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Museum of the Bayeux Tapestry (Bayeux, France)

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Address: Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux Centre Guillaume Le Conquérant Rue de Nesmond 14400 Bayeux France

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      02.09.2012 10:39
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      See a unique piece of history up close

      On our recent holiday in Normandy, France we decided to visit the Bayeux Tapestry museum. I should say straightaway that the museum is not an all-day attraction and we found that we were able to look around it in about two and a half hours. However, if you want to make a day of it, the medieval city of Bayeux itself is well worth a visit. It is very pretty with half-timbered houses and impressive historical buildings, including a fine 13th century cathedral. In addition there are plenty of shops (although beware the 2-hour closing time over the lunch period) and places to eat. We had a very nice lunch in a creperie, which had plenty of local atmosphere.

      The Bayeux Tapestry is an embroidered cloth portraying events leading up to the Norman Invasion of England and culminating in William, Duke of Normandy's victory over King Harold at the Battle of Hastings.

      The tapestry museum is housed in an old seminary, located in a spacious, quite grand, paved courtyard. The museum is well signposted for both pedestrians and drivers (just look for the word 'tapisserie') and has a car park. However, on the day we visited the car park was full so we ended up parking on a side street in the town.

      We were somewhat disheartened to find a lengthy queue at the entrance. It was quite a warm day and the entrance to the museum was rather stuffy. Fortunately, the queue moved along quite promptly and the staff seemed efficient and welcoming, with a good grasp of English. It costs 7.80 Euros for adults and 3.80 Euros for children. Under tens are free.

      I wasn't sure what to expect and hoped I wouldn't find the exhibition too dry and boring. I haven't studied the Battle of Hastings since primary school, so it isn't a period of history that I felt particularly drawn to. However, I was keen to learn something new, so we picked up our audio guides and entered a large, darkened room where the tapestry was displayed behind glass. Although portable audio guides may seem a little impersonal, I was impressed to be able to receive information about the tapestry in clear English. (I was frankly dreading having to strain to understand a live guide speaking with a heavy French accent or having to wait impatiently as the information was repeated in several different languages). The audio guides are available in 14 different languages and there are simplified versions available for younger children.

      Another worry I had was that viewing the tapestry would be spoiled by the crowds of people, but thankfully the audio guide narration is presented at quite a brisk pace, which means that people kept moving. The scenes of the tapestry are numbered so the narrator referred to these numbers when inviting us to look at specific scenes. This made the scenes easy to locate. You could pause your audio guide if you wanted to take more time to digest a particular scene, but I didn't feel the need to do this as the speed was about right for me.

      I was pleased to find that I was able to view the tapestry up close, even though it was obviously protected by glass. This meant that there was plenty of opportunity to take in the vast amount of detail contained within it. For instance, you can fully appreciate all the rich colours - terracotta, green, blue, greys and black. It really is rather beautiful. You can contrast the different types of stitch that were used for the lettering and the outlines of figures with the type of stitching used to colour in the detail of the figures.

      In addition to the main events depicted in the centre of the tapestry, there is more to be observed in the top and bottom borders. I appreciate that the audio guide could not possibly refer to every little detail or it would have lasted much longer than the 15 minutes or so that it took to view the tapestry, but I did find myself wondering about the symbols depicted in the borders. I saw animals, birds and even some full-frontal naked men! What did they represent, I wondered? Fertility symbols perhaps, or characters from fables or moral tales? There was no explanation.

      Walking along the room and viewing the tapestry really made me appreciate the sheer size of it, something I hadn't truly grasped from what I'd learned in school history lessons. It is 270 feet long and would be even longer if it was not missing a section at the end, after the Battle of Hastings.

      The young children I observed at the exhibition didn't look bored. I suspect that children will find the tapestry's cartoon-strip depiction of events rather eye catching. You can see the tapestry as both a work of art but also as a unique historical document. It is astonishing how much atmosphere is portrayed through the embroidered scenes of the tapestry. You get a real sense of speed, noise and movement in the battle scenes and you are certainly left in no doubt as to how blood-thirsty the conflict must have been, with the borders full of dead and injured soldiers and horses. It is a story of intrigue, betrayal, action and bravery and I found it quite exciting.

