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If you ask the people of Martinique or visitors to the island what can be discovered at the Domaine de La Pagerie, most will tell you about the museum of Josephine, the empress of the French, who until recently was perched on a base with her head cut off on the savane of Fort-de-France. However, the Domaine de La Pagerie is much more than that; it is an old sugar house and sugar factory in Martinique, recalling some 300 years of colonial and slavery history. That’s why I was very excited when the opportunity arose to work on scientific projects with the team at this establishment. Today, through the example of La Pagerie, I would like to talk about what goes on behind the scenes of the profession and show you how scientific research can accompany museums, historical monuments and other cultural spaces to give meaning to the development of their collections and their heritage. Concretely, I worked at the Domaine de La Pagerie in two phases: a scientific study mission for an archaeological excavation project, then a scientific expertise to accompany a project for a new museography.
Understanding the Domaine de La Pagerie
La Pagerie is a cultural structure with a tourist vocation since 1944. There are the remains of an old sugar plantation from the 18th century, a collection of pieces related to the history of the site and of Josephine (since it is her birthplace); and a flowery park hosting various cultural events (such as music festivals).
In 1944, Dr. Robert Rose-Rosette bought the Domaine de La Pagerie in order to turn it into a site-museum that highlights its history and heritage. With the help of his wife, Simone, he cleaned, cleared, restored some of the remains, and in 1954 he inaugurated a small museum. For Robert Rose-Rosette, the development of La Pagerie was part of a larger project whose objective was to make tourism the main asset of Martinique.
In 1984, the Domaine de La Pagerie was bought by the Conseil Général, and since 2015, it has been under the jurisdiction of the Collectivité territoriale de Martinique. 2015 is also the date on which the current director, Manuella Yung-Hing, took up her position on the site. She and her team have carried out various actions to improve the attractiveness of the site and to enhance its value to visitors; producing scientific data to learn about the history of the estate as a whole has thus been one objective among many others.
For my part, it took me a long time to visit the Domaine de La Pagerie. Like many people, I considered it to be Josephine’s museum and, it must be said, discovering a ribbon of portraits of the former empress did not interest me much. Nevertheless, I was finally led to go there and I discovered an interesting site, full of historical potential, but where everything remained to be done on the scientific and museographic level. Also, when the director contacted me at the end of 2018 for a project of archaeological excavations on the servile village, in other words the living space of enslaved people, I was really enthusiastic about the idea of participating in this research.
1. Study on Enslaved People and Slave Habitats for Archaeological Excavation
The initial project aimed to better know the history of the enslaved people of La Pagerie by carrying out an archaeological excavation of their living space: the rue case-nègre. For that, an archaeologist and a team of excavation on the ground were of course needed. But for the archaeologist’s work to be as efficient as possible, historical knowledge was also needed; if only to know where the slaves’ villages were located ! That’s where I intervened. In 2019, I carried out a documentary, archival and historical study to prepare the archaeologist’s fieldwork. In other words, I carried out a research to allow him to know where to look for what interested him, to better understand and compare what he would find from the ground study.
So I looked in the archives for documents that would allow us to know :
- the human occupation of the site from the 17th century until 1848, both the owners and what they owned,
- the iconography allowing to know the organization of space over time (the aligned sets of black rectangles on Moreau du Temple’s map correspond to the rue case-nègre),
- information on the men and women who had been exploited on the site.
The excavation was scheduled for the following year, 2020…
I let you guess the rest? …
As everywhere else, the health crisis went through it and somewhat disrupted the initial project. The excavation had to be postponed. But contrary to what one might have feared, at the Domaine de La Pagerie, the crisis was more of a stimulant than a paralytic. In June 2020, I had the surprise of being contacted again by the director of the establishment, to find out if I would be available to accompany a change in museography, right there, right away. Oh yes Madam!
