Mémorial de Caen: My experience

In comparison to the intimate setting of Le Mémorial Pegasus, which gives visitors a personalised understanding of the 6th British Airborne Division, the vast Mémorial de Caen is overwhelming.

It’s just… huge!

The building itself is incredibly striking. The solid, minimalistic design looks impressively majestic as I loiter on the stairs in awe. The car park is a very short distance from the entrance, but it is not until I am facing the museum head on that I actually grasp how extensive the museum really is.

Located in a park on the outskirts of Caen, the museum is just a 45 minutes walk from the city centre. A deep vertical breach is carved into the building and represents the breakthrough into the German Atlantic Wall on D-Day.

Mémorial de Caen stretches 14,000 square metres over three floors and boasts three auditoriums which seat up to 340 people, a large lobby that accommodates 1,500 people, various meeting rooms, three restaurants, a bookshop, crèche facilities and a museum shop.

The museum has over 80 acres of gardens and monuments, which attracted 380,000 visitors in 2011. The multimedia library contains a specialist collection of 42,000 news reel, documentary or historic photographs, 200 hours of audiovisual archives, 500 boxes of private archives, over 800 written witness accounts and 1,000 hours of spoken accounts.

Outside, an assortment of colourful flags flutter in the wind and represent various nationalities. They line the steps up to the museum’s entrance and fifty metres to my right I see a copy of Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd´s sculpture ‘Non-violence’. It is a pistol with its barrel in a knot to express the need for peace.

Fredrik Reuterswärd´s sculpture 'Non-violence'
Fredrik Reuterswärd´s sculpture ‘Non-violence’

Mémorial de Caen is one of the leading memorial centres in all of Europe and it has been gradually added to over the past five years. The museum now offers guided tours in a people carrier of the D-Day Landing sites and an International Park for the Liberation of Europe has also been opened at the foot of the museum, to pay homage to the soldiers who died during the war.

A Hawker Typhoon fighter
A Hawker Typhoon fighter

On entering the lobby, I am stunned by the enormous reception and magnificent Hawker Typhoon fighter that menacingly hangs over groups of schoolchildren who are waiting to enter the exhibition.

Half of the museum’s visitors are under 20 years old and 130,000 school children come with their teachers to develop their knowledge of the Second World War each year. Because of this, Mémorial de Caen has introduced new educational tools, such as booklets and workshops, to help children understand and gain the most out of their experience in Normandy.

A selection of online exhibitions have also been promoted to engage and encourage the younger generation to participate in D-Day commemorations. These examine and explain historical events such as the Cold War, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Cuban Missile crisis and the 9/11 Attacks in America.

The receptionist kindly lets me leave my camera equipment in their cloakroom before Kate and I enter the turnstiles for our audio-guided tour. The museum’s boundless collection explores the social issues surrounding the First World War and investigates what caused the extremist views that were adopted throughout Europe.

Mémorial de Caen strongly emphasises the need for peace and provides visitors with a well-rounded, international understanding of the 20th century.

This first section of the exhibition shows the chain of events that precipitated the Second World War and gives visitors a chronological step by step explanation of how and why the desire for peace disintegrated.

The variety of methods used to educate and engage visitors are incredibly interactive. Powerful video footage of Nazi rallies in Germany are played on small screens as visitors make their way around the exhibition. French, German and British newspaper clippings are framed and translated, as are numerous leaflets and books.

German soldiers marching past the Arc de Triomphe after the surrender of Paris
German soldiers marching past the Arc de Triomphe after the surrender of Paris

The second section, is situated further underground and provides details on how France and French civilians were affected during the occupation. This is a topic that particular interested me, as this is an area of the Second World War which I have never studied. When I have asked friends and relatives, nobody seems to know much in England about how the French coped.

The situation varied greatly in France during 1944 but the German occupation was unbearable for millions of civilians. Tens of thousands died in the Allied bombings in the months before D-Day, especially around the Normandy and Brittany regions.

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A wartime newsreel presents a film called the ‘Battle of Britain’ which explains the RAF’s involvement in the Second World War. Black and white footage of smoking planes, anti-aircraft guns and the evacuation of British children is shown. Original BBC radio clips are played over images of a bombed St Paul’s Cathedral. The film highlights the morale and the strength of British citizens during the Blitz in London.

Another section Kate and I browse through focuses on the invasion of the USSR and events surrounding Pearl Harbour, which transformed the European war into a world war. Details are revealed about large-scale military operations that occurred in the Pacific and in Europe. This section reports on devastating mass violence, the Nuremberg trials and the Battle of Normandy.

Mémorial de Caen is without a doubt the museum for those who want an in-depth, historical analysis of the 20th century as a whole. It is hard not to become emotional when watching some of the video footage shown of the Jewish ghettos and a lot of the collection is very hard-hitting.

Before grabbing a late lunch in the café upstairs, Kate and I watch a showing of ‘D-Day’ by Jacques Perrin in one of the museum’s auditoriums.

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‘D-Day’ is one of two films that are played several times each day in Mémorial de Caen. The other, ‘The Battle of Normandy’, is created from photos, animated cards and computer generated images and recounts the main stages of final victory in western Europe.

‘D-Day’ is largely made up of archives and extracts from fictional films and by using double image French actor and filmmaker Jacques Perrin shows both German forces on the eve of the D-Day Landings and Allied forces preparing for the attack in the British harbours.

Follow me on Twitter @AnnieCDarling and use the hashtag #anniesddayblog to share your thoughts, images and videos with me!

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