Le patrimoine ‘gris’

Notes towards a definition of (French) penal heritage
July 2018

Earlier this year, Monumental: Revue Scientifique et technique des monuments historique, dedicated an issue to ‘le patrimoine de l’enfermement’. This is significant as there has until very recently been a reluctance in France to commemorate sites of incarceration and, more notably, of detention and internment that has lagged behind other European initiatives to acknowledge these sites and the role they have played in different histories. The review is an excellent resource and includes a plethora of short articles by experts on the state of play at various sites in both mainland France and its overseas departments. Somewhat unsurprisingly, the extensive work that has been done and is ongoing in both French Guiana and New Caledonia together with the frustrations experienced by those committed to the memoire du bagne is well-documented within the publication.

While I was, of course, interested to see how the patrimoine du bagne was presented within the ideological framework of the issue published by the Centre National des Monuments, my attention was equally drawn to an introductory interview with radical prison historian, Philippe Artières, who has done some excellent work in presenting histories of incarceration that contest existing representations. Notable here is his edited collection of images and documents from the Nancy prison riots of 1972.

In the interview given for the issue of Monumental, Artières makes some important statements around the importance and relevance of prison heritage. One of the things he suggests is that:

‘Entre le patrimoine doré et le patrimoine industriel, il y a un patrimoine gris qui doit faire l’objet d’une attention et d’un questionnement.’

This suggestion resonates with the recent work by others, such as Charles Forsdick (2018), in identifying the absence of sites of incarceration from Pierre Nora’s epic Lieux de mémoire project. At the same time, the idea of penal heritage as constituting ‘un patrimoine gris’ is also worth some closer attention.

Taken in its material sense, ‘gris’ makes direct reference to the grey stone and later concrete structures that define most prison architecture. It also evokes a form of architecture that inhabits a grey zone since it suggests both the quotidian banality of the prison experience for many as well as the moral paradoxes of a form of punishment that is often seen as being all at once too cruel, too gentle, too generalized, too expensive and too ineffectual. Former sites of incarceration and internment can be presented in terms of a rupture with the past – examples of processes of decareration or former political regimes that have since been dismantled. But they also invite us to make connections with present systems and their continued use of practices such as solitary confinement and physical restraint. Indeed, Artières goes on to argue that the value of prison heritage lies as much in the role of the sites as producing knowledge [savoir] about those being held as it does in presenting us with a history of bodily constraint. This is of course a direct reference to the stakes of Michel Foucault’s Surveiller et punir but which goes unacknowledged. Interestingly, however, it perhaps does more to make a case for a return to Foucault’s work on institutional power than much recent scholarship on prison tourism and heritage which offers a lacklustre, uncritical reading of Foucault which does little to advance his scholarship or develop an adequate conceptual framework for thinking about the role of the prison museum in contemporary society.

Artière’s concludes his interview by insisting that the prison must be considered as part of France’s (but, I imagine, this also applies globally) “Grande Histoire” rather than being considered as an exceptional, marginal history. In the context of his earlier comments this is significant because it implies he considers penal heritage as having the potential to engage visitors in more general debates around the persistence and future of prison as a response to illegal activity. The idea that incarceration cannot be seen as separate to the wider socioeconomic structures defining the history of capitalism and colonialism seems incredibly important and urgent. At the same time, I cannot help but notice how this idea of “Grande Histoire” seems at odds with other attempts to explore the impact of incarceration outside of the grand narratives of its inception and even the stories of criminal geniuses, political heroes and falsely accused yet resourceful escapees that frame most historic sites of incarceration. It is this framing that Chamoiseau contests in his evocation of the traces-mémoires in relation to the ruins of the bagne on the Îles du Salut and the Camp de la Transportation at Saint Laurent du Maroni. More and ongoing work is needed, perhaps, to bring these positions, that of Artières and of Chamoiseau, together in such a way that not only provides a richer retelling of the history of prison and penal colonies but a retelling that is predicated on a future which ceases to take imprisonment as a given.

Beyond ‘grey’
Pursuing the notion of ‘patrimoine gris’, I decided to find out if the term had any purchase beyond Artières’ use of the expression. Some cursory googling suggested that it is not an established term but I did find a reference to ‘tourisme gris’ in a 2011 article “Le patrimoine, c’est un truc pour les vieux…” by André Suchet et Michel Raspaud. Suchet and Raspaud translate ‘tourism gris’ directly from the English ‘grey tourism’ referring to the growing senior citizen market for tourism organised around museums and heritage sites over above beach and adventure tourism.

The article focused on the case of the Vallée d’Abondance in the Northern Alps where poor ski seasons led to a shift in focus towards cultural heritage. The article concludes that this strategy is risky since the economic benefits are highly limited and the cultural heritage is not necessarily valued by the local population themselves. Their main point of reference for the term ‘grey tourism’ is the work of Ashworth and Tunbridge (2005) who use the term in relation to a shifting agenda in Malta during the 2000s.

