After finishing with the excellent Passchendaele Museum, we still had some time to kill before the cat-festivities kicked off, so we headed down the road to Hooge, for the Hooge Crater Museum, which bills itself as the “best private museum in Flanders Fields.” The advertising must work, because a massive tour bus pulled in at the same time we did, much to my dismay. Fortunately, they headed straight for the bar at the front of the museum, so the museum itself remained empty.
I must confess that due to the advertising and the rather hefty 5 euro admission fee (for such a small museum), my expectations were high. Sadly, they were in no way met by the museum’s contents. The museum first directs you into a room to watch a filmstrip, which only held my attention for a couple of minutes, and then into the main gallery of the museum itself, which has a lot of cases, but most of them are taken up by life-size dioramas. I do love life-size dioramas with hilarious mannequins, there’s no denying that, but the museum wasn’t big enough to support multiple dioramas AND a decent amount of actual artefacts, so it only took about ten minutes to make my way around the room.
I mean, yes, the mannequins were excellent (meaning, they made me laugh my ass off), and the replica of the Red Baron’s plane was pretty awesome as well, but it just wasn’t enough to overcome the general lack of content. I don’t feel like there was much in there about the Battle of Hooge Crater, or the actual crater in question (which is apparently nearby, in front of the Hooge Crater Cemetery), unless you were willing to squint at some yellowing sheets of paper with tiny font. I’m still not even sure how you pronounce Hooge. I’m going with a phonetic “hooooge” like who and huge combined, but it might have some weird Flemish pronunciation, who knows.
There was another gallery in a back room with a rather interesting story about a soldier who found a crucifix lying on the battlefield, and took it home with him with the intention of someday returning it to the appropriate place, but he died shortly after the war, so his family ended up hanging onto it for the best part of a century until they discovered this museum and donated it to them. In fact, that was probably the most interesting part of the whole museum. I’m not sure what constitutes a “private museum” in Belgium exactly; as in, I don’t know how the Passchendaele Museum, In Flanders Fields Museum, and others are classified, but rather than being the “best,” I have to say that Hooge Crater is probably the worst WWI museum I’ve been to, especially for the price. If it was only a euro or two, I wouldn’t have been so bothered, but 5 euro is a lot for a very small museum without much to offer. 2/5.
On a much more sombre note, I also visited Poperinge, as I really wanted to see the Poperinge Death Cell and Execution Spot. Poperinge is right in the middle of Belgium’s hops growing region, so it is also home to a Hop Museum where you can apparently sniff a bewildering variety of hops, which I would have loved to do if I wasn’t so pressed for time (in spite of my dislike of hoppy beers, just because I like smelling stuff), but I was determined to get to Kattenstoet on time, so it fell by the wayside in favour of something far more historically important.
On a side street right next to Poperinge’s Town Hall, you’ll find a red door simply marked “death cell.” Upon entering, you’re faced with a prison cell where soldiers were held during the war…some of them simply overnight for drunkenness or staying out past curfew – but for some poor men, it was where they spent their last night alive, before being executed for desertion in the morning. Because many of these men were suffering from shell shock, their executions were nothing short of tragic, and the cell serves as a grim reminder of these young men who had their lives cut short. It’s not really the most pleasant atmosphere to be in, but I’m glad it’s something I saw and experienced, just to reflect on the many horrors of war. Some of the men carved their names on the wall of the cell, and these inscriptions have been preserved, with some of the more legible ones highlighted.
If you want to feel even more mournful, never fear, as there is a re-creation of the execution site where the men were killed by firing squad out the back of the cells. I don’t know what else I can really say about it, other than that it is powerful and chilling and terribly sad.
To end on something more upbeat, so the extreme joy of Kattenstoet in the next post (and it WILL be the next post, I promise!) doesn’t seem too jarring, Poperinge is also where Talbot House was located. This famous institution was started by two British Army chaplains as a place for soldiers to come when they could get away from the front lines, just to relax and engage in wholesome entertainments (basically stuff other than prostitutes or heavy drinking). It was unique because it wasn’t only an officer’s club, but welcomed soldiers of all ranks. It is now a museum/hotel, but I didn’t have a chance to go in, simply admiring it/posing for a picture on the outside, but you can definitely add it to your list if you need a jolt of relative positivity after the Death Cell. I know I’d like to return someday to see the interior for myself!