Friday, July 11, 2014

Museum Tour: Mémorial de Caen

The historic city of Caen has unique ties to both French and English history. It was the 'hometown' of William the Conqueror, who built the Château de Caen in the mid-11th century, just a few years before leading the Norman invasion of England in 1066. In the fourteenth century, it also became a major part of the Hundred Years War, when the British invaded and captured the city.

Its 20th century "claim to fame" is the Battle for Caen, a two-month battle in the summer of 1944 that destroyed an estimated 70% of the city. Cae was rebuilt, however, and commemorated their role in World War II with a unique museum/memorial for peace.


Origins of the Memorial

The museum was opened on the 44th anniversary of D-Day -- June 6, 1988. It has since been expanded several times, most recently in 2002 to include an exposition on the Cold War. Nowadays, the museum houses several permanent expositions, including Guerre mondiale, guerre totale (Global War, Total War) and Le Débarquement et la Bataille de Normandie (the Debarkment and Battle of Normandy), as well as a variety of temporary expositions.

Because the museum covers SO much information, I'll stick to photographs of both!

The Permanent Expositions


This recreated wall displays Vichy propoganda as well as graffiti -- LAVAL AU POTEAU.


The Temporary Expositions

At the time of my visit, in July 2014, the first temporary exhibition was called "The 100 Objects of the Battle of Normandy." It featured, unsurprisingly, one hundred objects from the Battle of Normandy. Read about it here.

My favorite objects, though not featured here, were the items repurposed by French civilians. They included parachutes, turned into purses and children's clothing, and American fuel canisters. Apparently, the American government had to make a personal request for French civilians to return these fuel canisters so the GIs could use their tanks!

The second temporary exhibit, called "Shots of War," featured the photographs of Tony Vaccaro. Though he would later become famous for his portraits of celebrities (including Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren), during World War II he was only a 21-year-old foot soldier during World War II. Denied the privilege of serving as an official war photojournalist because of his youth, Vaccaro took over 8000 photos during his unit's trek from Brittany to Berlin.

Even now, his photos are raw and occasionally shocking. But most importantly, they are a real testimony to the life of an American soldier in post-D-Day Europe. Read more about this exhibit here.

The Package Deals

In addition to regular admission, the museum offers 'package deals' to its guests. These trips take visitors on guided tours to other key D-Day sites around the area, including Point du Hoc, Omaha Beach, and the Normandy American Cemetary. The trips, which cost anywhere from 39 to over 200 euros per person, range from a couple hours on a bus to all-inclusive overnight stays.

Click here to learn more about these day trips ... or keep scrolling to see pictures from my visit and learn what I thought of my guided tour! (I chose the "Guided Tour on the Anglo-American D-Day Landing Beaches by Coach," which you can read about here.)

The ground at Point du Hoc still shows its physical scars from D-Day.

The memorial at Omaha Beach.

The memorial and reflecting pool at the Normandy American Cemetary.

This unique 360-degree theatre provided great historical context for the events of D-Day.

So why should you book a circuit tour? Because the packages include the cost of admission to the museum AND because the guides are so personable and well-informed AND because it's so difficult to get to many of these sites without your own transportation AND because these sites are truly crucial to your understanding of the events of June 1944!


The official website speaks about the museum's unique 'vocation' ...
With destruction wreaked across almost three quarters of this martyr city of the Liberation in the summer of 1944, Caen deserved a fitting tribute for the damage it suffered. And such a tribute was paid, but with the focus on what continues to be the Mémorial’s running theme: reconciliation... 
Between these two dates and between these two World Wars, some 60 millions people would lose their lives and the most hostile of political systems to the key principles of respecting life would plunge the world into the chaos and brutality that characterized the last century. We are all heirs to this century whose memory we must keep alive at all costs. The memory of the people who suffered, the memory of ideas and the memory of sacrifices to save us from “man’s inhumanity to man”.
It's a lofty goal, but one that doesn't feel entirely unachieved. The museum is thorough, with almost an exhausting amount of information, but it does not shirk away from the "chaos and brutality" of the era to which it is dedicated. Overall, however, the museum is surprisingly -- but fittingly -- peaceful. The atrium and hallways of the museum are filled with natural light that seems to remind visitors to the mémorial that the world has recovered from what was debatably its darkest period.

I really enjoyed my visit at the Mémorial de Caen, but I truly can't imagine what my day trip would have been like without taking the guided bus tour.

The museum provides an incredible wealth of information and historical context, but it took visiting the sites themselves to actually make the history come alive. It was unexpectedly sunny and warm during my trip, but I kept getting goose bumps ... as we looked out over the Point du Hoc, surveying the steep cliffs that over two hundred Rangers attempted to climb in the early morning of June 6, 1944 ... as we walked across the field, still pockmarked with the bomb holes made seventy years ago ... as we walked through a sea of innumerable white crosses at the American Cemetary ... and as we listened in silence to the playing of "Taps" by a lone bugle.

Plan Your Visit

ACCESSIBILITY . Caen is a short (approximately two-hour) train ride from Paris. Once you're in the city, the museum is accessible on foot (though it's a bit of a trek), by car, or via bus from the center of Caen. Note: if you arrive at the train station, you'll need to take a combination of bus and tram in order to get to/from the museum.

The museum itself is very modern and easily accessible by all guests. All exhibits are captioned in French, English, and German and there are elevators and ramps for wheelchair-bound visitors. The museum is large, however, and requires a good deal of walking!

AMENITIES. As it's located a bit outside of downtown Caen (and as the developers were likely looking to make a pretty penny), the museum has its own bookstore/souvenir shop, restaurant, snack shop, and childcare center. Although it will cost you an arm and a leg for a sandwich and cup of coffee, the convenience of the on-site cafeteria is worth the hassle.

TICKET PURCHASE. Museum tickets can be bought online or purchased at the museum. Some, but not all, package deals can be booked online. Packages not available for purchase online can be bought over the phone or via email, thanks to the museum's excellent customer service department.

MORE INFORMATION. The museum's official website offers a wealth of information in both French and English. The staff is also extremely responsive and helpful when contacted via email!

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