One of the things I love about France is its tradition of unusual museums; just down my own road is a cow museum and a bell museum.
On a recent visit to the Loire (not the Loire of chateaux but a different, hidden, green Loire, the Loire département) I found four offbeat museums that might provide a welcome break from all those hikes, vineyards and medieval villages.
These museums speak to me for a reason: they try to protect knowledge about traditions and crafts that still existed until recently but risk being forgotten.
Musée de la Soierie
The museum of silk (and we do all love silk) sits in an unlikely venue – the town’s 18th century former hospital. The village of Charlieu is the ideal setting, on the other hand: about 150 years ago, when the canuts or silk workers of Lyon rebelled against exploitation, merchants broke their rebellion by bringing their business here. They turned the village into what one businessman calls the “Taiwan of Lyon.”
Working conditions for the 10,000 silk workers were harsh and factory floors were unbearable, without electricity . No protective eyewear was available, and there was little ventilation.
The loud machines clanged incessantly while burning steam heated the air and filled eyes, nose and throat.
Threading silk required small hands so women and often children were recruited, at low wages and, in those days, with little regard to their health.
It’s amazingly intricate work, with thousands of threads lined up perfectly – a single thread out of line can ruin an entire bolt of cloth. A small loom might contain 4000 threads, while an intricate design on a wide cloth might require 20,000 – all of which needed to end up in a precise location. Antique computers, first made of wood and then of iron, helped sort the threads, otherwise an impossible task.
What used to be a thriving industry slowly dwindled in the face of cheap imports and the replacement of manpower by machines. By housing the history of French silk weaving under a single roof the town of Charlieu paints a picture of what life in a silk factory was like. The old machines are still in working order and the shrill sound of a single one makes me wonder what the decibel level was like when dozens filled a single open space.
I had no idea making silk was so complex, from the sorting of yarn bundles, their winding into reels, the warping (placing threads next to one another until the right width is achieved), dyeing, dipping and actual weaving. Looking at a square of bright soft cloth now, I understand the hours of sweat and solitude that once went into making one just like it.
These days of course the sweatshops are gone and all that remains of the silk trade in Charlieu is a yearly celebration in honor of Our Lady of September, organized by what is now the last remaining weavers’ corporation in France, the Corporation des Tisserands.
Right next door to the Musée de la Soierie is the hospital museum, set in the familiar environment of what used to be the town’s religious hospital – religious because in the past hospitals were staffed and managed by the Medical Orders of the Catholic Church, not the state.
The hospital was already mentioned in historical texts as far back as the 12th century but may have been founded even earlier by Benedictine monks, its origins shrouded in history.
It served many functions over time, including a maternity and an old men’s hospice, until it was forced to close in 1981 because the aging building simply wasn’t up to modern standards.
Looking at the spacious ward you can’t help but compare it favorably with some hospitals today, so overcrowded patients are spilling out into the hallways.
While we might appreciate the extra space, we might be less nostalgic about the obsolete medical instruments exhibited in the examination and treatment rooms.
Keep walking and you’ll find a beautiful wooden apothecary, now classified as a National Monument; a linen room with giant wardrobes donated by local families to nuns taking their vows; the operating theater, a relatively modern amenity; and diverse objects reflecting the hospital’s history right up to its closure.
Hospitals are rarely pleasant but the high ceilings and spacious wards are reminders that environment can be as important to wellbeing as care.
Musée Alice Taverne
This next magical museum is all about the environment – the living environment. Just half an hour from Charlieu, in the lovely village of Ambierle, you’ll find answers to all your questions about how the French in this region lived 100 years ago.
The museum bears the name of Alice Taverne, a woman with what might be considered an unusual occupation for a woman. She was, in a way, a social archeologist.
Madame Taverne was a local woman fascinated by history. She began collecting everyday objects used between 1830-1930 by local people in the Roannais and the nearby Forez regions of the Loire. And room by room, she built her museum.
Inaugurated in 1951, the museum is laid out like a house, with antique-filled rooms set up just as they might have been if people still lived in them. You can easily imagine what it was like to slurp a bowl of soup in a modest kitchen or sleep in a surgeon’s quarters. You can also visualize daily life in a watchmaker’s cabinet or a winemaker’s home, and learn about period clothing and local legends.
Perhaps the most unusual collection is out of doors. In a crowded courtyard, arcades have been set aside for equipment once used by blacksmiths, vintners, cartwrights, cabinetmakers and farmers.
What started out as a cursory visit stretched into hours as each room, each object drew me into a time and place I could almost sense first-hand. It wasn’t that long ago, after all, that I would have climbed the hill to Ambierle by horse and cart rather than in my own car…
Musée de la Chapellerie
If you’re as fascinated by traditions and culture as I am, perhaps the most intriguing of these four museums is located a bit more than an hour away in Chazelles-sur-Lyon. This small town in Lyon’s hinterland was famous for two centuries for its felt hats made from rabbit and hare fur. I’m not a fur enthusiast, but in their heyday in 1930, the town’s 28 hat factories employed 2500 workers.
The use of felt dates back to the Neolithic. Felt was used extensively in Asia for yurts and clothes and archeological digs in Pompeii found hat-making traces in that lava-entombed city as well.
Hats were hugely popular not long ago. Remember the Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s? It would have been unthinkable for a man or woman to be seen leaving home without a hat. By the 1960s, hats had become unfashionable and hatmakers ran out of jobs, the last factory sliding its doors shut in 1997.
Now, the art of millinery is making a modest comeback in this town. The museum has its own hat design line and collection and offers made-to-measure hats. To make sure the knowledge and craftsmanship isn’t lost, professionals pass on their knowledge to fashion students through workshops and classes.
As you leave the museum, the hats on display (made of everything from felt to feathers) in the inevitable shop attract the most attention. Men, women and children stare at themselves in the mirror, their heads covered in the tiniest or largest or brightest or most intricate hats, irresistibly drawn to the fleeting promise of a sense of glamor.
Things every Woman on the Road should know
- I stayed at the charm-filled Château d’Origny, one of 24 bed and breakfasts located in various chateaux in the Loire. I may technically be a b&b but as far as I’m concerned, I spent the night in a castle.
- Visit the websites of the various museums to get costs, directions and opening hours (and use Google Translate if you don’t read French): Musée de la Soierie (silk museum); Musée Hospitalier (hospital museum); Musée Alice Taverne; Musée de la Chapellerie (felt hat museum). Or read this page on museums in English.
- Contact Loire Tourisme for more information about this fabulous region.