Rochefort & Île d’Aix – life history narratives in museums

A view of Fort Boyard from the boat on the way to Île d’Aix © AS

Between 10-14 June 2019 Sophie and I (Ayshka) travelled to the Île de Ré (et environs) to visit sites where former convicts were held before deportation to the French colonies. The island is popular with French tourists and retirees profiting from the peaceful surroundings, we saw a number of couples exploring the island en velo during our visit. In conversation with one of the local museum’s curators, we learned that many visitors are unaware of the island’s penal heritage and are even more surprised to learn that Île de Ré’s links with the penal system are not only historic, since the site also houses a large Maison Centrale for inmates completing lengthy sentences (see Sophie’s recent blog post for more information about this modern day prison).

Aerial view of Vauban’s fortifications on the Île de Ré © Criminocorpus.

First stop on our itinerary was the Musée Nationale de la Marine in Rochefort. We were keen to see how the history of the bagnard was represented in this museum space, since Rochefort had functioned as a prison for just under a century, between 1767 and 1854, closing when overseas penal colonies were established. The town’s naval history was the primary focus of the museum and the ‘vie du bagnard’ did not feature heavily. There were a couple of information boards focusing on the daily life of the convict, accompanied by a small number of artefacts on display. Including the bell photographed below.

Bell from the former bagne portuaire in Rochefort © SF.

The connection between the bagnard and the town’s naval history was not explicit in the museum and the target audience seemed to be maritime enthusiasts keen to see model ships, the fairly extensive collection of figureheads, and the vessels moored outside. Reviews on Tripadvisor reinforce that the ships are the main attraction (‘It’s on boats!’ and ‘Boatiful’), as well as the bar/restaurant on the top deck of the final navire. Human narratives and life histories from former bagnards were absent and it was difficult to get a sense of what their prison experiences had been.

Musée Napoleon on Île d’Aix with commemorative plaque © AS.

The lack of life history narratives from bagnards was also evident in our visit to the Île d’Aix the following day. Although the island is popular with tourists for day trips from the mainland, the population is only around 230 and there are no cars permitted. The island’s connection with Napoleon is celebrated – he famously spent his last days in France on the island in 1815, following his defeat at Waterloo – and the former commander’s house, commissioned by Napoleon and pictured above, is now a museum.

Fort Liédot, a semi-buried fortification on the north of the island, which was commissioned by Napoleon, houses a second museum promising to introduce the visitor to the soldiers and prisoners who were stationed and incarcerated there. The Fort held Communards in 1871 and various prisoners during the First World War and Algerian War. There was little evidence of prisoner’s narratives in the museum – there were no photographs, letters, or diary entries relating to those held there. As shown in the image below, the museum’s primary focus seemed to be on the island’s connection to Fort Boyard (both the gameshow and the edifice).

Fort Boyard display at Fort Liédot © AS

Life history narratives (letters, diaries, photographs) have proved particularly useful in under-documented areas of history, as the narratives ‘suggest hypotheses, provide personal details, reveal local colour, facilitate insights and preserve individuality’ (Kedward 1993:vii). They have also been mobilised effectively in the museum space. Including life history research in museums foregrounds unique life stories and provides personal examples of the broader political and cultural histories which are being documented. The absence of personal narratives in the museums in Rochefort and Fort Liédot meant that the visitor did not get a sense of life as a bagnard in either location. Instead, the dominant narrative in Rochefort focused on maritime vessels, human histories were largely absent, and in Fort Liédot, visitors were invited to discover ‘Les Mystères du Fort Boyard’ with tv screens showing the famous gameshow. The inclusion of some personal narratives from former convicts might be one way of broadening the memory narratives which are promoted at these historical sites to include the under-documented area of the penalscape in mainland France.



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