Medal Cabinet Appeal – Elizabeth Bisley, Assistant Curator

‘This cabinet is an incredibly important example of Napoleonic design, it tells so many stories about design, craftsmanship, politics and luxury in early nineteenth-century France, and would be an amazing addition to our new European galleries.’

In this series of blogs we’re interviewing various members of staff who come in contact with the Napoleonic Medal Cabinet, which we are currently trying to save from export, to try and find out just what it would mean to each of them if we could save this cabinet for the Nation.


Elizabeth and the Medal Cabinet

Elizabeth and the Medal Cabinet

Tell us a about yourself

My name is Lizzie Bisley, I’ve been an Assistant Curator in Furniture, Textiles and Fashion for the past 3 years. My job is a great combination of practical and research work – in a typical day I might move an object to conservation, arrange a public appointment to see something from the collection, write some label text, do some cataloguing, and work on a new acquisition. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Napoleonic art and design this year, as I’ve been working on the Napoleon display for the V&A’s new Europe 1600-1800 galleries (due to open early 2015).


This much I know

I’ve been working on the appeal to save the medal cabinet since April. A lot of my time has been spent doing research – trying to find out more about who made the cabinet, when exactly it was made, who might have owned it, and what the design sources are. One of my favourite parts of this was looking through the series of drawings that the French artist and writer Dominique Vivant-Denon did during Napoleon’s Egyptian expedition. These drawings were published in Paris in 1802 as the plates to Denon’s very influential account of the expedition: Voyages dans la basse et la haute Égypte. The cabinet’s design is closely based on plate 80 from Denon’s book, which shows the temple at Qus.

I’m really interested in the use of Denon’s drawing in the cabinet’s design, partly because the book was so important to Napoleon’s Egyptian propaganda campaigns. Napoleon launched his first military expedition to Egypt in 1798, aiming to seize Egypt from the Ottoman Empire and block British trade routes. Although the campaign was a military disaster, Napoleon’s advisors managed to spin it as a success story in France. This was partly done through art and design, as things like the publication of Denon’s book triggered a hugely popular, Europe-wide, fashion for Egypt.

I love the fact the through the cabinet’s story of military expedition, to drawing, to book, to design, to cabinet, you can get a sense not only of how the Egyptian style was disseminated, but also of the extent to which objects such as this cabinet were used in Europe to claim inheritance and ownership over Egypt and Egyptian antiquity. The history of this kind of design opens up so many broader questions about the politics of objects in the early nineteenth century.

An interesting aside

 I was lucky enough to be there when the cabinet went into its case, which meant that I got to see the incredible craftsmanship of the silverwork up close. My favourite detail is on the door – when the door’s closed, it’s almost impossible to tell the front of the cabinet from the back. The door opens when you push in the eye of one of the silver cobras: the body of the cobra swings down, the keyhole is revealed, and the body then acts as a door pull.

There is such amazing neatness and fun in this mechanism, although it did take us a while to work out how to push the eye in the first time we tried. When a colleague went to inspect a closely related cabinet that’s in the Met’s collection, he found that their key has a small prong on the end of it, obviously meant for eye pushing!

The Medal Cabinet Appeal runs until the 28th July.


Read more about the appeal here.

Donate online to help save the cabinet from export here.