International opening: Rivesaltes Memorial Museum, near Perpignan, France

Eleanor Mills, Issue 116/05, p34-35, 01.05.2016
Generations of refugees and prisoners from 20th-century wars were held at this former internment camp. Director Agnès Sajaloli tells Eleanor Mills what is unique about the site and its museum
Originally built as a military camp, Camp Joffre at Rivesaltes has performed various functions throughout its history. Located close to the Spanish border and not far from the part of France that was occupied by Nazi Germany, since its inauguration in 1938 the camp has seen inmates pass through its gates from numerous major conflicts – Republican refugees from Franco’s Spain, Jewish refugees from Nazi Europe, Jewish and gypsy internees under the wartime Vichy government, including 2,300 who were deported to Auschwitz; French collaborators and German and Italian PoWs after the war and, in the 1950s and 1960s, colonial troops and others fleeing the Algerian war of independence and other conflicts that accompanied decolonisation.

From 1986 part of the camp was a holding centre for undocumented migrants; it was finally shut down in 2007.

In 2012, the regional council announced a memorial project on the site to raise public awareness of threats to democratic values.

Now, in the heart of what was block F of the camp sits the Rivesaltes Memorial Museum – a semi-buried monolith containing exhibition spaces, an auditorium, research centre, learning labs and a social area.

Why was Rivesaltes Internment Camp opened as a memorial museum?

The project goes back to 1998, when Christian Bourquin, then elected president of the general council of the Pyrénées-Orientales département, launched a project to save the Rivesaltes camp site. In April 2014 I became the first director of the museum, before it opened in October 2015.

How do visitors experience the site?

The Rivesaltes Memorial Museum is a 4,000 sq m building designed by Rudy Ricciotti. There is an outdoor pathway around the site of block F, which covers 42 hectares of the original 612-hectare military camp.

What messages does the museum convey?

The memorial deals with very painful and death-related subjects. Nevertheless it also conveys a message of hope, through the story and dedication of the international aid organisations that helped the people involved in its history.

Why is Rivesaltes’ history important?

Numerous memorials and interpretation centres exist, but they focus solely on their site’s history and connection with either the Spanish civil war, the second world war, colonial wars or the Algerian independence war. In all these conflicts populations suffered internment, forced labour, deportation, extermination, forced displacement, and others got involved in many forms of resistance. But nowhere like the memorial museum at Rivesaltes exists: its history encompasses the whole period during which these conflicts took place and the camp was connected with all of the nationalities and peoples involved in those wars. Its history reflects our French national history, but also European and world history.

How do you convey the camp’s complex history?

First and foremost, the memorial must ensure a scientific rigour and reliability as far as the permanent exhibition content is concerned. It generates numerous scientific themes, there is a research database, and discussions with historians and scientists involve social and cultural science and ideologies.

The main objective is transmitting information. The memorial is fortunate to be able to rely on the French ministry of education, which appointed six primary and secondary teachers to train and provide assistance to their colleagues.

In addition, artist residencies – music, literature, film, photography, choreography – help to shed light on the history of Rivesaltes in a sensitive and contemporary dimension.

A full programme of events complements this range of perspectives on this
complex site.

How is technology used to broaden the scope of displays?

In the permanent exhibition, there are two interactive tablets that allow visitors to listen to various testimonies and life stories. There is also an interactive map containing information about the network of camps that operated in France at the same time as Rivesaltes during each period of its history.

The temporary exhibition (until June) by visual artist Anne-Laure Boyer employs interactive displays about walking and writing as means of expression and engagement.

Soon we will have audioguides in several languages, and the outdoor visitor experience will have augmented reality. Educational tools will also be available at the start of the next school year.

Do you have an outreach programme?

Of course. We pay particular attention to the younger generation. But our aim is to share the stories to all ages, to create interaction between cultures and to connect generations.

Who is the museum’s audience?

I believe there is something for everybody to learn from the memorial, whether they already know the history of the Rivesaltes camp or not. The memorial aims to reach the broadest audience possible.