development of this museum: properly cover Algeria
too! It's been ca. 50 years since then, so a bit of coming to terms with that bit of indeed rather problematic history is certainly due by now.
More coverage of France's legacy in its Indochina colonies, especially Vietnam
, wouldn't go a miss either, in particular the first Vietnam War
, i.e. the 'French war' in Vietnam, which preceded the USA
's equally ill-fated involvement in the region, which is called the 'American war' in Vietnam.
Demanding appropriate coverage of France
's military involvement in Rwanda
in 1994, on the other hand, would probably be asking too much … though a fully open approach to all aspects of France's military history, including quite dodgy recent ones, would ultimately require that particular controversial and messy operation too.
What there is to see:
The main focus for the dark tourist will naturally be the modern exhibitions about the First World War
(and the run-up to it), the even more extensive WWII
section and its Holocaust
and Cold War
The exhibition part begins with some coverage of the pre-World-War-One years, but thankfully it doesn't go back in history too much (instead, some older collections of e.g. medieval armoury are in completely separate exhibitions).
Even though this section is called "Les Deux Guerres Mondiales" ('The Two World Wars') it starts off with the year 1871 – i.e. the end of the Franco-Prussian war. But as that was also the time of Germany
's Unification, it does indeed kind-of set the scene of what was to come in the 20th century.
Conflicts overseas are also mentioned, including some pretty gruesome images (of beheaded executed rebel leaders) from the Boxer Uprising in China
at the turn of the 19th/20th century. Otherwise early modern weaponry is on display, including a cross section of a grenade shell to reveal the inner workings of these devices.
In the World War One
section, trench warfare obviously takes up a lot of room and coverage, with diorama exhibits, models, photos, documents and lots of authentic artefacts, including early gas masks (see also the Somme, Verdun
). The horrific wounds and subsequent mutilations that soldiers sustained are indicated through two plaster casts (though they are not as gruesome as some of the well-known photographs of WWI mutilations – to be seen e.g. the Anti-War Museum
Apart from concrete objects and written information there's also quite a bit of modern multi-media presentation, including old film footage, e.g. of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo
, whose assassination triggered the outbreak of the war. The "Armenian massacre" (note: not "genocide") gets a brief mention too (cf. Tsitsernakaberd
section is especially extensive and only a few aspects can be picked out here. Obviously, the invasion of France
by Nazi Germany
is a major focus, as is the struggle of the French Resistance. Note the stick of dynamite camouflaged as a dead rat as used in sabotage acts against train lines etc.
Of course, many a major battle or campaign of WWII is covered, and war buffs will get plenty to ogle at. Largely missing, however, are large exhibits such as tanks or planes. The most notable exceptions to this are the replicas of a V1 and a V2
rocket in the staircase. Other than that, there are interesting parts of planes, such as a B-17 bomber's defensive gun battery (in a rotating metal ball) – representing the aerial bombardment war in Europe (cf. Dresden
) – while an underwater mine is part of the naval war section.
There's a small separate section on the Holocaust
too, with some of those typical inmates' striped uniforms, as well as a few artefacts such as a secretly made and hidden map of the concentration camp
. Overall, however, this section is rather thin and can't compete with, say, its counterpart at the Imperial War Museum
The D-Day landings of the Allies in Normandy
in 1944 are naturally celebrated – and even more so the final liberation from German occupation and victory in Europe. Charles de Gaulle can't be absent here either, of course, and indeed a somewhat wonky-looking bronze statue of the man can be found here too.
The war in the Pacific
isn't neglected either, though it's understandably not covered in similar depth (as the French played next to no part in it). You can see a large model of a US aircraft carrier, Japanese documents, such as a message from emperor Hirohito and various charts and so on. On the side, the Death Railway
/Burma gets a mention too.
The final part of this section is, predictably, devoted to the A-bombing of Hiroshima
, which brought the war to a close. On display is, for instance, the famous image of the mushroom cloud over Nagasaki, a replica of Little Boy, the Hiroshima bomb, and an original shoulder patch with the logo of the Manhattan Project
's Engineer District.
