Andrew Lambirth

French connection

Andrew Lambirth assesses the first exhibition to unite Nelson and Napoleon

Much trumpeted as the first exhibition to explore together the lives of Horatio Nelson and Napoleon Bonaparte, Nelson & Napoleon at once raises the double question of was it a good idea and does it work? This crowded display is a qualified success, with an audiovisual presentation which re-enacts the Battle of Trafalgar every five minutes or so in blips of light and moderate sound effects, and is curiously unconvincing as a centrepiece. Two upper floors of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, are given over to this large and ambitious exhibition, which is the highlight of SeaBritain 2005, a year-long festival of events around the UK (for more information consult the website: www.seabritain2005.com), celebrating our special relationship with the sea.

The exhibition’s designers, Ralph Appelbaum Associates UK, modestly describe their efforts as ‘an important milestone in UK exhibition design’. RAA UK are apparently renowned for their storytelling style, which ‘ensures moments of searing clarity’, while their aim is to ‘encourage visitors to emotionally connect’ with Nelson and Napoleon. Heaven forfend! Will our schools be subsequently heaving with smooth-talking adulterers and megalomaniacal dictators? Insane asylums have always had their quotas of inmates claiming to be reincarnations of the great dead, and even the dying Henry James thought he was Napoleon. Perhaps there will be many more Napoleons of crime in the near future to rival Moriarty, and not a few rabble-rousers with the Nelson touch. It may be important to apply an admixture of the Iron Duke by way of antidote. For Wellington, to whom is attributed the pungent remark, ‘I don’t care a twopenny damn what becomes of the ashes of Napoleon Bonaparte’, scarcely gets a look-in at the Maritime Museum.

Although the overall effect of the exhibition is rather depleting, I enjoyed several moments of ‘searing clarity’ in the prevailing gloom among the more than 300 exhibits.

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