      Viewing the tapestry scene by scene really helped me to appreciate the drama of this period of history. For example, we see Halley's Comet appearing as Harold is crowned King of England - an omen of doom and we observe William's men felling trees and building ships from planks in preparation for their invasion. My favourite scene from the tapestry shows William's ships setting sail. It is a vivid, colourful scene and I love the way you can see horses in the boats as well as men.

      I found it staggering how a strip of cloth could convey so much information and it made me appreciate that in an era when most people couldn't read, tapestries like this must've been a valuable way of spreading a message.

      The tapestry sheds light on so many aspects of life during this period of the Norman invasion and I felt I learned a lot. The type of clothes that were worn, the architecture, the weaponry, the food that was eaten can all be observed. There is a wonderful scene of William and his followers feasting outdoors and you can see meat being cooked on skewers and in outdoor ovens. It's so evocative you can almost smell the food and feel the atmosphere.

      Of course you do have to bear in mind that the tapestry was most-likely commissioned by William's step-brother and chief advisor, Bishop Odo, and some critics have claimed it is little more than Norman propaganda to justify William's invasion of England. However, it is not wholly biased. One quite harrowing scene depicts a woman and child fleeing their home after it has been set alight by William's army, so William is not portrayed in a completely heroic light.

      What my husband liked about seeing the tapestry was that it told the story leading up to the Battle of Hastings, rather than just the battle itself. He was intrigued by the ambiguity that surrounds the story. For instance, did Harold really swear an oath of allegiance to William or was he under duress? We were all rather interested in the scene of Harold apparently meeting his end with an arrow in his eye. But did he? It isn't as clear as history would have us believe.

      After viewing the tapestry, we went upstairs (there is a lift if you don't want to climb stairs) to the museum room where more information could be found about the origins of the tapestry and about its preservation over the years. Here you can discover why the Bayeux Tapestry isn't strictly speaking a 'tapestry' at all.

      When I realised how fragile the tapestry is, I understood more why it was being displayed in a darkened room behind glass and why flash photography was prohibited. This section was less interesting to me than seeing the tapestry itself and I would imagine that children might become a bit bored by this as there is a lot of reading involved. It doesn't have much in the way of hands-on exhibits, although there was a computer where children could select particular scenes from the tapestry and project them onto the wall for closer viewing.

      In this section you can find genealogical charts which invite you to consider who had the most legitimate claim to the English throne, Harold or William. If you are interested in the materials used to produce the tapestry, there is also quite a bit of information here on the making of cloth and how yarn was dyed to produce the different colours. I have to admit that this didn't hold my interest for long. My youngest daughter is studying textiles at school, however, so she paid more attention to this.

      One thing I hadn't realised was just how lucky it is that the tapestry is still with us. It was used for covering military wagons during the French Revolution, but fortunately it was rescued and stored safely until The Terror was over. The tapestry was kept in an air raid shelter in Bayeux during World War 2 and it is fortunate that it survived unscathed, bearing in mind the town's proximity to the allied beach landings.

      The museum also provides interesting information about William's reign and how he consolidated his position after a hostile reception in England, showing how he effectively bought off the barons by offering them land in return for support. The recording of information in the Domesday Book is recounted.

      In addition, the museum has a cinema which shows a 15 minute film about the tapestry (alternating between English and French versions.) To be honest, by the time we got to the film, I was starting to experience tapestry overload and wasn't sure I could take in much more.

      In the basement there is a quite impressive gift shop selling a selection of tapestry-themed merchandise, ranging from fridge magnets, mugs, coasters, postcards, etc. to more expensive cushion covers, embroidery kits and books. (I bought a rather nice Bayeux Tapestry coaster for 4 euros.) I was a little put off by one of the shop assistants, however, who seemed to be manically picking up and re-arranging items on the shelves. Whatever I picked up, she would immediately pounce on it as soon as I put it down and re-position it on the shelf at what she presumably thought was its rightful place and angle. It made me a little bit nervous about touching anything.

      All in all I would recommend a trip to the tapestry if you are interested in history. It is clean, well-organised attraction and in addition to taking in the scenic river views, grand architecture and tempting restaurants that Bayeux has to offer, it proved to be an enjoyable day for us. For me the highlight was definitely seeing the tapestry itself. If I am honest, the museum with its models, charts and maps didn't quite hold my attention as much. I certainly came away feeling I knew a lot more about this period of history than I did before though.

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