Woad and French museology

May 16, 2015 0 Comments
Madame R and her woad bush

Madame R and her woad bush

Magrin is the name of an ordinary enough village not very far east of Toulouse. Just outside it is a low conical hill. On top of the hill are the ruins of a château, built in the middle ages and rebuilt in the Renaissance. And in the château is the world’s only comprehensive museum of woad.

Not that it’s called the Museum of Woad, of course – that’s far too Anglo-Saxon a word. No, this is Le Musée du Pastel, and it tells the remarkable story of how the plant isatis tinctoria became the basis of enormous wealth for a handful of local merchants – ‘cette plante legendaire’, says the leaflet, ‘qui donnait du bleu par ses feuilles à toute l’Europe.’ Its secret was that until the 20th century it yielded the only really satisfactory blue dye that was available, and the product of the ‘Land of Cockayne’ – the triangle of land between Toulouse, Albi and Carcassone – were recognised as the best on the continent.

The museum shows the processes whereby the plant – several bushes of it grow in the museum courtyard – was transformed into dye (natural ‘indigo’). Its leaves were crushed by a edge-set rotating millstone, and the resulting paste moulded by hand into small round balls or cocagnes. These were left to dry for up to six months in séchoirs or dryers – racks that look a bit like empty bookshelves in a neglected research library – before being crushed to powder, wetted and worked into a paste as ‘agranat’. The dye was exported, through the port of Bordeaux, to England, Germany, Spain and elsewhere, for use in clothing, tapestries, cosmetics and artists’ materials.

If my understanding of French were not so rudimentary I could tell you a great deal more about this herb and its history, because the museum acts as a virtual encyclopaedia of pastel.

P1060125It’s unlikely you’d guess that at the beginning. The museum is small and private, run by the married couple who restored the château. Apart from having gained recognition as an ancient monument and a part of the ‘Route Historique du Pastel’, it bears no signs of government sponsorship. A name scrawled on a piece of wood is the only sign to greet you, apart from a second wooden sign, ‘Entrée’, which leads you on a narrow path round the side of the château to the office, where Monsieur R. waits to take your modest fee. A further, larger room has wall and case displays about the history and manufacture of pastel. Almost everything here must have been put up years if not decades ago. Each section, with amateurishly lettered heading, features fading photographs and taped captions. The exhibits, objects and a few manuscripts, are dusty or dogeared, and hard to discern.

We’d hardly begun to peer at all this when we were summoned for a guided tour in the company of Madame R. This started in the garden, outside the fine Renaissance facade of the château and around several bushes of flowering pastel. It moved to a room where the leaves were crushed by a millstone, and then upstairs to the séchoir. At the end we were let loose to buy postcards and a few formidably large printed volumes. There was no shop, no tearoom, no computer-assisted discovery centre, not even any toilets.

Château Magrin facade

Château Magrin facade

We wondered how a museum like this, whether public or private, would be arranged back home. Publicity and marketing would be hi-vis. An online presence, complete with manic social networking, would expose Magrin’s modest, three-page website as the antique that it is. Signposting would be eye-catching and unmissable. The exhibition areas would be informed by the latest thinking on contemporary attention spans and information assimilation rates. Much – even most – activity would be directed towards children. At the very least they would be encouraged to paint their faces with pseudo-woad – the real stuff is indelible – to frighten their parents, as the ancient Britons, according to Julius Caesar, smeared their faces blue to frighten their enemies in war. Interactivity and multimedia would be inescapable. At Magrin interactivity consisted of a cocagne handed round to the visitors during their tour, and the only multimedia elements were two implausible waxwork peasants (worn-out looking) and waxwork horse (spavined), coerced into operating the rotary millstone. The tour would be delivered through an immersive multi-sensory experience – or at the very least audio headsets. At its conclusion it would without fail issue visitors into an elegantly displayed and scented shop, stocked with every conceivable gift and self-gift. Nearby the visitor’s nostrils would be drawn to the coffee shop and restaurant, where yet more cash would pass through the museum’s tills. Before leaving, the consumer would be invited to return, or recruit a friend to visit, or become one of the museum’s official Friends. Or probably all three.

By now you may be thinking that as a museum Magrin falls far short of good museological practice. And you’d be right. But Margin also has an advantage not shared by most museums in this country, however well-appointed. It’s an advantage embodied in Madame R and her audience.

For an hour and a half Madame R, wearing a blue woad-dyed blouse, expounded pastel – its history (natural and human), its complicated manufacture, its economic and social significance – as well as the history and architecture of the chateau. She spoke with perfect fluency, and without speaking down to her audience. She used no visual aids. She answered questions courteously but concisely. She welcomed latecomers and waited patiently for laggards when we moved locations. She identified her British visitors and promised to speak slowly for us (not slowly enough, as it happened, but that was our fault). She cracked the occasional joke. It was a virtuoso performance, but entirely without show.



The audience was even more remarkable. There were no young children at all – just a young and occasionally bored pet greyhound – but the adults were of all ages. They listened to what Madame R had to say with compete attention. Some of them asked intelligent questions. Almost nobody fell behind or peeled off at the back in distraction or boredom. At the end they applauded Madam R. and left the museum reluctantly.

What does this tell us about French museums? I’m not sure, but I do think it says something about French education and culture that their museums can take advantage of – that many French people are happy and able to take their history ‘neat’, straight from the mouth of the interpreter, and unsugared by multimedia and interactive pills. They can listen attentively to an authoritative source of complex information, for a lengthy period of time. That information doesn’t need to be reduced down and divided into bite-sized chunks in order to be assimilable. And, critically, a desire to learn and a curiosity about the subject can be taken for granted and exploited by museums as a basis for the kind of provision they choose to make available for their visitors. I’m not certain that the same can be said about many museums in Britain today.

In spite of all its superficial failings we all agreed that, simply by not underestimating the interest and understanding of its visitors, the château museum amply fulfilled the promise of its publicity leaflet:

Il mérite le détour par l’originalité de son musée, de son architecture, comme par la qualité de ses conférences guidées. Une passionnante visite destinée à tout public.

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