2. Scientific expertise to support the Domaine de la Pagerie in a new museography
At the end of the lockdown, on return to the site, an inventory was made. In addition to the gardens devastated by the drought, the humidity had increased in the small closed museum to the detriment of the conservation of the collections and the building. New reception measures had to be planned to respect the sanitary recommendations, in addition to this, there was a programmed intervention to clean the stones for the museum which required the dismantling of the collections. The team therefore thought about the possibilities of reopening the site under these new conditions and concluded that if the museum’s collection had to be dismantled for the intervention on the building, this might be the opportunity to reassemble it in a different way!
This is where my expertise was called upon. Not only do I do scientific research in history, I know the history of the site thanks to the study I carried out in 2019, but I have also received semi-professional training in heritage and tourism and I initially worked in this sector; I therefore have a certain sensitivity for historical, heritage and cultural enhancement and mediation for multiple visitors.
The exchanges within the team made it possible to agree on two major problems to be solved: the visit itinerary and the visit speech. The site, which, I would remind you, is a former sugar house, was unintelligible as such; that is to say, for the visitor who was not familiar with the principle of Caribbean plantation, nothing allowed him to grasp the overall organization of the space with its natural, industrial and residential areas.
The second major problem was the lack of content to enlighten the collection. If you have already visited the Domaine de La Pagerie, you must have noticed that it was impossible to make a qualitative visit alone, because there is no explanation of the collections that are given to be seen. Not the slightest historical contextualization and little coherence in the layout of the collection. You certainly see things, but you don’t know what.
The necessary dismantling of the collection was therefore to lead to a reassembly that would offer a new circuit and a new discourse. Once the main lines of the project had been agreed upon, the director ensured, within a limited time and with limited resources, the concrete implementation of this project, the constitution of the work teams, the scheduling of tasks relating to historical expertise, layout work, scenography and technical assembly, and printing; all this while taking into account the available budgets and administrative deadlines and, of course, including the presentation and political validation of the project at each stage of the process.
July: a new circuit
Until now, almost the entire collection of pieces was displayed in the building that serves as a small museum and which was once an old kitchen: the original painting is next to the photocopy, next to a bed is exposed a print on slave punishments, along the wall portraits of the imperial family are lined up endlessly, in a showcase is stacked a collection of dishes under a collection of old postcards under a heap of chains and shackles … The site has more to offer than this mess!
On the collection side, there are pieces about colonial dwellings, others about former settlers, some about the sugar industry, and others about enslaved people, not to mention the scientific data from my study and everything related to the founder of the heritage site, Dr. Robert Rose-Rosette. On the building side, there is this old kitchen, the ruins of the sugar factory, the ruins of the manioquerie, the mill that has been restored, the large reception building built around 1989 that was poorly exploited… And then there is also everything that is no longer visible in the environment at first glance, but that was there, contributing to the history of this site.
It is based on these elements that the team has thought about a new itinerary in four spaces allowing to discover mainly the history of this plantation and the project of Dr Robert Rose-Rosette in a first space, the settler owners and Josephine in a second, the industrial aspects of a plantation in a third, an old kitchen and the enslaved men and women at La Pagerie in a last space.
While the director was taking up an organizational challenge to translate this sudden project into an effective action plan and the team was dismantling the museum’s collections, I started in July with the writing of the scientific content adapted to the new itinerary that the team had agreed on and made a pre-selection of the associated pieces. For each space, I had to propose information that would allow the future reader to better understand what he was seeing, whether it was the collections or the heritage remains.
But, even if this was « my job », don’t think that this is a task that can be done alone. Ideally, when the context allows it, we create a scientific committee made up of several members, because the plurality of expertises makes one gain in quality; for this project, it was Dominique Rogers, a lecturer in history, who made it possible to have at least a second scientific look. In all cases, the work is collaborative; for example, the guides participated in researching information on the pieces exhibited and on the work of Dr. robert Rose-Rosette in order to enrich the texts and pre-select the pieces of the collection that we wanted to present in the new exhibition.
Several proofreaders were also indispensable to improve, correct, complete and clarify the content. As such, I sincerely thank those women (yes, in was only women!) who literally gave their time (and expertise) to proofread the text. It is their remarks, their questions, their corrections that have made it possible to improve it.
