A tale of two unicorns

Nicola Sullivan, 28.10.2015
A new museum is set to transform a small French town with a rich tapestry heritage
When I visited Aubusson, an historical town whose spires and stone buildings overlook the Creuse River running through the Limousin region of central France, I was told a tale about two unicorns. 

Like all good fairy tales, the story begins in a castle a long time ago.

The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, which was made in Flanders in the 16th century, was discovered by novelist George Sand in 1844 in the Boussac Castle in Creuse. It was made when Flemish weavers started settling in Aubusson and marks the beginning of a weaving industry that has defined the town for the last six centuries.
The fully restored series of tapestries featuring a noble woman and a unicorn now hang in the Musée National du Moyen Age in Paris. Now another unicorn tapestry made by contemporary artist Nicolas Buffe competes for its turn in the limelight. Peau de licorne (skin of the unicorn) was created to ensure that the focus of the region’s tapestry industry is not only on the past.
Buffe’s black and white unicorn, a tapestry with a porcelain head and hooves, has been born to die – a concept that does not lend itself to tourist merchandise, jokes my guide at the Musée Départemental de la Tapisserie d'Aubusson, currently home to the area’s largest collection of contemporary and historical tapestries.
During my visit to the museum it is clear that displaying new bold contemporary pieces of art like Peau de licorne is just as important as preserving ancient techniques and conserving historical tapestries.

To this end the town's new tapestry museum will open its doors in June. The Cite International de la Tapisserie, built on the site of an old school where weavers were trained, is expected to receive 40,000 visitors a year. This is double the number of people who visit Musée Départemental de la Tapisserie d'Aubusson.

The new museum will have a tapestry restoration workshop; permanent and temporary exhibition spaces; a training centre; arts studios; and storage rooms.

The Cite International de la Tapisserie will cost €8.5m with funding coming from both central and local government and private donors.

Aubusson is already on Unesco’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. But the new development should also boost economic growth in the area, which is not yet on the main tourist trail.

Building work is still being carried out on the interior of the new museum but its contemporary rainbow-striped facade is a sign of just how much it will transform the town. For the first time Aubusson will be able to show off its rich cultural heritage and the fruits of its current weaving industry to a global audience.