A Museum of Movement

Martin Evans explains the aims and origins of France’s national museum of immigration.

Albert Laprade’s pavilion, designed for the 1931 Colonial Exhibition, houses the National Museum on the History of Immigration in Paris. Of the 802,000 babies born in France in 2010 just under a third had at least one foreign parent. As with the history of the US, immigration is part of the country’s fabric. One only has to think of the singer Charles Aznavour, the actor Yves Montand and the footballer Zinedine Zidane: three major cultural figures whose roots are Armenian, Jewish-Italian and Algerian respectively.

The National Museum of the History of Immigration (Cité nationale de     l’histoire de l’mmigration), which opened in eastern Paris at the gateway to the huge park at Bois de Vincennes in 2007, is devoted to the history of France’s diverse immigrant communities and aims to bring a new understanding to a complex history. The permanent exhibition blends documents, everyday objects and filmed interviews to show how immigrants have contributed to the economic, social and cultural life of France. There are also regular exhibitions by contemporary artists (such as Denis Darzacq, whose photographs examined the role of street dance in France’s run-down suburbs), which challenge certain clichés and stereotypes. In this way the museum underlines that contemporary France is a patchwork.

What is remarkable is the museum’s location. Cité occupies the entrance pavilion of the original 1931 Colonial Exhibition. This huge event projected the image of imperial strength, stretching to the four corners of the globe, where 110 million people lived under French protection. It was about bringing the empire – largely acquired by accident during the 19th century – home and integrating it into French consciousness.

The art deco pavilion was designed by Albert Laprade, who drew architectural inspiration from the far reaches of empire, ranging from Morocco to Indochina. The exterior was decorated with an intricate relief sculptured by Alfred Janniot, in which representations of exotic animals are combined with depictions of muscular ‘natives’ happily fishing and harvesting. The result was a seductive vision of empire, complimented inside by a series of sumptuous frescoes extolling the French civilising mission. Following the Colonial Exhibition in the mid-1930s, the pavilion became the Museum of Colonialism.

After the Second World War France lost this empire, a traumatic process that climaxed with the Algerian War of 1954-62. Algeria was especially hard to relinquish because it was not a colony but an integral part of France. However, once Algerian independence was achieved, Charles de Gaulle, brought back to solve the Algerian problem in 1958, was unrepentant. In his view decolonisation was a victory of modernisation that would allow France to ‘marry the 20th century’.

In this context Laprade’s pavilion was a throwback to a bygone age. In 1960 it was renamed the National Museum of Arts from Africa and Oceania. The Ministry of Culture claimed that, under this banner, the collection would be displayed as art objects in their own right, rather than as ethnographic or colonial exhibits. Yet over the next 40 years the museum struggled to find a role, remaining on the margins and, for most guidebooks, just a curious footnote.

In 2003 the museum was closed and the collection moved to the Quai Branly Museum, a prestige project planned by the then president, Jacques Chirac. By showcasing the art and civilisations of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas, the new venture aimed to establish an equal dialogue between cultures. As preparation for the Quai Branly’s opening in 2006 got under way, the idea of the Cité was unveiled in 2004 and two architects, Patrick Bouchain and Loïc Julienne, were selected to redesign the pavilion in a style in keeping with Laprade’s original vision.

Outlining the nature of the Cité, Jacques Toubon, the former right-wing minister of culture appointed to oversee the project by Chirac, was careful to state that it was not a ‘site of memory’ for France’s colonial history. Rather its purpose was to teach French citizens to understand the determining role of immigration in the construction of the nation.

Toubon’s comments show how the question of the empire and its aftermath remains contentious. When the Cité opened there was hostility from some parts of the media. As Hédia Yelles-Chaouche, one of the curators explained to me recently, the new museum’s approach was accused of being too Anglo-Saxon. By focusing on the specificity of each group, it was seen as embracing post-colonial difference: an explicit challenge to republican orthodoxy that rejects ethnic distinction and talks only of ‘citizens’. Significantly, too, President Sarkozy did not inaugurate the museum: an absence described as ‘shocking’ by Patrick Weil, one of France’s leading historians of immigration.

Last year, to mark the 50th anniversary of Algerian independence in 1962, Benjamin Stora and Linda Amiri, two experts on the Algerian War, approached the Cité with the idea of  an exhibition exploring Algerians in France during the conflict: a first for a national museum. The subsequent exhibition set out to explain how Algerians in France, who numbered 250,000 by the mid-1950s and mostly living in shanty towns, experienced the war. Given the bitter legacy of that conflict, the decision to mount the exhibition was courageous. It exemplifies how the Cité is asking difficult questions about contemporary France.

Martin Evans is Professor of Modern European History at the University of Sussex. He is the author of Algeria: France’s Undeclared War (Oxford University Press, 2012).