August: new discourse and mediation
Once the new itinerary and the associated texts were submitted and politically validated, I devoted most of August to accompanying the staff of the museum dedicated to welcoming the public to rethink the discourse of the visit and mediation. Changing the wandering around the site, reorganizing the collection, also implies changing the discourse of the visit. While the work on the treatment of the stones was underway in the museum, we worked with the guides on the content of the discourse and its restructuring to adapt to the new itinerary; we also took the opportunity to make a few updates of the historical knowledge that continues to evolve with scientific research. At the same time, together with the mediation service, we thought about the elaboration of a pedagogical notebook to be used as a support for the schoolchildren.
September-October: at the service of scenography
In September, the team was immersed in a new phase of the project: scenography. The aim of the scenography is to propose the staging of the collection, the remains and the texts that go with them. This involves some design works to allow for the new layout: removal or reuse of existing supports (such as showcases), addition of picture rails or panels to provide new supports for the text and objects, a little fresh paint, lighting adjustments… It also involves the adoption of a graphic charter, the choice of positioning text / work, the choice of media for the enhancement of works (box, frame, komacel printing …). All this was done again taking into account the existing and various constraints, the project was not to redo a museum for new (there was anyway no budget for …), but to improve the presentation of the collection.
For me, this phase of the project mainly involved harmonizing the texts I had written with the staging proposed by Yvana, the scenographer. It was necessary to find compromises to adjust the distribution of the texts on the different possible display spaces while ensuring that the cut-out remained coherent, to make choices and delete text for sections that contained too much text in relation to the space available to display them (but when you wrote the text, everything seems important to you!), to make adjustments to titles, subtitles and texts according to the text cut-out chosen and the works selected (because we didn’t keep everything!) so that the whole would be readable.
Another element, which I had not anticipated, is the search for information for cartels, these small supports that provide information on the work, often with its title, author, dimensions, technique or materials used, date of creation and sometimes some additional information. When Yvana asked for this information for the realization of the cartels, we realized that we knew little about the selected works. With the team, we searched for information to try to fill in some gaps.
Then, as for each important stage, the proposed new scenography was politically validated before starting the last phase of the project.
November: printing of the texts and assembly of the collections
Once the work of the scenographer was completed with the printer to create text and image supports, it was time to concretize the work done previously by carrying out the reassembly of the collection. In this final phase of the project, my presence was secondary; I was mainly there to participate in the decisions during the small adjustments that had to be made during the assembly. Which pieces seemed to fit together best in this showcase? Did we leave this frame here or a little more over there? In short, we made sure with the scenographer that our choices were coherent on both the aesthetic and scientific dimensions.
The finished installation marks the completion of my second mission. From now on, a new circuit is to be discovered for the visitor. As always in this type of project, choices and compromises have to be made. It is not possible to satisfy all requests and improvements are always possible. Nevertheless, I sincerely hope that the work done over the last few weeks will have made it possible to considerably improve the enhancement of the site for what it is and what it was. I also hope that the dynamics set in motion on this occasion will make it possible to continue the reflection engaged and the new actions to be carried out to better respond to the social demand around this type of space. Until then, I invite you to make up your own mind by going to visit the Domaine de La Pagerie which should reopen its doors in the coming days.
- BNPM, Leboullanger, Martinique. L’habitation La Pagerie en 1800. Lieu de naissance de Joséphine.
- Bibliothèque nationale de France, Moreau du Temple, carte géométrique et topographique de l’Isle Martinique, 1770
- Archives de Martinique, Fonds Robert Rose-Rosette, 14J, inventaire 1815.
- Manioc, Birthplace of Josephine, Année de publication : 1880 , Extrait de : Camps in the Caribbes : the adventures of a naturalist in the lesser Antilles (Page 302)
If you would like to know more about Dr. Robert Rose-Rosette: http://www.rrr-passion-martinique.com/