Finally, there's a section about the post-war period, covering the Nuremberg
trials and the build up of the Cold War division between East and West. A remarkable set of original artefacts is a number of trophy "souvenirs" taken by the victors, e.g. at the Berghof at Obersalzberg
, including a pistol and SS
The Cold War
section is somewhat too focused on Germany
's division and the Berlin Wall
– with some interesting original (?) signs – including one with an obvious misspelling that made me giggle: above the Russian for "stop, we shoot". The German equivalent says "Halt schissen" (sic!), where the missing 'e' after the 'i' makes the word look precariously close to something rather different …
What is largely neglected is the aspect of M.A.D.
, the threat of a nuclear holocaust though the amassed arsenals of post-Hiroshima A-bombs and missiles. It's a bit surprising that this doesn't get emphasized more, given France's pride in its own nuclear deterrent "Force de Frappe" (cf. Le Redoutable
). Perhaps less surprising is the fact that it remains unmentioned that France continued nuclear testing in its Mururoa Atoll in the Pacific
to great international controversy long after the other great nuclear nations had signed (and complied with) the Test Ban Treaty. But who would have expected such controversies raised here anyway at a museum whose primary purpose is clearly to commodify the glories of France's military history …
Most text and labelling in the exhibition(s) is in French as well as English and Spanish, while some of the soundtracks of videos that can be played on demand omit the Spanish option. Occasionally, it's back to monolingualism, with some films and texts only being present in French. Overall, however, the trilingual approach is quite consistent, and the English translations OK (I can't judge the quality of the Spanish).
The ticket to the World Wars section of the Army Museum is also valid for a few further exhibitions: one celebrating Charles de Gaulle, another devoted to the Order of the Liberation (founded by de Gaulle), and the collection of military models. Another two separate sections (which may or may not be charged for separately too) cover the period of Louis XIV to Napoleon III, and yet another one is a collection of arms and armour of the 13th to 17th centuries. I gave all of these a miss, so can't comment on them (but would presume they are of less interest to other dark tourist as well). Impossible to miss are the many historic canons, in the courtyard as well as along the fence at the northern gate.
Worth a look, and included is the Army Museum ticket, however, is the interior of the Dome church and especially the tomb of Napoleon. This is really something to behold, if only for its outrageously disproportionate size. Given that Napoleon was famously of rather short height, his red marble sarcophagus is absolutely gigantic in size. The pomp is further enhanced by the fact that the tomb sits directly under the dome at a lower level that is done out like a super-sized crypt. Pseudo-classical statues and floor inscriptions make him out to be Caesar-like.
The surrounding grandeur is quite breathtaking too – including the gilded altar at the back (in front of the locked doors to the Invalides's church proper) which looks uncannily similar to the corresponding thing in St Peter's in the Vatican
. Moreover there are further large-scale tombs that are clearly designed to give French national/military pride more oomph (such as the one for General Foch).
Even though arguably the Dome Church isn't strictly speaking dark tourism proper it's not to be missed. It provides a powerful impression of what officially expressed national pride is like in France.
As one would expect, the Army Museum also sports a large shop, selling mostly militaria-like stuff and related books as well as standard souvenirs (postcards, etc.).
Overall verdict: the Army Museum may not be for everyone, real military history buffs may be disappointed at the lack of really large exhibits, and for the dark tourist there may be better military museums in the world (e.g. Imperial War Museum
, USAF Museum
), but it is nonetheless the best such attraction in Paris
. The coverage is modern and, yes, fairly entertaining (if not always for the right reasons). Certainly something to consider, especially on a rainy day …
within the large complex called Les Invalides the 7th arrondissement (district) in Paris
Access and costs: quite easy, but some walking around is required; mid-priced.
Details: It's easy enough to get to the Invalides complex; the closest Metro stations are Varenne or St-Francois-Xavier on line M13 or La Tour-Maubourg (or Ecole Militaire) on line M8. The stop actually called Invalides (M8/13 and RER line C) is a bit further away – although the approach from there through the full length of Esplanade des Invalides affords good views of the whole northern front of the complex. The building is so big that it's impossible to miss, especially the huge golden dome (over 100m tall) of the Dome church.
Note that the tickets for the museum have to be obtained from the main ticket counter by the bookshop and information desk at the south entrance (close to the Dome Church), although there are automatic ticket machines also closer to the north entrance, but if you're eligible for a reduced admission fee you have to go to the manned south entrance ticket desk.