Artières’ use of the term ‘gris’ is both situated within an understanding of heritage or ‘patrimoine’ as a form of ‘grey tourism’ but also implies a different almost oppositional and certainly more specific use. It also might be argued that prison tourism is a key form of cultural heritage that appeals to a wider age demographic due to being a form of ‘dark tourism’. Dark tourism does not translate well into French but taken in this sense, we might also read ‘gris’ as suggesting a shadowy history yet one that is lighter (indeed prison museums often engage in a humour not found in museums associated with genocide or atrocity) than is found or represented at other sites of suffering.

But what if we take this notion of ‘grey’ heritage less as a metonym for grey-haired baby boomers enjoying their retirement amongst the ruins of civilization or even as a philosophical (and frequently moralizing) concept which positions it on an imagined spectrum of darkness and instead think more about the prison as a form of ‘grey’ architecture? To reduce penal heritage to the greyness of the crumbling architectural structures of former prisons, cells and dungeons is to reduce prison to a lack of colour, to play into an aesthetic which is all too familiar but which allows us to remain all too distant. It is to encourage a lack of imagination similar to the one which edits out the sounds and smells of prison life. Yet even when the stripy uniforms and coloured bedsheets have been cleared away and the cheap municipal paint job peeled and faded, the prison is still a site of enormous colour.

The yellow sandstone on Cockatoo Island

At Saint Laurent du Maroni, the Camp de la Transportation was painted once every four years frequently in a bright shade of pink. Today there is a strip on display which shows as many layers as could be successfully excavated. 12 out of a possible 24 or 25.

It is the red bricks and not the grey cell walls (although these exist too) that have become metonym for the bagne in Saint Laurent. Their presence in front of other buildings throughout the town marks the continuity between the quartier pénitentiaire and the quartier administratif. Elsewhere such as Cockatoo Island in Sydney, the prison cells are defined not by a ‘greyness’ but the light yellow of the sandstone that was mined on site.

Liberes relegues
Camp de la Transportation. Saint Laurent du Maroni. The pink plaster was redone for the film L’Affaire Seznec

This is not to romanticize the presence of colour. There is no doubt that the regular sight of pink plaster at Saint Laurent was as depressing as that of grey concrete. This coupled with the implacable greenness of the forest and the brutal cruelty of the blue sky above. The synthesis of natural and built environment which plays out so visibly in the ruins at sites like Ile Saint Joseph in French Guiana and Prony Village in New Caledonia was just as much an integral part of the penal colony during its operation.

Prony Village

The biggest irony of all in defining penal heritage as ‘gris’ perhaps comes with the repatriation of the last batches of bagnards in 1952 and 1953. While there was little reason to stay in Saint Laurent, many found the grey, cold skies and buildings of France difficult to adjust too. As Danielle Donet-Vincent writes in La fin du bagne citing an account from M. Durand of the Armée du Salut:

‘[L]es libérés arrivaient le plus souvent avec leur chapeau de paille, une chemise ou une maigre veste. Tous avaient froid. Beaucoup de ceux qui débarquaient en hiver regardaient le paysage, consternés: “Mais qu’est-ce qu’il s’est passé ici?…tout est noir… il n’y a plus de feuilles aux arbres… Il n’y a eu le feu partout?… Ces homes qui sortaient de la moiteur équatoriale, de la luxuriance des forets qui conjugaient tous les tons de vert, du soleil qui faisait chanter chaque écaille des ailes des “morphos”, chaque battement d’aile des oiseaux-mouches, ne se souvenaient plus des hivers dénudant les arbres, du ciel bas et du froid.’


Artières, Philippe (ed.), La Révolte de la prison de Nancy. 15 janvier 1972 (Paris: Le Point du Jour, 2013).

Artières, Philippe, ‘Entretien avec Philippe Artières’ in ‘Le Patrimoine de l’enfermement’, Monumental: Revue scientifique et technique des monuments historiques, Semestriel 1 (2018).

Ashworth, Gregory J. and John E. Tunbridge, ‘Moving from blue to grey tourism: reinventing Malta’, Tourism Recreation Research 30,:1 (2005) pp. 45-54.

Chamoiseau, Patrick and Rodolphe Hammadi, Guyane: Traces Mémoires du Bagne (Paris: Editions du Patrimoine Centre des monuments nationaux, 1994).

Donet-Vincent, Danielle, La Fin du Bagne: 1923-1953 (Éditions Ouest-France, 1992).

Forsdick, Charles, ‘Postcolonialising the Bagne’, French Studies 72:2 (2018), 237-255.

Foucault, Michel, Surveiller et punir: Naissance de la prison (Paris: Gallimard, 1975).

Suchet, André and Michel Raspaud, ‘“Le patrimoine, c’est un truc pour les vieux…”’, Mondes du Tourisme [En ligne], 4 | 2011, mis en ligne le 30 septembre 2015, consulté le 30 septembre 2016. URL : http://tourisme.revues.org/456.


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