Located in the Palais de Chaillot in the Place du Trocadéro, this often-overlooked museum on French naval history is just alongside the popular vista to the Eiffel Tower, but offers an entirely different view on French history.
The roomy galleries of the Musée National de la Marine allow for the exhibition of numerous relics of naval history going back to the 17th century and continuing to the present, with a large collection of antique model ships, paintings of ships, navigational instruments, and materials of modern warfare. The museum also has outposts in Brest, Port-Louis, Rochefort, and Toulon, for even more naval history. Yet the most impressive objects in the Paris museum include a whole boat used by Napoleon and the towering figureheads of ships.
The figureheads trace the changes of French history, with icons of the monarchy like Henri IV (found after the ship it was on wrecked), to Lady Liberty from the time of the French Revolution, to the Napoleonic era with images of the emperor. There are even some golden remains of Louis XIV’s royal galley.
There’s also Emperor Napoleon’s imperial canot from 1810 on display, which is a whole barge with decorated oars and a gilded statue as its figurehead with a dolphin and Neptune on its back. He only used it once during a visit to Antwerp, but it was later used by other officials including Napoleon III in 1858. (A painting hanging nearby commemorates the event.)
While the naval traditions of the 1800s definitely dominate the museum, there’s an intriguing artifact of a different kind of watery adventure from the end of that century. The Carmagnolle brothers’ 1882 diving suit, which weighs over 830 pounds, stands as one of the earliest of diving bell experiments, and looks like some sort of sci-fi astronaut. (It likely played not a small role in the design of the Bioshock “Big Daddy” video game creations.) Unfortunately, for all its awesome aesthetics, it was never quite waterproof.
Update October 2017: The museum is closed until 2021.