Keith Robinson reports from France where he has been inspecting an architecturally fascinating WWI museum.
North on the heights above the town of Meaux, a great slab of glass and concrete has recently appeared. This is France’s Museum of the Great War.
Cantilevered out of the hillside it provides a covered area for community events and sculptural displays. Its paved area is constructed to act as a topographic map of the Marne battle area. Accessing the museum underneath this architectural overhang, one approaches the glass-wreathed entrance hall which houses the café, lifts, and ramp to the main exhibition spaces.
The ramp affords a good view of the Marne Battle Monument that sits above the museum looking down on Meaux. This 22 metre-high sculpture was a present from America to France in recognition of its soldiers’ bravery at the First Battle of the Marne in 1914.
The monument was designed by American sculptor Frederick MacMonnies (1863-1937) and carved by Edmondo Quattrocchi from 220 blocks of Lorraine-sourced limestone. Opened by the American Ambassador to France, Evans Edge, in September 1928, it was heavily restored in time for the opening of the Musée de la Grande Guerre.
At the top of the ramp lie the main ticket area and bookshop, a temporary exhibition hall, and the entrance into the museum itself. There is a cinematic space which provides a filmic introduction to the Great War. An introductory gallery places the origins of the war in France’s failure during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) and its loss of Alsace-Lorraine.
This is a simplification of what is a rather more complex picture. However this Franco-centric view does allow you to see a splendid collection of period uniforms. There is also a range of supporting military objects, large mural-sized photos, and collages of contemporary posters.
This brings us to the main exhibition spaces, which consist of the central gallery, or ‘Great Nave’, and a series of thematically organised side-galleries. The side-galleries explore Great War experiences that are not always on show in museum displays of the period.
As you would expect there are displays of matériel showing a variety of military equipment. Among them is an artistically arranged case of hand-grenades, resembling a case of specimens from a museum of natural history. But the museum goes further than the strictly military, with exhibitions exploring the role of women in the war, not only as mothers and wives on the Home Front, but as workers in munition factories, as farmworkers, and as auxiliary personnel.
There is a section devoted to the development of medicine. Issues surrounding the role of colonial forces are explored, and spreads of everyday objects – cigarette packets, shaving gear, camera equipment, food packaging – are given an added poignancy when viewed in the context of the trenches. There are also displays of advertising material including paintings, posters, and prints.
Land, air, and sea
Although the museum primarily focuses on land-warfare, these side galleries also explore the battles in the air and at sea. The naval material contains several large scale models of various vessels, as well as uniforms and small pieces of kit. There are two full-sized planes in the Great Nave, and there you will also find an example of a wickerwork basket for an observation balloon and a variety of headgear worn by WWI pilots.
The Great Nave is most certainly the pièce de résistance, a lofty and lengthy space where numerous large pieces of military hardware can be shown in all their glory. But it is not just a display of objects. It has a didactic objective behind its design.
Focusing on 1914 and 1918 it compares the shift from the military equipment used at the beginning of the war, to that used at the end when industrialised warfare was fully in its stride. The display focuses on the stalemate of trench warfare with life-size reconstructions of a French zone and its equipment, and a similar reconstruction of a German trench. The two opposing systems are appropriately separated by the detritus of a recreated ‘no man’s land’.
One can compare a Blériot XI-2 with a Spad XIII, although both are suspended from the ceiling ‘mid-flight’ so close-up inspection is not possible. There are, however, many pieces of equipment to get a closer look at: a Renault taxi that ferried troops from Paris to the Front during the First Battle of the Marne, and a fascinating example of a pigeonnier – a double-decker bus transformed into a mobile dovecote for transporting carrier pigeons – to name just two.
A Latil TAR artillery tractor is shown pulling a 1913 Canon de 105 mle 1913 Schneider, a 105mm artillery piece. There is also a 6.5 tonne Char Renault FT17 tank which had a range of just 35km. This tank was the first to have its armament in a fully 360 degrees rotating turret, and some 3,200 of them were produced before the Armistice.
The jewels of the collection are the more than 200 full uniforms from the combatant nations, many of which are on display throughout the exhibitions.
Although the displays are perhaps a little too artfully displayed for their own good at times, and despite the colourful lighting sometimes obscuring rather than revealing, this is a fantastic collection. The museum holds over 50,000 items, most of which can be seen in its 3,000m² of permanent exhibition space. The museum is also child-friendly, with special activities and interactive displays. Definitely worth a visit.