Seismologist Frank A. Perret listens to the rumblings of the Solfatar Volcano in Italy. He uses an amplifier aimed at the ground. Photograph, 1917. © Cambridge University Library


(Philadelphia, 1867 – New York 1943). The American engineer, inventor and philanthropist Frank A. Perret discovered volcanology during a trip to Italy, where he met M. R. Matteucci, director of the Vesuvius Observatory.
He joined Matteucci in 1906 to study volcanology and Vesuvius’ ongoing eruption, writing a remarkable monography on the subject. He travelled worldwide, deepening his knowledge of volcanoes from Sicily to Hawaii, the Canary Islands and Japan. On 16 September 1929, less than thirty years after the 1902 catastrophe, Mount Pelée suddenly showed signs of new activity and sparked an exodus of local inhabitants. Convinced by Alfred Lacroix’s theories, Frank A. Perret went to Martinique. An atypical scientist and also a philanthropist, he equipped the volcano with analysis and surveillance instruments. He played a major role in evaluating the risks run by the town’s fragile community, restoring its confidence with his lucidity.

The museum of Saint-Pierre Postcard, Etablissements Merlande, after 1933 Fondation Clément, coll. Loïs Hayot, F014.02.140

From volcanological museum to memorial of the 1902 catastrophe

As soon as he arrived, Frank A. Perret saw the interest that a volcanological museum could have for Martinique. Following in Professor Lacroix’s footsteps, he wanted the continue the study of Mount Pelée and its eruptions, crucial for the advance of volcanology as a science. He secured funding from private donors and the town of Saint-Pierre provided the land. In 1933 the island’s first museum opened with an exhibition which, although featuring relics of the catastrophe, focussed mainly on volcanology. The rectangular, painted concrete building was in the Art Deco style. Its architecture was remodelled in 1969 in the International Style with “Musée Franck A. Perret” in cast iron letters on the facade. The permanent collection’s reorganisation vacated a large area in the middle of a single room that could accommodate large groups of visitors at a time when mass tourism was developing in Martinique.
The museum’s interior was renovated in 1988 when the town of Saint-Pierre was granted the “Ville d’art et d’histoire” label. It obtained Musée de France status in 2004.

In December 2018 the museum was entirely renovated as part of a public service delegation allocated to the Fondation Clément.
“Memorial of the 1902 Catastrophe” was added to the historic name of the museum’s founder to highlight its new focus on a more cultural approach to the catastrophe and to recall the disaster experienced by the people of Martinique and its worldwide repercussions.

Photo Jean-Baptiste Barret

A new architectural project

The renovation project’s resolutely contemporary architecture marks a new phase in the museum’s life. Its aim is to root the museum in the town, where its powerful, sober presence will assert its vocation as a memorial.

Reopening it to the public on 8 May 2019 after only five months’ closure dictated, irrespective of any aesthetic criteria, employing simple to use and locally available materials. The choice of wood cladding to replace the damaged stone façade in situ since the 1969 renovation was immediate. An easily procurable material, it was charred using the ancient Japanese shu sugi ban technique, rendering it more weather-resistant and poignantly echoing the town’s history. The esplanade and promenade were renovated using a simple deactivated concrete whose aggregates came from the slopes of Mount Pelée at Saint-Pierre, and the fountain was restored to working order. The building’s simple, elegant 1969 forms were kept, with the addition merely of a gallery on the former access ramp to facilitate circulation in the museum space. In the Art Deco style when it was built in 1933, the museum took on a more modern look in 1969. Now the building, designed by the architect Olivier Compère, is resolutely contemporary. Its pure lines and forms, beautiful black exterior that varies in hue with the time of day and palette of simple, resonant materials poignantly state its vocation as a memorial.

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