Napoleon – Revolution to Empire: A Case Study of Applied Curatorial Design

Vince Dziekan, Australia

The National Gallery of Victoria’s most recent blockbuster exhibition, Napoleon – Revolution to Empire, offers an indication of the future prospects – and challenges – that a more thoroughly integrated digital strategy holds for exhibition-making practices. This paper will focus on how the exhibition’s distinctive curatorial vision was realized through the closer integration of multimedia production with exhibition design. As such, the resulting exhibition offers a unique opportunity to investigate how the interrelationship between the various creative processes involved in producing this particularly complex, large-scaled project serve as an illustrative example of applied curatorial design.

While ostensibly an historical exhibition that focuses upon the little-known connection between Napoleon Bonaparte and Australia at the end of the eighteenth century, more surprisingly yet, the disposition of this exhibition towards digital mediation is something of a departure from the more conventional application of digital content in exhibition-making practice. Here, instead of playing a supplementary role that serves the higher expositional and interpretive ambitions of the curated project, the wide array of media types and modes of museum and cultural communication involved become integral elements that contribute in equal measure to producing a rich, multi-channel narrative.

The exhibition is characterized by a “panoramic” approach to its subject. Rather than addressing this subject matter from a single direction, the curatorial vision behind Napoleon – Revolution to Empire seeks to weave together a number of distinct narrative strands; including the role of French explorers in the European “discovery” of Terra Australis; the socio-cultural values of the post-revolutionary French republic and the political ambitions of Napoleon; and the reflection of these ideals and aspirations in the art and design of the period. The interlinking of these disparate historical themes is achieved by placing additional emphasis onto the human dimension: the personal relationship between Napoleon and his first wife, Josephine. This “back story” is further supported by paying particular attention to the setting of Malmaison – the primary estate of the couple, noted for its gardens containing introduced botanical specimens and species of animals collected from expeditions to southeastern Australia – which serves as a linking device that connects the various elements of the exhibition narrative together.

Extensive media production and associated communication design were undertaken as part of the exhibition’s research and development. This case study will provide an extensive overview of project and production timelines, a detailed inventory of audio/visual production involved, and documentation of specific publication-based deliverables (including moving image, website and audio guide content). Particular attention will be paid to the various display technologies employed as part of the resulting installation and how, through the integration of digital mediation with spatial practice, narrative content was successfully mapped to exhibition space.

By focusing on the curatorial design of this ambitious project, Napoleon – Revolution to Empire will serve as the basis for an illustrative study of post-digital exhibition-making practice. To conclude our presentation, we will offer some personal observations on the possible implications that an integrated digital strategy has for transforming museum and cultural communications, but also the “revolutionary” challenges this presents to curatorial practice itself.