Review: Musée National des Douanes, Bordeaux

For some nationalities, like us Brits, it’s a little hard to understand the role of France’s customs force, les Douanes.

We have customs officers standing around at airports & ports, checking bags, opening shipping containers, and so on, but they are viewed as bureaucrats or government officials. In France, the Directorate-General of Customs and Indirect Taxes (French: Direction générale des douanes et droits indirects, DGDDI) are more like an armed military force, with a presence that goes beyond just borders – for example I’ve noticed them on two trips to France this summer since the increased terror alerts and immigration activity, standing around, armed and watchful at ordinary motorway peage stations – and beyond just searching out illegal goods & money. They now act as border police overseeing immigration at maritime borders and regional airports.

Customs museum, Bordeaux
The museum is in the Customs Hall

There’s always been a need for a force to oversee taxation and ensure that the crown receives its full dues, by cracking down on those who would evade it. In the early days it was the Ferme Générale, which collected taxes for the king, and the 18th century Hôtel des Fermes du Roi on the bank of the Garonne in the port of Bordeaux was built to be its local headquarters.

Weighing balance in the Musee de Douanes, Bordeaux
Weight & measures – core mission for les Douanes

Now, in the 40 metre long customs hall, the history and artifacts of the Ferme Générale and its successor from 1801, les Douanes, are displayed. It’s a collection of around 800 pieces that includes uniforms, equipment, documents, furniture, maps, scale models, and all sorts of contraband that has been seized over the last two centuries.

The Musée National des Douanes is staffed by real Douanes officers (nice touch) and aimed firmly at French visitors. There is no multilingual signage. I was given a laminated A4 booklet listing the contents of the display cases in English, but there are audio guides in English and downloadable apps for Android & Apple phones.

Salt stool at the Musee de Douanes in Bordeaux
Secret salt stool
19th century Douanes shako (hat)
Intimidating hat!

In addition to the ‘tools of the trade’ (weights & measures, ledgers written up in copperplate, official notices/posters, etc) that you would expect, there are some fun things to see, such as the wooden stool/salt store designed so the lady of the house could conceal the heavily taxed commodity under her skirts, safe from the prying eyes of visiting customs officials… who must have been seriously intimidating, armed to the teeth and dressed in the most extravagant uniforms, some of which are on display.

Interestingly, their job monitoring the coast for smugglers meant they were often the first on the scene of shipwrecks, so they were also equipped with medical supplies and rescue equipment, some of which is also displayed.

arithmometer
arithmometer, a mid-nineteenth century desktop calculator

Les Joyeux Combinards French board gameOther highlights for me included one of the earliest desktop calculators – an Arithmometre from the mid-nineteenth century – and a board game from the early 1980s – the idea behind Les Joyeux Combinards (“the merry slickers” or petty crims) is to make a fast buck (actually Franc) by buying legal & illegal merchandise at un-declared knock-off prices and selling it again without drawing the attention of your suspicious co-players or les Douanes!

Les Douanes have played an integral and quite visible role in the lives of French citizens over the centuries, as illustrated by impressionist painter, Claude Monet, whose painted multiple variations of Cabane des douaniers, effet d’après-midi (Customs Hut in the Afternoon) in different light. The one on display in the Musée National des Douanes is probably their most precious artifact.

Cabane des douaniers - Monet
Cabane des douaniers – Claude Monet

Declaration: I always reserve the right to say what I think on this blog, whether hosted or not, but in this case a declaration is not needed. My visit was unofficial and I paid for  entry to the museum.

Factbox

Getting there:
1 place de la Bourse, 33000 Bordeaux

It’s right in the centre of town, next to the Miroir d’Eau.

Price:

  • Adults: 3 Euros
  • Students & groups: 1.50 Euros
  • Under 18: Free

It’s also free on the 14 July (Bastille Day) and the first Sunday of every month!

Opening Hours:
1000 – 1800 every day except Mondays. Closed also on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.

 

Summary
Review Date
Reviewed Item
Musée National des Douanes, Bordeaux
Author Rating
31star1star1stargraygray
Small but good value
Not the most inspiring museum I've visited, but there are some nuggets in here, and it is either free or almost free to get in. Unless this is an aspect of French history you are particularly interested in, it's not worth travelling to Bordeaux especially to see... but if you happen to be 'in town' (maybe on an important wine mission) it is definitely worth popping in to have a look!
EXHIBITS 68
DISPLAY 64
TECH 35
VALUE 91

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