The Ocher Museum

The palm of a hand pressed into ocher and then onto the wall of a cave is one of the earliest forms of painting we know of. The ocher museum in Roussillon traces the history of ocher mining and processing, and the way pigments have been refined and utilized through the centuries. Exhibits also investigate the science of light and perception of color, and include a fascinating collection of swatches and color notes from artists, textile manufacturers, fashion designers, printers, and others.

The town of Roussillon sits on the largest ocher deposit in the world, and for many centuries the production of ocher was the major industry. After the factory closed it sat empty for many years, until it was converted into a museum. A former foreman at the factory collaborated with the group who developed the site to document the year-long process used to mine, purify, grind, and package ochre. Much of the decaying equipment remains, and placards explain each stage of the process.

Gerry, with his background in mechanical and manufacturing engineering, was fascinated by remains of the old hand-crafted machinery and the puzzle of sorting out the manufacturing process. The photos below show the process after the ocher has been mined and brought to the factory. The raw ocher was mixed with water, strained and pumped into a series of outdoor holding tanks, where it eventually dried and was cut up into blocks for further processing.

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Once dry, the ocher blocks were ground, sifted, mixed, and packed in barrels in a series of workrooms. Finally it was packaged for shipping all over the world.

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The ochre dust is still present everywhere, and you can imagine what conditions must have been like for the workers in the factory. An artist’s installation in one of the rooms uses a grid of linen squares dipped in bees wax and then ochre dust to symbolize the condition of the worker’s lungs after years of breathing in the dust. In another room, workers smocks stained with various colors of ocher hang over bags of pigment.

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The photos below are from the exhibits inside the museum, showing the materials used to make various pigments, and some of the samples in the museum.

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Finally the shop full of jars of pigment, pastels, oils, other art supplies, and books about art and color, is irresistible! I bought a set of pastels which included 4 shades of ocher that come from Roussillon, but had to pass on a beautiful set of 9 extra-large pastels in a wooden box. It was to die for, but was just too big to carry on my bike.

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A wing of classrooms is used for workshops for adults and children investigating various processes using the pigments. Little swatches of color with quotes from various artists about the nature of color and perception are tucked into corners all over the site like clues for a treasure hunt.

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