Admission: full fee 9 EUR; concession 7 EUR – e.g. for holders of a "Paris Visite" Pass (see under Paris) as well as for war veterans (of course) and also for everyone coming on a Tuesday or any day when arriving after 5 p.m.; under-18-year-olds enjoy free admission generally, also EU citizens between 18 and 25 (I wonder why – to get them enthused about the military young?).
Tickets are valid for both the Army Museum proper and the Dome Church with Napoleon's tomb (as well as for a few other exhibitions – see above; but note that the De Gaulle exhibition is closed every Monday).
Multi-media guides are available for an additional 6 EUR (4 EUR for under-26-year-olds)
Opening times: daily except every first Monday of the month as well as a few predictable public holidays; between October and March from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (5:30 on Sundays), in the summer season an hour longer and on Thursdays as late as 9 p.m. – ticket office closes half an hour before closing time.
Time required: if you're into all sorts of aspects of war history then you could easily spend a good few hours here, possibly as much as a whole day. When I visited the place, concentrating more on the darker bits and skipping things like uniforms, small arms, medals and other such stuff, I was out again after ca. an hour and a half. I then spent another 20 minutes or so in the Dome Church next door. As I skipped the other museum sections altogether I can't really gauge how much time they may require of people interested in those things.
Combinations with other dark destinations: If you liked the pomp of Napoleon's tomb, then maybe the Pantheon is also something for you: here more grand tombs of grand figures of La Grande Nation are placed around a huge classical-style domed former church (which now functions solely as a mausoleum). Here it's not so much great military figures but arts and science heroes: from Voltaire to Victor Hugo, from Alexandre Dumas to Marie Curie.
The Pantheon, located on Place du Pantheon (what a surprise) in the 5th arrondissement, is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., admission 7 EUR (18- to 25-year-olds 4.50 EUR; under 17s free). Nearest Metro: Cardinal Lemoine (line M10), or RER line B Luxembourg. Google maps locator: [48.8463,2.3460
Another death-related site that is even closer to the Army Museum is the site where Princess Diana was killed in a car crash in 1997 in the tunnel north of Pont de l'Alma just a few blocks to the north-west.
For more info see under Paris
Combinations with non-dark destinations
: In general see Paris
– the greatest tourist attraction of the city, and indeed one of the most popular in the whole world, the Eiffel Tower
, is just a few blocks away to the west, a perfectly walkable mile (1.5 km) or so, most of it through the Parc du Champs de Mars behind the tower from where you get a good view of the tower while approaching (especially in midday to early afternoon light).
Straight north it's the same distance to another one of Paris's most popular tourist attractions: the Champs Elysees, with the iconic Arc de Triomphe a further bit up the boulevard.
And to the north-east, the Louvre is only a slightly further distance away too, a lovely walk along the Seine if the weather is good.
- Army museum 01 - in the Hotel des Invalides
- Army museum 02 - even the windows are armoured
- Army museum 03 - locations plan
- Army museum 04 - courtyard with guns
- Army museum 05 - staring down the barrel of a gun
- Army museum 06 - inner workings of a cannon shell
- Army museum 08 - WW1 trench warfare
- Army museum 09 - WW1 gas mask
- Army museum 10 - plaster casts of horrific mutilations
- Army museum 11 - the Nazis and WWII arrive
- Army museum 12 - as well as the Holocaust
- Army museum 13 - Resistance
- Army museum 14 - a V1 that apparently only German speakers would want to touch
- Army museum 15 - a V2
- Army museum 16 - the war below the waves
- Army museum 17 - and war from the skies
- Army museum 18 - another face of war
- Army museum 19 - D-Day
- Army museum 20 - in the extra Holocaust section
- Army museum 21 - Death Railway
- Army museum 22 - war in the Pacific
- Army museum 23 - Manhattan Project shoulder patch
- Army museum 24 - the outcome of the Manhattan Project
- Army museum 25 - Cold War symbolism
- Army museum 26 - grotesquely oversized tomb of Napoleon
- Army museum 27 - Invalides dome
- Army museum 28 - gold galore pomp
- Army museum 29 - other tombs too
- Army museum 30 - and yet another one