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April 30, 2024

ICOM VoicesThe Musée National de la Marine in Port-Louis, France: Between Historic Site and Museum


Graduate in cultural mediation, guide-lecturer in Rennes, France

Key words: cultural mediation, adapting to constraints, local heritage, creating links

A Cultural Mediation Challenge


In France, museums have developed rapidly in historic sites, and striking the right balance between presenting museum collections and the monument itself has always been a major challenge for cultural mediators. This article explores several cultural mediation project ideas developed for the Port-Louis Citadel, home to the Musée National de la Marine [National Maritime Museum].

History and cultural mediation at the Port-Louis Citadel

The Port-Louis Citadel is an integral part of the military history of the Morbihan region that has contributed significantly to the development of the Lorient harbour over the centuries. Over the course of its 400-year history, it has seen many owners, transformations and interior renovations, having housed Spaniards, the French East India Company, soldiers in the French Navy, Germans and the lookout point’s signalmen.

Fig. 1. Port-Louis Citadel, July 2022. © Laurent Charpentier, SNSM Pays de Lorient

Today, the Port-Louis Citadel is a museum and designated historical monument within the Musée National de la Marine network. With the support of all of the museum’s staff, the cultural mediation team is responsible for showcasing two permanent exhibitions (on sea rescue and underwater archaeology) and the Citadel as a whole. Visitors can take a guided tour of the Citadel walls and museums (with or without audioguides), and children can participate in mediation workshops. The museum also takes advantage of national events (such as European Heritage Days, the Night of Museums and the French coastal festival) to organise special activities, some of which take place outside the museum.

When designing cultural mediation activities, a museum must take into account the available human and financial resources; in Port-Louis, for example, we have a small, versatile team and a limited budget. Alongside our cultural mediation initiatives, we are continuing to research our archives, working on processing memory, improving external communications and expanding the Citadel’s local presence. In this article, I will present three mediation projects designed to help visitors make a more natural link between the collections they see in the museum and the historic site around them.

‘The Secret of Admiral Pâris’: A fun workshop allowing 6- to 9-year-olds to discover the site and museum

I developed a workshop, offered in the autumn of 2023, based on the life of a naval soldier at the Citadel in the 19th century. The aim was to help children make a natural link between the objects in the collection that were used or designed by and for sailors, and the historic site in which they are housed. The fact that this is the site’s least documented period gave us a certain amount of flexibility in creating a common thread but also led us to seek out and use other information (particularly on the life of Admiral Pâris, founder of the Musée de la Marine) to enrich the content of the workshop.

The workshop began in the museum in front of a bust of the Admiral and then took the form of a treasure hunt with riddles and four challenges, in which children were asked to observe travel sketches, conditions for using the foghorn bell, the imaginary worlds of 19th-century sailors and the 1857 International Code of Maritime Signals. The site in the Citadel chosen for each challenge was described in a riddle, allowing the cultural mediator to introduce elements of the historical context of each place the children visited.

Fig. 2. Cultural mediation materials for the “Secret of Admiral Pâris” workshop. © Anne-Lise Caron

‘The King’s Gardens’: A team project with infinite possibilities

Fig. 3. Map of the Citadel and its gardens in the 18th century. © Service Historique de la Défense
Fig. 4. Testing vegetable gardens in summer 2023. © Anne-Lise Caron

‘The King’s Gardens’ is a vegetable garden project based on the discovery of an 18th-century map showing gardens within the Citadel. At the time, every part of the fortress was designed to be able to produce its own food in the event of a siege. Our idea to replant those vegetable gardens is still in the experimental phase (see Fig. 4.), but the aim of this future mediation project is to present vegetables and medicinal herbs consumed in the 18th century and discuss the region’s food heritage and what soldiers ate at the Citadel. A link could be created with the museum space by recreating an imaginary day in the life of an 18th-century soldier posted at the Citadel who leaves his dormitory (the museum) in the morning to tend to the animals (on a bastion) and vegetable gardens (in front of the offices) before fetching water from the cisterns (under the Place d’Armes) for his barrack mates and bread from the bread ovens (in the eastern walls) for breakfast. Showing how vegetable gardens were maintained at the time could also provide an opportunity to show the tools and practices that were once used and possibly incorporate them into the museum’s collections. This project could give rise to many other ideas as well.

Immersion temporary exhibition (May 2023 – January 2024): A way to showcase the building

For the Immersion temporary exhibition, art students from the École Européenne Supérieure d’Art de Bretagne drew inspiration from the museum’s collections to create and hide works within the museum’s scenography. Visitors engaged in a kind of treasure hunt to find the works with the aid of an exhibition booklet, with photos that showed only parts of some of the creations, so visitors had to look carefully all around to spot them. Some artworks were placed on the walls and in display cases, but others were found on the floor and ceiling. This activity moved visitors away from the usual museum route and setting by encouraging them to observe the building, beams, walls and cracks in the floor, bringing them in contact with the historic site by getting them to really look at the building.


Our role as cultural mediators is to design and develop projects that enhance our visitors’ experience and understanding of the site and its collections. There are many other possible ways of highlighting the Citadel’s historical heritage, such as displaying objects found during excavations or restorations, creating more partnerships with local artists to work on stone engravings (particularly on freestone[1]), recreating certain everyday spaces with period furniture to make the visit more visual, projecting reconstructions of the interior of the powder magazine on the wall or hanging period photos on the walls of the museum to show how different rooms were used. With its rich history, Port-Louis is an ideal place to launch such projects, some of which are already in development.

Note: This article is an adaptation of part of my Master’s degree thesis in Heritage, History and Territorial Mediation (2022-2023) at Rennes 2 University, entitled ‘Entre Musée et site historique, une médiation insolite à toute épreuve. La spécificité du Musée national de la Marine de Port-Louis sur le territoire français’ [Between museum and historic site: a unique mediation experience. The specific case of the Musée National de la Marine in Port-Louis, France]. 

[1] Many of the names of soldiers once posted at the Citadel are engraved in various places, such as in the powder magazine, in the watchtowers and under the Arsenal. Some of the engravings are almost 200 years old. These engravings could provide opportunities for the mediator to present a wider reflection on the human need to become a part of history and for relevant partnerships with local craftspeople and artists.