Once a medieval monastic order for women, the Benedictine Abbaye aux Dames still dominates the French Atlantic coast town of Saintes, with its elaborate carved facades and an impressive bell tower topped with an ornate pine cone. Now re-baptised as the ‘Cite Musicale’, a highly novel and modern approach to classical music and creative performance immerses visitors into the site, its history and religious architecture. 

Keen to explore new ways of engaging visitors, staff from the Abbey and local partners, including the Belle Rive community centre, contacted IE back in 2016 and took part in a Certified Interpretive Guide (CIG) course in Athens, funded by the European Erasmus+ programme. 

Taking the inspiration back with them to France, they have since developed an unusual sensory guided walk using hand-held mirrors allowing visitors to make their own personal connection by channelling their gaze to subtle features above their heads. It’s similar to using an empty picture frame to focus your attention on a specific point. Pens and paper also enable participants to draw what inspires them and say why to their fellow visitors. No need to be an accomplished artist here, just the chance to show your emotions on paper! 

The Abbaye’s aim was to break with the classic scenario of the guide dispensing their knowledge to a passive audience that receives it. As a result, the walk is thoroughly interactive and positively encourages intra-group dynamics between participants, young and old.

As the Abbey’s European Projects Officer, Vincent Soccodato, says, ‘You don’t have to have a PhD to talk about heritage; emotion, interaction and shared interpretation are quite enough!’

The word has clearly spread as plans are in place for IE to train a second team of heritage staff from the area in spring 2019. Decidedly, interpretation helps see heritage from a different angle, so let’s hope that local efforts in Charente-Maritime, aided by Interpret Europe, go from strength to strength.    

A full article in French by Eugenie Baccot is available at: https://ec.europa.eu/epale/fr/node/87046  

Sandy Colvine is Interpret Europe’s Outreach Coordinator and a member of IE’s Training Team. He lives near Avignon in France and can be contacted at: alexander.colvine@interpret-europe.net

To cite this article:
Colvine, Sandy (2018) ‘Done with mirrors – accessing built heritage in France from a new perspective’. In Interpret Europe Newsletter 4-2018, 30.
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