Le Mémorial de Caen

Parking

There is a large free car park near the entrance to the museum, with an overflow for peak periods.

Toilets

There are well-maintained toilets in the entrance area accessible without entering the museum itself.

Gift Shop

A large gift shop has a wide selection of products with a good choice of books (including many English versions).

Reading our previous review, the overall tone and length of time since we had written it had made us think we should go back to Mémorial de Caen and give it an update. However, we felt we should go back, not that we really wanted to go back. Firstly, to avoid any confusion, let's start with a few things which the Mémorial de Caen is not:

  • It is not a museum about the D-Day landings.
  • It is not somewhere to go if you only have an hour or so to kill.
  • It is not in the same price bracket as other museums in Normandy.

The building itself is large and imposing and the area neatly landscaped. It is situated in a sort of business park with office buildings nearby, so a little bit of a walk from any other shops or restaurants. Inside the main lobby is a replica Hawker Typhoon suspended from the ceiling which makes for a nice photo. There is also a very well-appointed shop, although Mémorial de Caen call it a "book shop", as being called a "gift shop" would perhaps not be in keeping with a "memorial to peace".

The Mémorial de Caen itself is located on the edge of a former stone quarry. Several stories below the museum building, tunnelled into the rock, lies a large German bunker complex. In 1944 this was the staff headquarters of Generalmajor Wilhelm Richter, Commander of the German 716th Infantry Division. For many years after the war this lay abandoned, used by children for playing in, and in later years used by the Caen fire brigade for training in confined-spaces. In 1991 it became part of the Mémorial and was converted into an exhibition area with the German installations within the bunker being removed.

The bunker can now be visited free of charge without having to purchase a ticket for the museum itself. It is accessed by stairs or a lift from the rear of the museum (after crossing a section of Bailey Bridge, which is a nice touch). Sadly, the length of the 70-metre long tunnel has been stripped of any period fittings and is now just an extended exhibition space which could really be anywhere. There are some interesting artefacts on display and some nice maps and information panels though. However, for visitors wanting to experience what it was like inside a German wartime facility there are many other better options in Normandy, for example Le Grand Bunker in Ouistreham. Accessed via the same stairs/lift as the bunker, visitors can also take a walk around the lovely gardens which now cover the base of the old quarry. These are designated individually as the British Garden, Canadian Garden and American Garden, and contain several features in tribute to the French Resistance and the Allied armies that liberated Caen, and subsequently France.

Back inside the museum, the symbolism is unmistakable as visitors enter the exhibit area - first travelling downwards through a dark and spiralling section which illustrates the deterioration of world order in the decades following the First World War. This part is quite interesting and culminates with a "domed" film display under which which visitors cross to enter the main gallery. The visit then continues through the many sections of this subterranean area - following the rise of Nazism, the French occupation, Pearl Harbour, the Final Solution and ultimately the fall of Germany and subsequently Japan. There are other topics in between, of course, but don't expect to see much here about D-Day or the Battle of Normandy. These are in a separate, albeit rather small, section of the museum.

We felt that the route visitors should take was not always obvious, so be careful to ensure you don't accidentally miss any areas tucked away to the side. Some improved markings in this regard would be welcomed. It's also very dark everywhere which is surely deliberate, perhaps to enhance the mood of misery the museum seems intent on purveying, or perhaps just to help protect the artefacts and documents inside the displays, which is fair enough.

The exhibition spaces in general consist of a mix of information panels, maps, smaller artefacts and documents behind glass, along with several dedicated film areas which show clips on a loop relevant to the section they are situated in. Although there are more now than when we first visited some years ago, there are not as many as you would find in many of the other museums in Normandy. However, those items which are on display are generally in very good condition and are either unique or extremely rare. Regrettably, many of the displays are not that well illuminated and the English translations of the descriptions are very small and often difficult to read due to the small font-size used, exacerbated by the darkness of the display.

We mentioned earlier that the area dedicated to D-Day and the Battle of Normandy was rather small. Apart from a handful of interesting artefacts on display there is really nothing special here worth singling out. Many of the other museums in Normandy will convey as much information, if not more, to a visitor looking to learn about the summer of 1944. For us the highlights of this section were a crystal radio receiver which belonged to resistance fighter Andre Heinz, hidden inside a food tin; and a "Rupert" dummy parachutist which looks as though it just left the factory in which it was made. There is a new 19-minute film in the very comfortable cinema entitled "1944: Saving Europe". With well-chosen music and strong archive film footage it is really quite powerful. In similar fashion to the older film that was previously shown at the museum, we did notice a few bits of recently-filmed footage and some CGI work. We would have liked to have seen a simple notice at the start or end of the film simply pointing out to the more casual observer that not everything was original wartime content.

After working our way through both the Second World War and Battle of Normandy sections we were very much looking forward to the area dedicated to the Cold War from 1945 to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Growing up in the 1980's this is another area of interest to us. Whilst the artefacts on display were particularly interesting, including sections of the Berlin Wall, parts of a U2 shot down over Cuba and some sinister paraphernalia of the East German Stasi, the layout of some of the displays were overdone and eventually lost our interest. In the end we were pleased to finish and headed for the book shop where we bought a green-coloured hooded sweatshirt to read.

In conclusion, the Mémorial de Caen is the best place in Normandy to go for a general overview of the Second World War, including both the contributory factors and its legacy. However, for someone primarily interested in learning about D-Day and the Battle of Normandy then we would not really recommend a visit. If you want to discover more about Operations Neptune and Overlord from just about every conceivable angle, then the Musée Mémorial Bataille de Normandie in Bayeux is absolutely the first place you should visit.

Our thoughts on Mémorial de Caen are certainly not typical if TripAdvisor reviews are any sort of yardstick - these being overwhelmingly positive. We stand by this review, however, as it honestly reflects our opinions based on two visits several years apart. Annoyingly, there are several new and refurbished areas coming later in 2019 so a return visit will be required at some stage to review these. For now, however, we can say we've been there, done that and literally bought the sweatshirt.

The price of entry for an adult is almost €20, and if the audio-guide is taken then that is charged additionally. There is a reduced rate for military personnel, whilst war veterans get free entry (but must provide both ID and written proof of their service). It's certainly the most expensive of the war-related museums in Normandy, but given you will need to allow at least three hours for a visit, Euro-for-Euro it's probably fairly priced. The toilets are clean, and although we haven't sampled them ourselves the two food establishments at the museum seem to get good reviews. Access for the disabled is well provided for, and even General Richter's bunker has both a ramp and a wheelchair lift.

Our star-rating for this museum is boosted by the quantity of strong, educational content relating to the Second World War in general. If based on its D-Day / Battle of Normandy content alone then it would be somewhat lower.


Updated: March 2019



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