(Recently published in National Post)
After the terrorist attacks of November 2015, attendance dropped at most Paris museums. A fall in tourists, combined with locals’ avoidance of large and crowded spaces, reduced the number of visitors to the Louvre, the Chateau de Versailles and the Musee d’Orsay.
Not so, however, to the National Museum of the History of Immigration.
After the violence, perpetrated partly by descendants of North African immigrants to France and Belgium, visitors came to the museum to learn about the circumstances of immigration from North Africa, according to Benjamin Stora, the museum’s director and a leading historian who specializes in Algeria. “People came to see what had happened in this history,” he said. “What was this complicated history? So our visits didn’t fall.”
France has never thought of itself as a nation of immigrants. The French model has stressed the assimilation of new arrivals over American-style multiculturalism. The museum seeks to present a version of French history that highlights immigrants’ contributions to the country from the 19th century, when it received Germans, Italians and Belgians, to postwar migration from France’s former colonies.
The museum is organized thematically — with sections on immigration status and documents, stereotypes and immigrants in the French labor movement, to name a few — and displays historic photos and documents next to objects and contemporary works of art inspired by the same themes.
One display highlights the 500,000 people who flooded across the border from Spain in the weeks after Gen. Francisco Franco’s rise to power. It juxtaposes exiles’ photos with identity documents and pages of a graphic novel on life near the border in the detention camps that were created to house them.
A contemporary sculpture by itinerant Cameroonian artist Barthélémy Toguo, “Residence Permit,” includes four giant, wooden stamps in roughly the shape of African drums. Another, called “Dream Machine,” is by artist Kader Attia. Attia grew up, like many children of immigrants in France, in large social housing projects in the suburbs — the banlieues — of French cities. In his piece, a vending machine sells items representing the tension for second-generation immigrants between the desires to integrate into French consumer culture and to retain cultural identity. On offer: halal Botox and condoms, and a self-help book on how to lose your banlieue accent.
This year marks the museum’s 10th anniversary. It opened to relatively little fanfare, without the usual presidential ribbon-cutting. The new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, was focused on pushing through campaign promises to limit immigration.
Its home, the Palais de la Porte Doree, was built at the eastern edge of the city for the 1931 Paris Colonial Exposition. Originally intended as a permanent museum to the French colonies, it still houses a tropical aquarium in the basement.
The art deco building’s most striking feature is the “stone tapestry” covering the exterior. The enormous frieze depicting the contributions of the French colonies to France took two years to create. Inside, elaborate murals in the main room on the ground floor depict France’s contributions to its colonies. Much of this iconography, particularly inside, has become profoundly dated, a relatively unmediated window into the thinking around racial hierarchies at the time of construction. For those reasons, this central hall was closed to the public for many years.
“Making it visible to people, one hopes, provokes a certain discussion,” observed University of Sydney historian Robert Aldrich, who has written a book about monuments to colonialism throughout France. “In a way,” he mused during a visit to the building, “closing it off is hiding the past.”
Apart from the main exhibition, the museum also hosts temporary exhibits and special events. (A recent one focused on the current refugee crisis.) It also welcomes between 30,000 and 40,000 students a year. Stora considers them an important part of the audience.
He tries to feature popular themes in each special exhibition to get more visitors in the doors. Last year, the “Fashion Mix” show highlighted immigrants who made it in French couture, including Elsa Schiaparelli and Karl Lagerfeld. An exhibition on Italian immigration from 1850 to 1960 runs through September.
While the museum acknowledges famous immigrants to France, its collections focus more on less prominent arrivals. This is most striking in the donation gallery, which curates items given to the museum by immigrants and their descendants. These include treasured mementos brought from home and artifacts of life in France — such as an Algerian tea pot passed from mother to daughter and boots worn by an Italian immigrant during his French military service during the First World War.
Helene Orain, director of the Palais de la Porte Doree, is particularly fond of this part of the museum.
“The object has a story but it’s also the story of the person,” she explained. “Behind the objects, the dates, the events, there are people who are flesh and blood. They had hopes. They sometimes had huge obstacles.”
Another area devoted to the history of the building also displays items — a plastic water jug, a prayer rug — left behind by undocumented workers who occupied the museum in 2010 to protest immigration policies.
While open only a decade, Stora said, the museum has seen a momentous shift in attitudes about immigration. When planning was underway, “people were still saying in certain circles that immigration was an opportunity for France,” in both economic and cultural terms. The political debate was about whom to admit to further those goals — limiting family reunification in favour of skilled immigration, for example.
In this moment, he said, his museum has an important educational role to play: “To prepare the generations to come,” he said, “to explain where we come from, the origins of the nation.”
IF YOU GO
– The art deco palace houses the National Museum of Immigration and the Tropical Aquarium in the basement. Open Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Ticket sales end at 4:45 p.m. on weekdays and 6:15 p.m. on the weekends. Regular admission costs about US$5 and about US$7 during temporary exhibitions.