Memorial de Caen
Apparently the idea for creating a peace museum in Caen goes back to 1969 when the city’s then mayor suggested it. But it took almost two decades to materialize. Work began in 1986, and the first incarnation of the museum opened in 1988.
The location chosen for it is in fact an original war site: a former command bunker built by the Nazis
– parts of which have also been made accessible for visitors. But the main museum building atop that bunker was constructed from scratch.
Over the years the museum was expanded, most significantly in 2002, when the Cold War section was opened in a new annexe, and in 2009/2010, when the permanent exhibition design was revamped and a stand-alone D-Day and Battle of Normandy section was opened.
Also added in the 2000s were the memorial gardens outside the museum proper dedicated to different nations involved in the Battle of Normandy.
The museum has become one of the most visited in France
What there is to see: a lot!!! In fact, it can be a bit overwhelming. So to take it all in in full detail it’s best to spread your visit over two days.
When I was at this site (in early September 2016) there was a huge statue outside modelled after that famous photo of a soldier kissing a woman during a victory parade in the USA
– but I’m not sure if that’s permanent or not. Probably not, going by the photos of the exterior of the museum to be found on Google Maps. The flagpoles
flying the national flags of the countries that were involved in the Battle of Normandy are definitely permanent, though.
Still outside the entrance, behind all the flag poles, note the replica of the peace monument
featuring a revolver with a knot in its barrel – a smaller version of the big one that stands in front of the UN Headquarters
in New York
Stepping inside the cavernous atrium, the first thing you see is a full-size model of a Hawker Typhoon plane suspended from the ceiling near the ticket counters.
The main exhibition begins with a circular path leading gradually to the lower level – a downwards spiral, so to speak. Along the way, the prehistory of WWII
is briefly covered, from the peace treaty of Versailles and the failure of the world to maintain peace after the trauma of World War One
, the build-up of political extremes, up to the invasion of Poland
by Nazi Germany
The first section on the lower level after the spiral is about France
under the occupation
of the Nazis
, including also both collaboration
This is followed by the larger section about “Total War
”, which has several subsections, including e.g. one about propaganda, the information war – with an Enigma machine on display (see Bletchley Park
) – the Siege of Leningrad
, the Battle
and so on.
There’s also a special section about the Holocaust
, featuring amongst other things exhibits like the obligatory striped concentration camp
clothing, yellow stars, a shoe from Auschwitz
, and, the grimmest of all, a label from a Zyklon-B
Large military hardware
displays are confined to one special side room, featuring an American Sherman tank as well as an original Soviet
Katyusha rocket launcher (on loan from the Armed Forces Museum
One subsection features items pertaining to the end of the war
, including a toppled Hitler
bust, a kicked-in Hitler portrait and a suitcase that once belonged to him, which was found in the Berghof ruins at Obersalzberg
. Another subsection is about the atomic bombings
A final section here takes stock of the war and evaluates the outcome
, e.g. a weakened Europe and the emergence of the two superpowers
for the next few decades to come, the USA
and the USSR
The circuit then continues back upstairs, where an additional special exhibition concentrates on D-Day
and the Battle of Normandy in quite some detail. In addition to the military minutiae of Operation Overlord
, the suffering of the French civilian population in this part of the war is also emphasized. A third of all French civilian war dead
were apparently killed during this time.
Next to this section is a big auditorium in which a film about the Battle of Normandy is shown every 30 minutes.
From the exit of the auditorium a tunnel-like corridor leads to the added sections about the Cold-War era
. Here the scene is set by items of daily life as well as propaganda from both sides of the Iron Curtain
. A particularly amusing artefact on display, I found, was the little doll’s house model of the oval office at the White House in Washington D.C.
, complete with a little JFK
figurine discussing the Cuba
Missile Crisis with a military adviser …
Another section illustrates the confrontation between the West and the East in military terms, and in particular through the ever growing nuclear arsenals of the superpowers. A subsection here is about “civil defence” in case of a nuclear war – something that always struck me as rather pointless at the time. As we often said back then, after such a war “the survivors will envy the dead” in view of the post-apocalyptic wastelands such a Third World War
could have created (and still could, in theory). Amongst the exhibits here are a full-size (model of a) Soviet
MiG-21 fighter jet, a mock-up of a thermonuclear bomb (a Mark 28, the type most widely produced by the US), as well as the warhead tip of a French S3 intermediate-range nuclear missile. Furthermore, standing around are dummies in full-body hazmat suits of green rubber and with gas masks looking suitably scary. An add-on is a subsection about espionage and the propaganda war.
The final part of the exhibition is about the GDR
and the Berlin Wall
. One part highlights GDR
culture as well as the surveillance techniques of the infamous Stasi
(including a specimen of those yellow scent sample cloths that were obtained from “suspects” during interrogation so that they could be used later, if necessary, to train sniffer dogs to find the victims again). Another iconic large artefact on display is the “Trabbi” car, the simple two-stroke-engine little passenger car produced in the GDR.
The final subsection in the annexe is about the Fall of the Berlin Wall
and the subsequent end of the Cold War
. Featured here are two pieces of the Wall that are probably original, but the pipe tops look suspiciously like (not very well made) replicas.
The annexe also has space for temporary special exhibitions – but as far as I was aware, there was none on at the time I visited (early September 2016). Themes in recent years have included the Russian Front, Children in the Holocaust
The connecting corridor then takes you from the annexe back to the main building but look out for the signs directing visitors to the bunker
. This is accessed by means of a lift / stairs, as it is deep underneath the museum. This was the command centre of German Wehrmacht General Richter at the time of D-Day
and the Battle of Normandy. In 2014 an exhibition was added here with displays from the bunker and related items, such as German communications gear, uniforms and machine guns.
