A tale of two war museums

25th September 1998 at 01:00
Laurence Alster discovers how Caen and Portsmouth commemorate D-Day and the events leading up to the landings

Caen, in northern France, is a fitting site for a memorial to peace. This small town, at the centre of the D-Day landings in June 1944, was all but obliterated by the Allies' efforts to force a path into the interior. Here, peace is not a pious hope but a priority born of a grim past.

The Memorial to Peace, which is also a museum, reflects this in its arrangement and exhibits. At the centre of a vast foyer a large, winding timeline counts down from the dawn of civilisation to the darkness of the Hitler era. Set into it is a huge globe on to which are projected propaganda posters from the period just before the Second World War.

As visitors work their way around the globe and along the timeline - examining archive film, paintings and documents - they hardly notice that they are slowly spiralling downwards. This is a briefing for a descent into hell.

At the bottom of the spiral is a short tunnel to the central display area. Opposite the entrance is a giant reproduction of a photograph of Hitler at Nuremberg, striding purposefully towards you. The tunnel is filled with hellish groans and clangorous noises. Welcome to the devil and all his works. There could be no more dramatic introduction to the linked spaces given over almost entirely to the devastation wrought by the war.

The exhibits are imaginatively and honestly presented. Visitors move from stage to stage of the conflict until the final chapter, a splendid, three-part cinematic representation of the war and its aftermath. There are almost no weak links in the whole production. The emphasis throughout is on the French predicament. The opening sections are especially given over to defeat, collaboration and the Resistance.

Then, however, the focus widens to include the Holocaust, the United States's entry into the conflict, the Soviet army and German flying bombs. There are sections on wartime fashion, the development of the atomic bomb, the planning of the D-Day landings and other landmarks. Some of these are set out in conventional style - uniforms and badges in glass cases, for instance - others are more innovative. A caption telling how mass manufacture made possible the rapid production of such vessels as American Liberty ships adds meaning to a scale model. In the section on the Resistance, a dummy wall is marked with "Laval au Poteau" - "Lynch Laval", a collaborationist French politician. Numerous other models, loop videos, multi-screen films, photographs, posters and tableaux create a first-class educational experience.

The final pi ce de resistance is a stunning, three-part film show: first, a wide-screen documentary on the D-Day landings, with the Allied preparation and assault in one frame, set against German unawareness and eventual reaction in another. Next, a multi-screen representation of the Battle of Normandy, including illuminated floor maps. And finally, a moving montage of critical moments from the post-war era: among them, US president John Kennedy in divided Berlin and scenes from the Vietnam war.

This is a splendid museum. The only complaint might be that the absence of heavy equipment - apart from a jeep, a couple of tanks and an RAF Hawker Typhoon - makes it a bit light-weight for those whose idea of a war museum is one stuffed with things that blow people to bits.

Such visitors would probably be no more happy with the D-Day Museum at Portsmouth. Others, though, will applaud its main attraction, a magnificent 34-panel embroidered depiction of the Normandy landings.

This modern equivalent of the Bayeux Tapestry tells the invasion story with colour and compassion, qualities echoed by the commentary played through a handset as you follow the 83 metre strip. Of the invasion aftermath, for example, it says: "The prisoners were coming in. In the space of a few hours the hopes of brave young Germans had turned to despair." This is an opening comparable in quality to that of Caen. Unlike the Caen exhibition, though, the D-Day Museum doesn't continue to get even better; in truth, it gets a little ordinary.

After a short film on life in war time life in Britain and the build-up to D-Day, there are only models, static displays and tableaux. Not that these are totally disappointing; some are good. A tableau of a woman factory worker has in the background a crude drawing of the infant Hitler on his swastika-decorated potty: "Who'd want to feed that?" reads the caption.

A display case holds charts, pocket guides to France, buttons with concealed compasses and a folding bicycle like the ones in the tapestry. And, in another display case on a real landing craft, is a 1944 SS diary and a German soldier's prayer book, "found near some dead soldiers on D-Day".

Significant, but static - as are the tableaux of the operations room at nearby Southwick House, a jeep emerging from a crashed glider, and a section of the Atlantic Wall with a German peering through a gun slit. Not a single animatronic model. And, apart from one fuzzy loop film of local memories, no archive footage.

The Allied invasion of France was one of the biggest transfers of men and material in history. Students might find these inanimate displays interesting, but they will scarcely be moved by them.

The Memorial for Peace,Esplanade Dwight Eisenhower,BP 261, 14066, Caen, France. Tel: 02 31 06 06 44.Open daily except December 25, January 1-18, January 25. Admission: students and schoolchildren 59F (about pound;6), school groups (minimum 15 pupils) 25F (pound;2.50) each pupil, adults 67F (pound;7). Support tel: 31 06 06 45.The D-Day Museum and Overlord Embroidery, Clarence Esplanade, Southsea, Portsmouth, Hampshire PO5 3NT. Tel: 01705 296905.Open daily except December 24-26. Admission: school groups: pound;2 per person; for educational pack, tel: group bookings officer on 01705 827261. Free pre-school visits for teachers on request.

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