For decades, the Watts de Peyster Napoleon Collection was a treasure hidden deep within the Franklin & Marshall College archives. This week, a group of F&M students brought it to life in the Phillips Museum of Art.
Under the direction of Scott Lerner, the Arthur and Katherine Shadek Professor of Humanities and French and Italian, eight students have curated a bilingual exhibition titled Napoléon représente/Napoleon Represents in the Nissley Gallery. The exhibition is the result of the students’ work last semester in Lerner’s French 373 course, during which the classmates examined the theme of representation and propaganda by and about the Emperor of the French.
Lerner and his students marked the opening of the exhibition on Tuesday, Jan. 31, with a reception and gallery talk. The show, which will be on display in the Nissley Gallery through March 9, includes rare books from the College’s 1,890-volume Napoleon Collection and original furniture that once belonged to Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother.
“Chapeau bas, as the French would say, hats off to them,” Lerner said of his students at Tuesday’s reception. “They faced a daunting task: both learning about Napoleon in order to be able to take on a project like this, and then executing the project, from the point of conception to the planning and research stages, to the writing and editing stages, and finally the layout and presentation. All of this was accomplished in a single academic semester.”
The students chose eight topics around which to construct the exhibition, ranging from “The Egyptian Campaign” to “Napoleon in Love.” Each student evaluated as many as 20 documents to find items of contemporary history, memoir, visual representation and literature. They made regular visits to the College’s Archives and Special Collections in the Martin Library of the Sciences.
“I really enjoyed exploring the archives,” said Hannah Sabbagh ’13, a public health major and French minor. “I never realized how difficult it was to put together an exhibit and justify your decisions. We had many resources, and it was fun to try to decide what the audience would value most. We’re all very proud of it.”
Grace Thompson ’12, an English and French double major, worked on a section of the exhibition dedicated to Napoleon and his brothers. One striking inclusion in the show is Joseph Bonaparte’s bed, which is on loan from the Burlington County, N.J., Historical Society. “The most exciting part of this is seeing it come to fruition,” Thompson said. “There was a lot of research in selecting the material and thinking about why we selected it. All of the hard work by everyone has paid off.”
Lerner, who had known about the College’s Napoleon collection for many years, had been looking for an opportunity to explore it with a group of students. He says an annotated bibliography on the collection by French major Nick Way ’07 inspired him to use the collection in his teaching.
“The wonderful thing about an exhibition, naturally, is that, at the end of this effort, the students’ writing is literally on the wall, for all to see, along with the books, maps, broadsides, paintings and furniture they’ve selected,” Lerner said. “There’s a great satisfaction in that.”
- Chris Karlesky