The business of war tourism

Musée de la Grande Guerre - Pays de Meaux / D. Pazery.

War tourism is big business in France. Over six million people visited battle sites, memorials and museums devoted to the first and second world wars in France in 2010. The latest addition is the museum of the First World War that opened in November 2011 in Meaux, northeast of Paris.


The Musée de la Grande Guerre (museum of the Great War) is housed in a large, gray box-like building that looks like a giant bunker. It juts out of a hill dominated by a monument commemorating the war donated to France by the United States in 1932.

Called Liberty in Distress, the monument is a giant statue of a woman, who represents liberty, standing over soldiers who fell during the two Battles of the Marne, which bookended the war. The first, in September 1914, started in Meaux, and was the war's first allied victory.

The museum was built around 50,000 objects collected by one man, Jean-Pierre Verney, over the space of 40 years.

"It's one of the most important collections in Europe," explains museum director Michel Rouger.

Verney had the collection at his home, and for years he had been trying to convince someone to turn it into a museum.

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"But nobody was interested by his collection!" says Rouger. Verney was ready to sell the collection to the United States or to Germany, but Jean-Francois Copé, the mayor of Meaux, insisted it should stay in France, so he bought it for the city and six years ago launched the project to build the museum.

Verney earned about 600,000 euros for his collection, far less than it's actual value. Rouger says it was a token amount, representing about 40 years of salary, the amount of time Verney spent gathering the objects.

In the museum, the collection is laid out around a central hall, with displays of the first battle of the Marne on one side, and the second Battle of the Marne, at the end of the war in 1918, on the other.

Rouger says the layout tries to show the profound shift from one era to the next during the war.

"The first Battle of the Marne is the battle of the 19th century, and the second Battle of the Marne is a modern battle of the 20th century," he said. "And the exhibit explains the transition between the two centuries during the war, socially and technologically."

The evolution of the technology is made very clear by the vehicles on display, like the large blue-green messenger pigeon transport truck on the side of the first Battle of the Marne.

"At the beginning of the war they used pigeons to communicate," explains Rouger. "At the end of the war you have the telephone!"

In the middle of the hall are two models of the trenches, one French and one German, with objects from the collection displayed in them and archival film clips of the soldiers projected on walls behind them.

On the walls of a small room nearby are projected more archival clips and filmed re-enactments with sound of bombs and explosion, which give a sense of what it might have felt like to be in the trenches.

Rouger says 35,000 people have come to the museum since it opened in November, more than expected. The museum is now part of the part of  the developing war tourism – or memory tourism – industry in France, a small but lucrative market that brought in 45 million euros from entry fees to 155 paying sites in 2010.

Franck Beauperin studies memory tourism for the French defense ministry. He says war tourism is not new - people started flocking to battle sites immediately after the First World War, as a kind of pilgrimage to sites where they lost family members and friends.

"And these pilgrimages continue today, notably for certain foreign nationalities, like Australians and other Anglo-Saxons, who lost people in France in 1916 and 1918," he said, adding that the sites also draw Americans (there were 2 million Americans served in the war in Europe), though they are usually drawn more to the sites of the second World War, and the sites of the Normandy invasions of 1944.

Beauperin and Rouger both say there has been a rising interest in memory tourism over the last 15 or 20 years, particularly for World War One, as the connection with the people disappears. The last known surviving soldier, Lazarre Ponticelli, passed away in 2008.

Anniversaries are very important for this kind of tourism, and France is already preparing for the centenary of the start of the First World War in 2014.

Beauperin says there is also a growing interest in history in general.

"A growing general interest in history draws people to these sites, not as memorials, but to better understand their contemporary society through the past," he said, adding that the Defense Ministry has an interest in promoting the memorial sites to transmit the history to
younger generations.

Indeed, museum director Michel Rouger explains that the uniforms on display from soldiers from Senegal, Algeria, Morocco and Madagascar are there partly for school groups, to pass on a message to young people whose families may have come from the former French colonies.

"It’s very important for us for the young people of today to know their origins - that maybe their grandfather fought in the war for France. This message it’s very important," he says.

The museum has 150 uniforms on display from all over the world. Rouger says it's one of the most impressive part of the collection.

"For the specialists it's a reference collection," he says. "It's one of the things that is different from Verdun or Craonne or other sites."

And more continue to come. Whether it's to transmit information or bring in tourist money, this museum and other memorial sites are also, above all, preserving memories.

"Since the museum opened, many people have given us personal objects, letters, uniforms," says Rouger. "Giving these objects or documents to the museum is to know that these memories are not going to disappear forever. The memory is always going to be here."

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