Cartes postales du bagne

Site visit #7. Saint Laurent du Maroni Pt2

Part 2. The musée du bagne

21 June 2018

The museum at the Camp de la Transportation in Saint Laurent du Maroni is housed in a small yellow building on the edge of the Camp. Divided into three distinct parts, the building once housed multiple operations – the salle anthropométrique where bagnards were photographed, fingerprinted and had their skulls measured plus other distinguishing features noted; the main kitchen and the camp’s chapel.

Where the guided tours of the camp, which provide exclusive access to the Quartier de la réclusion, are aimed at giving visitors insight into the organisation, life and especially suffering of the bagnards undergoing extra punishment in the prison within the prison, the museum does something else quite interesting in its mapping of its exhibition onto the historic spaces of the building.

For example, the museum does not reconstruct the original operations as is common in prison museums. However, the salle anthropométrique provides a series of exhibits, displays and text which focus on the arrival and processing of the bagnards including a walk of mug shots and display cases featuring a colour meter and skull-measuring device. In the corner of the room there are full length display cases featuring uniform belonging to the director and a guard. These seem to frame or reaffirm the surveillance implemented by the anthropometric documentation of the bagnards.

However, most striking in the display is the large photograph of bagnards still dressed in metropolitan clothing heading with kit bags down a road in France on their way to being transported. At the centre of the photo, which takes up the entire space of the display wall and is the first thing you encounter on entering the museum, a young, smartly dressed black man has turned to meet the gaze of the photographer. He seems to challenge this gaze and moreover the idea that this is a spectacle for public consumption. He doesn’t so much force one to look away but he does seem to be asking that we think about why exactly we are looking. It is only after meeting his gaze that we then encounter the display of mug shots presented on the reverse side of the display wall. This set up seems to demand a different engagement than the often ad-hoc poorly explained mug shots found in other prison museums.

The kitchen constitutes the main part of the museum. The original fire place is still visible but the story of the bagne is told via 4 display tables each with a single object:

1. Bell

2. Plan

3. Guillotine Cigar Cutter

4. Coconuts engraved by convicts

Cloth banners hang from the ceiling featuring photographic prints of bagnards and the heavily tattooed libérés discovered by photographer Dominique Darbois on her visit to French Guiana in the late 1950s in search of the Tumuc Humac. The room feels spacious and uncluttered yet there is a remarkable amount of information offered by the displays.

The Chapel

Where the main area of the museum focuses on key themes including ‘Evasion’ and ‘Surveiller et Punir’, the chapel takes as its theme questions of charity, humanity and salvation embodied in particular by the story of the closure of the bagne and the work of the Armée du Salut (namely Charles Péan) alongside the reports of Albert Londres that drew widespread public attention to the horrors of the penal colony during the 1920s. The chapel also addresses the problem of the abject poverty which was the general experience of released convicts forces to stay in French Guiana under the system of doublage.

The final panel, which in a sense concluded the museum exhibition, describes the repatriation of former bagnards once the bagne closed. A final convoy of 132 bagnards were repatriates in 1953. Testimony from the last surviving bagnard, Ali Belhouts, given as part of an interview in 2005, two years before his death, provides a moving account of the indelible mark left by the bagne.

Belhouts was repatriated to Algeria in 1952

“Tous les soirs, je rêve de Cayenne, tous les soirs, je suis à Cayenne, quand j’y pense, j’ai le vertige, j’y ai passé ma vie.”

It is the deliberate ambiguity, the affective experience of remembering evoked in this final statement that offers, I think, an appropriate conclusion to the museum narrative. An absence of closure which is somehow also a form of closure.

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