Back up in the main building you may want to have a look at the large museum shop before exiting again.
Outside, behind and next to the museum, are also some memorial gardens
for different nations, but I can’t comment on those as I gave them a miss, feeling exhausted after two days at the museum and the D-Day beaches tour
All in all
it’s undeniable that this is one of the world’s most eminent museums of its kind. It’s almost too good – and/or too large – to be fully appreciated with ease. It’s demanding – but in turn also rewarding. If you want to pick only one of the many D-Day- and WWII-related museums
in the region, I’d suggest you make it this one!
on the north-western edge of Caen
, ca. 1.5 miles (2.5 km) from the castle in the city centre.
Access and costs: a bit far from the city centre, but still walkable; quite expensive, but worth it.
You can walk to the museum, but it takes a good half an hour from the centre of Caen
. If you find that too far, you can also get there by bus. But remember you have to walk a lot inside the museum anyway, so you could just as well face the trek to it too. From the city centre first head past the castle to the west on Rue de Geôle, then turn left into Rue Bosnières and keep going straight, past the botanical gardens, until you come to the intersection with Boulevard Richmond. Turn right and immediately left again into Allée de la Verte Vallée. Carry on right to the end of this street and enter the park that begins there. Follow the path first left, then sharp right and then take the bridge across the motorway to take you to Rue des Roquemonts. You’ll already see the Mémorial from here.
Opening times: 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily in the summer season (April to September), somewhat shorter opening times during the rest of the year (typically 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., and closed Mondays)
Admission: 19.80 EUR, a few concessions apply, and you can also purchase combination tickets (which allow entry to the Mémorial’s other branches).
Audio-guides incur a surcharge of 4.50 EUR (3 EUR for youngsters up to 18) and you have to leave an ID document as a deposit. These guides are available in eight languages, including, remarkably, separate ones for English and American! (In addition you can have it in French, German, Dutch, Spanish, Chinese or Italian.)
It’s hardly possible to do the entire museum in a single day without getting overwhelmed by the wealth of information and displays, so I’d recommend splitting it over two days. See also under D-Day tour
, because if you're doing this, then admission to the museum is included in the price, so you could make use of that for a second visit of the museum.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
Most obviously, the most convenient and thematically fitting combination is going on one of the guided tours to other D-Day sites
that are offered by the Mémorial de Caen itself.
If you have your own (hire) car, you can explore much further in the area and take in some of the other D-Day- and WWII-related museums
and Atlantic Wall
sites in the region, of which there are plenty (you can spend weeks here before having seen everything).
Two sites are actually branches of the Mémorial and you can purchase discounted combination tickets there for either or both of these; they are the Civilians at War museum in Falaise, and the Arromanches 360 circular cinema with its multi-screen immersive projections.
Combinations with non-dark destinations:
see under Caen
If you decide to walk all the way from the city centre to the Mémorial, you’ll pass the botanical gardens of Caen, which aren’t huge, but make for a very pleasant and calm oasis in the city.
- Caen Memorial 01 - motto
- Caen Memorial 02 - famous end-of-war image
- Caen Memorial 03 - lobby
- Caen Memorial 04 - to the main exhibition
- Caen Memorial 05 - inside the globe
- Caen Memorial 06 - France under Nazi occupation section
- Caen Memorial 07 - for crying out loud
- Caen Memorial 08 - Enigma machine
- Caen Memorial 09 - Volksempfänger
- Caen Memorial 10 - siege of Leningrad
- Caen Memorial 11 - Stalingrad
- Caen Memorial 12 - deportations
- Caen Memorial 13 - Mauthausen
- Caen Memorial 14 - Holocaust
- Caen Memorial 15 - Zyklon B gas canister label
- Caen Memorial 16 - shoe from Auschwitz
- Caen Memorial 17 - big exhibits
- Caen Memorial 18 - small exhibits
- Caen Memorial 19 - the end is near
- Caen Memorial 20 - kicked-in Adolf
- Caen Memorial 21 - nuking for real in the Pacific theater
- Caen Memorial 22 - separate section about Operation Overlord
- Caen Memorial 23 - D-Day landings diorama
- Caen Memorial 24 - D-Day timeline
- Caen Memorial 25 - exhibits
- Caen Memorial 26 - medical exhibits
- Caen Memorial 27 - Big Red One
- Caen Memorial 28 - battle of Normandy
- Caen Memorial 29 - destruction
- Caen Memorial 30 - Cold War section
- Caen Memorial 31 - exhibits hanging from the ceiling
- Caen Memorial 32 - Western promise
- Caen Memorial 33 - Eastern promise
- Caen Memorial 34 - Berlin airlift
- Caen Memorial 35 - model of the Oval Office
- Caen Memorial 36 - Soviet MiG
- Caen Memorial 37 - US thermonuclear bomb
- Caen Memorial 38 - civil defence propaganda
- Caen Memorial 39 - survival biscuits
- Caen Memorial 40 - grim period
- Caen Memorial 41 - espionage and propaganda section
- Caen Memorial 42 - GDR section
- Caen Memorial 43 - GDR life
- Caen Memorial 44 - Stasi scent sample jar
- Caen Memorial 45 - fall of the Wall, end of the Cold War
- Caen Memorial 46 - jeep
- Caen Memorial 47 - down to the bunker
- Caen Memorial 48 - exhibition inside the bunker
- Caen Memorial 49 - exhibits
- Caen Memorial 50 - communications gear
- Caen Memorial 51 - large museum shop