It would never have occurred to me to go to the Musée national de la Marine if not for their current exhibit, Les Marins Font la Mode (Sailor Chic in Paris). Actually, it’s a pretty devious strategy: no one ever visited, so they put some pieces by Givenchy, Gaultier and Sonia Rykiel at the very, very back of the museum to draw some attention. And hey, it got me in the door. Ironically, though, I ended up being much more impressed by the permanent collection than the headline exhibit.
Most of the collection is displayed in high-ceilinged rooms filled with enormous figureheads, dramatic paintings of sea battles, models of ships ranging from tiny to full-scale and even Napoleon’s personal boat. Just to be clear, I’m talking about the actual boat he rode in, restored to shining glory (and you know if it was Napoleon’s, it’s pretty glorious).
The tour also includes a couple of smaller sections with modern battleships and scientific vessels; these weren’t nearly as inspiring to the imagination, but they were interesting enough.
Since I was there, I figured I should probably stop by the fashion exhibit downstairs as planned. There are definitely some interesting tidbits, even for those who don’t follow haute couture – my favorites included a wall of sailor’s enlistment portraits with a touching explanation, a display of postcards specially designed for sailors to mail to their girlfriends back home and the story of how sailors’ uniforms invaded landlubber fashion in the first place. (In case you’re wondering, it all started when Queen Victoria began dressing her kids in miniature military uniforms in honor of Britain’s magnificence.)
One potentially major drawback to the museum is that the written descriptions are only in French (but the audio guides are available in four languages including English). Honestly, I don’t think that would put a damper on seeing the ships, figureheads and paintings upstairs, but you would definitely be missing out on some interesting details (such as all of the history in the fashion exhibit). If your French is pretty good or you’re just really into old ships, I’d go so far as to say that Napoleon’s boat is even more impressive in person than the Mona Lisa.
Musée national de la Marine
Palais de Chaillot
17 place du Trocadéro, 16th
Exhibit open through July 26, 2009.
Exhibition entry €9 (€5 for kids 7-18, €3 for kids 3-6).
Regular entry €7, free for kids under 18.
Closed Tuesday. Open 10am-6pm.