A mansion in Lormont, just off a narrow road which runs alongside the A10 motorway, forms the backdrop to what is undoubtedly one of the ...

Musée National de l’Assurance Maladie: showcasing France’s healthcare system in Lormont

A mansion in Lormont, just off a narrow road which runs alongside the A10 motorway, forms the backdrop to what is undoubtedly one of the most unusual attractions in the Bordeaux area: le Musée National de l’Assurance Maladie.

The museum, which opened in 1989, is the only one of its kind in France. It provides an extensive historical overview of the country’s national healthcare system for three target audiences: schoolchildren and students, the general public, and staff of the CPAM (Caisse Primaire d’Assurance Maladie) healthcare fund institution itself.

The spectacular château alone deserves a visit. Known as Les Lauriers, it was built in 1860 and initially belonged to a wealthy dynasty of shipowners, the Gradis family. The Gironde branch of CPAM acquired the property in 1948, converting it into a convalescent home from 1951 onwards. In later years, new facilities were built in the adjacent park, freeing up the mansion to be converted into a museum.

The museum aims to take the visitor on a journey through time. The visit starts out with the beginnings of “la protection sociale” and particularly the development of “sociétés de secours mutuels” in the 19th century, moving on to the first laws passed in the early 20th century, the introduction of the social security system from 1945 onwards, and the development of the system from 1967 up to the present day. This is illustrated by displays featuring hundreds of archive items and documents.

Highlights on the tour include a surprising mock-up of a social security centre as it looked in the 1950s and 1960s, complete with authentic props such as vintage typewriters, telephones, switchboards and rubber stamps. It is tempting to role-play the part of a member of the public meeting staff, filing paperwork and then shuffling over to the counter to obtain the much-desired financial compensation!

An entire room has been given over to the tools of the trade for CPAM employees down the years, from archaic calculators (including a couple of legendary Burroughs adding machines) and punch card technology to some monstrously large rudimentary computers and contemporary “Carte Vitale” electronic chip card readers.

Another room showcases typical CPAM initiatives such as poster campaigns and medical examination centres. The most impressive exhibit is a dentist’s chair which no doubt welcomed many a grimacing patient over the years.

Some of the museum’s more bizarre exhibits include ghostly mannequins sporting designer uniforms, symbolising a policy aimed at “humanising” the institution, making it more welcoming and appealing to the general public. Appropriately enough, the mannequins have been positioned at the entrance to the visit.

As well as a visitor booklet, a high-tech audio-guide is available free of charge at reception, to add a further dimension to the tour. The descriptive narration is coupled with authentic eye-witness testimonials by CPAM staff.

The museum does feel like a well-kept secret; it currently welcomes around 1,600 visitors annually. Its niche appeal is undeniable but there is definitely an audience out there. To reach prospective visitors, director Emmanuelle Saujeon-Roque is developing the museum’s presence on the internet, with an extensive website (featuring videos, a snazzy virtual visit and a host of interactive features) and a Facebook page. The added exposure should deservedly draw new visitors to this unique museum. 

> Find it on the Invisible Bordeaux map: Musée National de l'Assurance Maladie, Château des Lauriers, 10 route de Carbon-Blanc, Lormont 
> The museum is open to the general public from Monday to Friday, 2pm-6pm (5pm on Fridays). Admission is free of charge. 
> Museum website: www.musee-assurance-maladie.fr 
> And Facebook page.

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