Above photo: Front view of the memorial museum. Photograph by Georgia Brusby.
"The pain broke me, the fraternity relieved me, of my wound sprang a river of freedom." The poignant words etched into the front entrance of the memorial museum speak for Normandy’s experience of conflict. They were chosen by Paul Dorey, a local poet, and greet the visitor with an atmosphere of commemoration and remembrance as you enter the museum. It is a museum that explores 20th-century conflict from the origins of the Second World War to the endings of the Cold War, placing specific emphasis on the Battle of Normandy. Perhaps most importantly, it serves as a memorial to the Resistance fighters and Allied soldiers who fought and fell in Normandy during the Second World War.
Situated just outside the centre of Caen, the museum is ideally positioned to tell the story of the Battle of Normandy. The exhibit guides the visitor through a timeline of the events leading up to and occurring on, D-Day. For someone like me, whose knowledge of the battle is but an awareness and vague understanding, this is ideal for illuminating just what happened on the beaches of Normandy on the 6th June 1944 and why its impact was so profound. Using a combination of digital maps and video, traditional interpretive panels, and well-placed artefacts, the exhibit really brings to life the events that occurred, enabling and following the Allied landings. To deepen the visitor’s emotional understanding, the exhibit concludes with a short rolling film of original footage and photography of the Battle.
Furthermore, the museum’s significance as a memorial to the cost of the conflict is amplified by its location. Built on top of an old blockhouse, the ordinary visitor may not even realise its importance unless they journey outside the back of the museum. The blockhouse was specifically used as the bunker of General Richter during the Nazi occupation of Normandy and is open for visitors to experience a permanent reminder that war was once being waged where they stand. Inside, they will find a 70-metre-long tunnel with a display of the military aspects of the German occupation. This is an area that anyone must ensure they incorporate into their visit.
The museum as a whole tells a clear narrative of how European conflict became global and how this resonated into the end of the century. The very start of the Second World War exhibit takes you travelling down a spiral of media to reach a large, dark sphere, inside of which video and audio surround you with an overwhelming sense of how peace did not last after the Great War. For me, one of the most powerful parts of the Second World War exhibit was the area dedicated to genocide. I appreciated the abundance of information on each stage of the atrocities inflicted upon Jews, as well as the particular mention of the persecution and extermination of Gypsies by the Nazi state. The exhibit also gives some thought to the mass violence elsewhere, including the Asia-Pacific, which raised many questions for myself as to why my education had accorded relatively little learning time to atrocities in the East in comparison to the Holocaust. Perhaps the aspect of this exhibit that is most unique to the museum is that it reminds us what we, as a society, have learned since. It touches on the moral shock, international calls for justice, and attempts to use the cost of war to create better conditions for peace.
Overall, the most wonderful characteristic of the museum site is its nature of remembrance. This is embodied in the Souvenir Gardens, of which there are three around the park. My personal favourite was the American garden due to the beautiful fountain in the centre which creates a waterfall over a wall of plaques in tribute to the fifty states. There are also Canadian and British gardens, each with their own features to honour those who fought for their countries. A visit to the memorial museum is not complete without seeing the entire site, including these special gardens.
What really stood out to me about the museum is that it wants every visitor to understand the significance of conflict for the people who experienced it first-hand. It places so much emphasis on remembering those who fell victim to the cost of conflict, something that the city of Caen and Normandy region knows all too well. It is not to be missed on a trip to the area.
Opening times vary throughout the year. These times may also differ at present due to the recent restrictions as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, so please be sure to check the website before your visit.
Unique summer 2020 rate - €14.50 per adult
Adult groups - €14.50 (min. 20 visitors). School groups - €7.50 for 12-17 year olds, €5 for 9-11 year olds (min. 15 pupils)
Children under 10 (accompanied by adults) & all war veterans – free
Online booking is available.
Location: Le Mémorial de Caen, Esplanade Général Eisenhower, CS 55026, 14050 Caen Cedex 4
Access is available by car and by bus, which is accessible for disabled people. Facilities are provided for those with reduced mobility. By personal experience, access by bicycle is possible from Caen city centre.
Audio guides are available in 8 languages (French, English, American, German, Spanish, Dutch, Chinese, Italian) - €4.50 per adult, €3 per child, prices supplement of entry tickets.
* * *
Lucy Brown graduated with BA (Hons) History from the University of East Anglia in 2019, where she was inspired to pursue a career in the heritage sector. Following her graduation, she was an intern for the CWGC, where she was based at the Thiepval Memorial in France. In September 2020, she will be returning to the university to study MA Cultural Heritage and Museum Studies, with aims to help to increase accessibility to the sector. She will also be starting an internship at the Royal Anglian Regiment Museum.