Our time in Bayeux, France was a reflective experience. If you take twenty-four history nerds to half a dozen museums and then deposit them in a quaint, Wi-Fi-deficient town, reflective commentary on their experiences is inevitable. The invasion beaches were sobering; the American Cemetery was numbing, but the museums were invigorating. Our museum visits sparked discussions from hushed exchanges in the museums’ dimly lit corners to fiery debates in the park over our cheese-and-baguette picnics.
Our first stop on our Normandy tour was at the Caen Memorial Museum, and Mary introduced the site with her report on the citizens’ experiences in Caen during the Normandy invasion. Additionally, she discussed the museum design, specifically the initial spiral ramp that takes visitors through the interwar period representing the deterioration of the political climate during this time. The design pushes visitors from the bottom of the spiral into a gripping film exhibiting the fall of France. However, the film took a different approach to the capitulation than what I learned this past semester. Instead of discussing France’s own faults in the defeat, the intentional, strategic placement and language of the video removes French responsibility in the defeat and paints the country as a victim of a historical oddity instead. While watching this film, I began to question how the museum presented this information and how I was absorbing the information.
My suspicions elevated as I continued through the museum; I started searching for biases, and they were prevalent. The exhibits suggested that France played a much larger, useful role in the war than the material I studied this semester suggested. While I was scrutinizing every word and finding “mistakes” in the way France was presenting its own history, I realized this problem was not unique to the French: there were certainly biases in England, and I expect Poland and Germany to have biases as well. I also realized that if I could recognize these national biases in France, I need to reconsider how I so obediently absorb the history of my own country without questioning and challenging its presentation.
After coming to this realization, I stepped back from scrutinizing every word in the Caen Memorial Museum and focused more on the overall historical presentation. France was simply qualifying their strengths in moments of immense weakness; this trait is certainly not unique to the French. Biases are inevitable, but historians should not ignore biases; they need to recognize those biases and how our perceptions of the past are shaped by them.