Museum Love: Mémorial de Caen

Thursday, September 18, 2014

If you've been reading my blog for a bit, you know that I absolutely love museums. Museums are always on my list of places to visit whenever I go somewhere, and my future career goals include getting an advanced degree in museum studies/museum education, and working in a museum.

It is no surprise, therefore, that one of the first things I did when I had free time in Caen was visit the Mémorial de Caen (the website is in French, just so you know), the museum and memorial to WWII, or the "Deuxième Guerre Mondiale" in French. It was especially exciting to be able to visit this museum as this year is the 70th anniversary of D-Day, and many of the towns around the landing beaches have various celebrations and commemorations of this event.

I did not take many pictures inside the museum, although they are allowed. I am a huge fan of museums allowing visitors to take pictures of the artifacts, but for some reason it just felt kind of wrong to do so in a museum that was dedicated to the painful memories that most of us would probably rather forget.

If you do visit this museum, give yourself at least a full afternoon, if not a whole day. Although it doesn't look like it from the outside, this museum is actually quite large, and there is a lot of stuff to see and do. There are also several gardens, which are great places to go and sit and decompress a little bit, especially after the very difficult subject matter.

Basically, the Mémorial tells the story of the world's plunge into the Second World War. It truly is a story, especially after WWI and the fallout after that war - "the war to end all wars." However, as you may or may not know, and as you discover over the course of your visit, WWI did not - and could not - accomplish that lofty goal.

You begin your visit with a timeline of events from WWI, through the 1920s and 1930s, examining events in the United States, Europe, and Asia, particularly China and Japan (remember that Japan was involved in WWII). It traces Hitler's rise to power in Germany, and examines the German state post-WWI.

You are then taken through the fall of Europe to the Nazi's Third Reich. Germany, Poland, Hungary, and the other countries in Eastern Europe, Hitler's invasion of the Sudetenland, and then the fall of France. There are rooms dedicated to telling the story of the millions of people who died in the Holocaust, and the history of anti-Semitism, prejudice against gypsies, as well as prejudice and forcible sterilization of people with disabilities and homosexuals. There were also several movies of footage from the era, including footage and a time-lapse of D-Day, as well as a movie about how WWII impacted the Cold War, and even into events that are transpiring today. If I took you through a detailed explanation of each room in this museum, this post would be 20 pages long, and only I would be interested in that.

So instead, I will tell you about how I felt.

It is emotionally draining, to say the least. War is always a heavy topic, but to tell the story of one of the most destructive wars in the history of mankind is particularly difficult. It would have been easy to sugar coat it, and only tell the parts of the story that included bravery and heroism. There are those stories as well, but the bulk of the narrative tells the gruesome cruelty that humans inflicted on other humans. For me, that was the most powerful thing. We as humans, and as citizens of the world, have a responsibility to recognize when there are such abuses and such injustices occurring, and it is our duty to do something about it.

That is why museums like this exist. You may not want to go because you know it will be hard to see the pictures, to read the accounts of atrocity, and to watch the footage of people running into certain death at the hands of other people. But it is necessary. It is necessary to know that there is a capacity for every person to inflict unspeakable horrors on other people.

It is also necessary to know that there is the same capacity, even a greater capacity, for people to be good, kind, and compassionate towards each other. We can be good, and we owe it to our world to learn how.

This museum was one of the most important museums that I have ever seen. The emotional impact and fantastic (fantastic in the sense that it was incredibly well told, written, and displayed, not fantastic as it is a horrible thing that happened) storytelling was only matched by the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. I don't think there will ever be a way to properly remember and honor those who died in the Holocaust, WWII, or any war. However, the Mémorial de Caen comes pretty close.

If you are ever in Normandy, you owe it to yourself and to everyone else to visit this museum and really think about what you learn there. It is more than recounting facts from your high school social studies class. It is raw, real, graphic, startling, frightening, depressing, and hopeful all at the same time.

Have you ever been to this museum? What is your favorite museum?

No Comments Yet, Leave Yours!