Douarnenez Port-Musee

21 Oct 2008 in Heritage

Not so simply the best

IAN STEPHEN found more than he bargained for – and food for thought in a Highlands & Islands context – in the maritime museum in Douarnenez in Brittany

I’D LIKE to draw your attention, Highland readers, to a group of exhibitions outwith our area, but with a great deal of relevance to it. It’s a bit further than the Central Belt of Scotland, even than London or Ireland or Wales, or even Cornwall or the Scillies.

However if you’re travelling by sea, say from the Inner or Outer Hebrides, it’s a fairly direct route and well worth the voyaging. Keep out from Iona, west of Islay, down by the Mull a good way out, dodge down the middle, keep going down and across the channel. Then keep clear of Ouessant but take a sneaky wee left into the bay to the north of Isle de Seine and go on to enter Douarnenez.

This is a redeveloped harbour with more heritage than commercial fishing but it’s not twee. You’ll see the Port–Musee right down at the harbour. A tip. If you’re hungry or if it’s lunchtime closing go further along the waterside to the takeaway that also has a few seats. Eat sardines grilled crisp or moules marinieres or tuna, all with fries and I’d suggest a red-striped cup of cider.

Fortify yourself because you’ll want to stay in the museum longer than planned. It’s a tardis of a building. The exterior preserves the façade of a traditional building. Inside the architecture can be remade to suit new installations as well as the permanent collection.

Now there is a fishing museum in Concarnau which is not bad at all and very like the Scottish fisheries museum at Anstruther. You might think you are entering a similar heritage experience. You’ll find that, but you’ll also find other elements in four excellent temporary exhibitions.

I was caught by the shape of a Far Eastern vessel, taking up a large part of a floor and crossed over to see its structure and spars before realising I was in a corridor of all too recent journeys. This vessel was picked up by a French ship which rescued its surviving host.

A whole section of the building has been re-made to convey a document of the many attempts of refugees to escape by sea. Reportage in news video and photojournalist’s documentation is gathered and presented so you walk through all too recent years of seagoing homeless.

You remember the Vietnam boat people but then the Albanians and a whole host of nationalities daring oceans in structures of bound wood and oil-drums. It all seemed very relevant to the history of the Highlands as I’d just been reading, Alistair Moffat’s history of Celtic Britain and Ireland, The Sea Kingdoms (Birlinn.)

In it he quotes the journal from one of the exiles made homeless by the Duke of Sutherland: “The old and the children could not stand the hardship of the voyage, every day one or more of our group was buried at sea. After tossing on the Atlantic for eleven weeks we came to the coast of Canada. Each day we had to pay for our food and as some of us had some money left, the Captain cruised up and down for three weeks before landing us penniless on the Canadian shore. We were taken by bullock wagon to Tornonto. “

So if we residents of the Highlands and Islands can fail to feel kinship with these desperate voyagers, who can?

Another installation will evoke parallels. You walk through the catching and processing of sardines. The men’s catch is handed to the women in the factories and the documentary film shown is reminiscent of the quality of the great Grierson documentaries such as the one for the Post Office which commissioned Auden’s Night Mail. The boxes of gleaming fish are passed in a dance. It’s impossible not to think of the iconic imagery of the herring-girls in the Scottish ports.

But another daring exhibition in the same building is a full and frank examination of the Vietnam war including a portrayal of France’s role as the former colonial power. Somehow the memorable shape of the frail wooden refugees boat is a bridge between all elements.

And there is a positive but witty homage to the pioneering sailing school at Glenans. Again period film is well used along with pertinent objects to convey a groundbreaking approach to a form of outdoor education. Curators, come and have a look-see. There is a total commitment to remaking a space to present an idea.

These take time to assimilate. Translations are provided. The staff are very helpful. But leave time for the permanent collection which includes floating ships on the pontoons across the courtyard. Ashore and afloat the presentation and interpretation of vessels across history and geography is simply the best I’ve seen so far. Greenwich is too flashy these days and Irvine’s looks a bit sad.

Back to the travel aspect of seeing these exhibitions. If you go through France by train, there is a good cheap connecting bus from Quimper. But do as I did. Get mixed up with the time zones by typing in your laptop, forgetting that you’ve not changed the time on that along with the mobile.

So miss the train. So spend a night in Quimper. Just stroll about. The architecture ranges from half timbered well-preserved buildings to a quality modernist approach to linking the old with the new. In between is a 1930s building, in excellent condition, with the black stenciled letters KODAK calling out from its curves.

© Ian Stephen, 2008