If you’re looking for one museum to go with your trip to the D-Day beaches, the Mémorial de Caen is it! While the entire D-Day area is full of little museums all of which promise to add to your visit, the Mémorial de Caen surpasses them all in terms of quality and scope (and price but more on that later). You can easily spend the entire day here and not run out of things to see. The Mémorial’s scope isn’t limited to D-Day and WWII, but the majority of 20th century history from the ashes of WWI through the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Ambitious to say the least but the museum succeeds in placing the D-Day story (and WWII itself) in a larger historical context.
The Mémorial is open from 9-19:00 for most of the year. If you’re not coming by bus or as part of a tour group, the easiest way to get to the museum is by car. Take Exit 7 off of the Caen beltway/ring road and follow the well-marked signs. Parking is free. You can also take the n°2 bus from the city center to “Mémorial.” As a side note, for those using public transportation, the Mémorial also offers packages combining a visit to the Mémorial with a guided tours of the British and American D-Day beaches. While a bit pricey, I would recommend them based on the simple fact that visiting the D-Day beaches without a car is an uphill battle due both the size and scope of the battlefield as well as the dearth of public transportation.
The Mémorial is not cheap! Adults tickets cost 18.80€ during the tourist season (and are only slightly reduced the rest of the year). Children, defined as those 10-25 years old, cost 16.30€. Younger children are free. Once you’ve gotten over the sticker shock, the museum is worth the money. Families, with at least one child over the age of 10, should buy the Family Pass ticket which allows museum access for the entire family for 48€. Audio guides cost an additional 4€, however, I wouldn’t spend money on one here. Due to the graphic nature of some of the exhibits, children under 10 are not encouraged to visit the museum. Instead, the museum offers free on-site daycare with the purchase of a ticket. Babies must be at least 3 months old to be accepted by the daycare. We dropped the girls off and received a pager to carry with us during our visit. Staff can contact you in case of any problems by buzzing you. Laura had no issues, we received a “buzz” to come and pick up Elise who refused to be left and wouldn’t stop crying. While strollers are not allowed in the museum, the museum loans baby carriers to parents who want to bring their infant with them. We ended up toting Elise around the museum with us. For older visitors, the Mémorial also loans wheel chairs and we passed several people being pushed through the museum.
There are three main exhibit areas at the Mémorial which can roughly be broken down into 1918-1945, the Cold War and finally, “Opinion Spots” which deals with issues in today’s changing world. A half day is enough to see the main exhibit which takes you from the aftermath of WWI all the way through the bombed out ashes of WWII as well as the more locally focused D-Day/Normandy Campaign one. As you are following a chronological path through the museum, it is not easy to leave the “official path” easily–make sure you take advantage of the toilet facilities near the ticketing area before you start your visit. The main exhibit starts with you literally spiraling downward into the museum and through the 1920s and 1930s into fascism and war. Displays combine artifacts, pictures, sound and video to bring events to life in front of you. Texts/Commentaries are written in French, English and German. (Members of the staff are also bi- or trilingual.) You will do a lot of reading as you go through the museum so make sure to bring your glasses. There are ample spots to sit down. Several mini-theaters integrated into the visit show actual footage of events and mini-documentaries (the one on the Rape of Nanking was particularly moving). You continue to move forward in time as you make your way through the museum. Two short films are also regularly shown throughout the day–D-Day, a 15-minute film, plays every half hour from 10-17:30 while Hope, 20 minutes long, is shown ever hour on the hour from 11-17.
To get an idea of the pace/time it takes to get through the museum, walking through the WWI-WWII and D-Day exhibits took us all morning. We ate lunch in the Mémorial café (simple sandwiches), watched the D-Day film and then power-walked the Cold War. We could easily have spent more time on the Cold War. The reality though was that the morning was already a rather intense experience and we were all ready for something a little lighter (and Elise’s patience was wearing thin). We did not even get to the Mémorial’s exhibit area devoted to current events (human rights, climate change, censorship, etc.) or Nobel Peace Prize winners. Even if we didn’t visit the Peace Gallery, I do appreciate the fact that a museum which deals with such bloody history has dedicated part of its space to the search for peace and a better world.
As it was freezing cold, we did not take advantage of the Mémorial’s gardens either. For those visiting in warmer weather, I think they would make a nice break in the middle of your visit. There are three gardens–the American Garden, the British Garden and the Canadian Garden–dedicated to France’s main liberators. The gift shop, however, did attract my attention. There are a multitude of books, DVDs, souvenirs and, most importantly, postcards available for sale. Prices are reasonable and the selection is good. Whether at the end or beginning of your D-Day trip, the Mémorial de Caen deserves a spot on your agenda. You won’t regret your time within its walls!