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Museums: Disaster Memorial Volume 55 Number 5, September/October 2002
by Tom Gidwitz

[image] [image]
Left, St. Pierre, Martinique, has recovered from the destruction caused by the eruption of Mt. Pelée a century ago. (© David Sanger) [LARGER IMAGE] Right, an illustration from ca. 1910 shows villagers watching the eruption. (Corbis) [LARGER IMAGE]

On May 8, 1902, Martinique's Mt. Pelée volcano shot a blistering avalanche of rock and ash through the port of St. Pierre. The murderous flow rocketed through the streets at 250 mph, leveling buildings, torching ships at anchor, and killing 28,000.

In time, new residents rebuilt on the ruins. In 1929, when Mt. Pelée erupted again, the American volcanologist Frank Perret came to St. Pierre to analyze the mountain's activity and, ultimately, to assure the 3,000 panicked residents that the volcano would quiet down. In 1932, he opened the Musée Volcanologique as a gift to the town. Perched on a bluff above the harbor, it sketches St. Pierre's story from its founding as a French city to its harrowing destruction.

The museum contains a single large room, divided by the massive bronze bell that once hung in the destroyed cathedral. The bell was melted and crushed in the blast, as if pinched between a giant's fingers. To one side of the bell, the walls display photographs of the city when it was known as the "Paris of the West Indies." The scenes are redolent of French colonial grace. Carriages crowd the cobblestone streets, rum barrels line the waterfront, ladies in hoop skirts gossip beneath parasols, and barefoot market women carry baskets on their heads. On the room's other side are photographs of destruction--the smoking mountain and collapsed buildings.

Throughout are shelves with artifacts that Perret either gathered from residents or rescued from the ruins--corroded trumpets, charred spaghetti, stacks of drinking glasses fused into misshapen columns, and scores of scissors welded into a solid brick.

Perret intended the museum to serve as both a memorial and a volcano education center. It was remodeled in 1968, and his photographs of famous volcanoes, his scientific instruments, and a smoking volcano model have vanished. The case of mineral samples he collected at other volcanoes is neglected, its glass broken, and its contents unexplained. Also lacking are explanations of how volcanoes work, and how the 1902 tragedy inspired a generation of scientists, including Perret himself, who revolutionized volcanology.

The museum is now more a memorial to St. Pierre's fallen than the volcanology museum its title promises. Still, the displays' somber power is undeniable, and it is popular: each year around 70,000 people pass through its doors.

Click here for ARCHAEOLOGY's list of current exhibitions.

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© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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