Cartes postales du bagne

Site visit #2. Musée Alexandre Franconie

7 June 2018 – Cayenne, French Guiana

Located across from the Bar des Palmistes, next to the town hall, the Musée Alexandre Franconie and its adjoining library is something of a local institution in Cayenne. It is often referred to as the “musée loca” and anyone growing up in Cayenne is likely at some point to have been taken on a school trip there.

Document Name downstairs view

As the museum’s brochure tells us, Gustave Franconie and his family sold the building and donated his father Alexandre’s library to the French government in 1885. The museum was inaugurated in 1901. The ground floor of the museum is predominantly taken up with Guyane’s natural history and features and extensive selection of wildlife taxidermy. There is also reference to prominent local figures including Jean Galmot and Justin Catayée. At the back of the museum is an air-conditioned annex dedicated to the museum’s insect collection. The staff encourage you to visit this part of the museum and I think this is mainly so they can come and sit in the air-conditioned space for a while.

The first floor focuses on the cultural history of the department including that of the indigenous Amerindian population, the abolition of slavery and, the operation of the penal colony [bagne]. The section on the bagne is a small self-contained section divided off by wood paneling. There are a few glass cabinets containing objects that are well-known as part of the iconography of the penal colony including bricks marked A.P., handcrafted miniature guillotines (see also Clare Anderson’s post on this as part of the Convict Voyages project) and engraved coconuts. Most bizarre and disturbing, perhaps, is the giant plaster of Paris foot produced from a mould of a convict’s foot that had swollen beyond recognition due to the excessive use of leg irons. In the centre of the space are two custom-made display cabinet featuring dioramas of the Iles du Salut and the camp at Saint Jean du Maroni. I list these things not with the intention of providing an exhaustive account of the museum’s collection on the bagne but, rather, in an attempt to evoke the limited and arbitrary nature of its collection. Standing by an open window which looks out onto Avenue de Charles de Gaulle, one of the main streets in Cayenne, is a mannequin dressed in the stripy pyjamas and straw hat of the bagnard. The brim of the hat and the bright sunlight from outside maintain the mannequin’s face in the shadows. Similar to the mannequins that populated the prison museum at Abashiri, the mannequin presence is affirmed by his silence.

Document Name Mannequin

In contrast to the complying silence of the mannequin-bagnard are the brightly coloured paintings produced by counterfeiter turned convict, Francis Lagrange, which adorn the wood panelling opposite. The paintings depict numerous scenes from Lagrange’s time on the Iles du Salut in Saint Laurent du Maroni and Cayenne. Although originally arrested for producing counterfeit currency, Lagrange almost got away with replacing the triptych located in the museum at Rouen Cathedral with a forgery. It is not without a certain irony therefore that his images in the Musée Franconie are not originals but actually reproductions. Although Lagrange produced them himself, the original series was done for a restaurant owner who then sold them to an American. Lagrange did another set which is the one now displayed in the Musée Franconie. The original series is now owned by the University of Saint Louis in Missouri.

Document Name Paintings view

Leafing through the museum’s visitor’s book, most people who visit the museum seem to enjoy it for what it is, a museum of ‘curiosities’, a living example of what museums once were. Only a few visitors complained about the poor labelling of the exhibits, peeling paintwork or requested the introduction of audio guides. There is no prescription as to what you look at or in what order. The open windows upstairs allow you to look out into the town, affirming the museum’s role as part of Cayenne and its community, not a sealed off vacuum. Although people have told me there are factual inaccuracies in some of the displays, there is also no overbearing narrative telling me what to think. At a moment where contemporary museums are taken up with intangible heritage, audience participation and storytelling, the Musée Franconie reminds us of the power of objects and their display.

Text SF, Photos CR

 

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