The story starts with the American Revolution and ends with the 200-year old Battle of New Orleans.
And Napoleon Bonaparte is the bridge connecting the two. Which is why the Louisiana State Museum ceremoniously transported the French emperor’s bronze death mask from the Cabildo in New Orleans to the Capitol Park Museum to serve as the centerpiece for the New-York Historical Society’s traveling exhibit, “Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn.”
The show, which runs through Feb. 28, will overlap the Cabildo’s exhibit, “From Dirty Shirts to Buccaneers: The Battle of New Orleans in American Culture,” commemorating the bicentennial of the Battle of New Orleans. That show opens Jan. 11, following the Battle of New Orleans Celebration Day on Jan. 8, the day the skirmish was fought.
“All of this comes together as one story,” Louisiana State Museum Director Mark Tullos said at festivities for the death mask transfer. “The idea of the American Revolution and its break with England inspired other revolutions, including the French Revolution.”
It also led to the War of 1812, which ended with the Battle of New Orleans in 1814, a battle that would not have occurred had Napoleon not sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States in 1803 for 50 million francs ($11.2 million in U.S. dollars).
The journey to Baton Rouge marked the first time Napoleon’s death mask has left New Orleans since 1834, when the French emperor’s physician, Francesco Antommarchi, brought it there. It’s believed that Antommarchi made the plaster mold for the mask some 40 hours after Napoleon’s death, and the mask is one of four made from the mold.
“We’re displaying it here, beneath his (Napoleon’s) signature,” said Capitol Park Director William Stark. “It’s the same signature you’ll see on the transfer papers on the next wall.”
He’s referring to Napoleon’s authorization to the French negotiator to sell the Louisiana Territory. The document is a reproduction because the original was too fragile to make the trip. The original, which Napoleon signed in 1803 in St. Cloud, France, is part of the New-York Historical Society’s Robert Livingston papers.
From the New-York Historical Society — there’s a dash in the name, which was common in the 19th century when the historical society was founded in 1804 — comes an original copy of Thomas Paine’s 1776 pamphlet, “Common Sense,” and a plaster reproduction of his death mask.
These pieces help fuel the story of how the powerful idea of individual freedom inspired the American Revolution.
Paine’s writing style spoke to everyday Americans and inflamed their hatred of tyranny under King George III’s rule. The pamphlet sold a half-million copies in the first year.
“The exhibit starts with a prologue in 1763 and the end of the Seven Years War,” Stark said. “The English and French have war debt, and Great Britain taxed the colonists, and imposed the Stamp Act.”
The Stamp Act tax was charged on every piece of paper used in the legal system and media, including bills, newspapers and even playing cards. Americans’ fierce opposition led to Patrick Henry’s “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” speech in Virginia’s House of Burgesses. An original British stamp used to mark these papers is included in the show.
“We look at the problems and issues that came along and how all of these ideals came together, how they tied together through this time of rapid change,” Stark said. “But we also look at how, in the midst of this revolution, we left some things undone, which sowed seeds for things that would tear this country apart.”
Slavery is the most important issue, a prevalent factor in the Civil War, represented by an original anti-slavery token: “Am I not a man and a brother?”
“The show also looks at how all of these ideas filtered into Haiti and the Haitian Revolution,” Stark said.
Haiti was a French Colony called Saint-Domingue. The Haitian Revolution was a slave revolt between 1791 and 1804, which not only culminated in the elimination of slavery but resulted in the founding of the Republic of Haiti.
The revolution was lead by Toussaint L’Ouverture, known as “The Black Napoleon,” represented in this show by a photo of an 1802 French engraving of him on a rearing horse.
“We also have a section in the area behind the gallery that focuses on Haiti today,” Stark said. “We’ll have a video, which will include Haiti after the earthquake.”
The engraving of L’Ouverture is a reminder of Napoleon’s commissioned 1835 Jaques-Louis David painting, “Napoleon Crossing the Alps,” which also is on loan from the Cabildo.
Not all of the artifacts in this show are authentic. “There are some reproductions mixed in,” Stark said.
“For instance, we have a reproduction of the Declaration of Independence, but you have to remember that there are a lot of people in Louisiana who may never make it to Washington to see the original,” Stark said. “So, in this sense, a reproduction still gets you closer to history and offers a sense of the original flavor of it.”
But neither the artifacts nor reproductions in “Revolution! The Atlantic World Reborn” would be on exhibit at the Capitol Park Museum without the help of its support group, Friends of the Capitol Park Museum.
“I can’t talk about this exhibition without talking about them,” Stark said. “They raise money for our exhibits and programs, and we couldn’t have brought the show here without their contribution.”
Which led to a history-making moment for the Louisiana State Museum, for this is the first time two museums within the system have come together to tell a single story.
And this one begins in Baton Rouge.