By Helena Arose
Museums have historically struggled with the display and interpretation of contentious histories and collections. During a visit Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration in Paris, France, this issue was brought to light in a number of ways. Thinking about the museum’s controversial past and current practices can give insight into how the museum has tried and failed to address the topic of immigration throughout French history.
The Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration, situated on Paris’s right bank, is a museum founded on controversy and contradiction. To start, the building that houses the museum was created for the Paris Colonial Exposition of 1931. On the building’s exterior, a monumental bas-relief depicts France conquering its colonies as well as the importation of goods—exotic plants and animals—from its territorial possessions. Inside, the central courtyard features wall paintings that function to complement the exterior. The paintings depict the French ideas and innovations brought to the colonies: medicine, the arts, civilization, etc. The building’s history and decoration that celebrate France’s domination of the colonies make the structure an interesting setting for a museum dedicated to immigration and functioning to celebrate the contributions of immigrants to French society and to bring awareness to French citizens on the particulars of immigration.
A controversy the museum faced after its establishment in 2007 was how to form exhibitions that represent the immigrant experience in a space dominated by a colonial narrative. The main exhibit and temporary exhibition spaces are situated upstairs, away from the provocative wall paintings in the central courtyard. Staff at the museum first debated organizing the collection around groups of people that immigrated to France. Ultimately the decision was made to exhibit the collection in a way that is meant to represent the immigrant experience, from the moment
immigrants arrive on French soil through the struggles of finding a place to live, acquiring a job, applying for citizenship, etc. The temporary exhibition space presents other challenges. Currently, the space holds what is called the Hall of Gifts, an exhibition centered around donated gifts from immigrants. While this gives immigrants a chance to choose objects that represent their own experience, the exhibit is highly biased towards the groups that choose to donate materials, a partiality that presents an interesting challenge for museum interpreters.
Yet another complication the museum has faced is broadening its appeal to include different audiences. All of the text that accompanies both exhibits are written in French, in line with the museum’s stated mission to educate French citizens about immigration but perhaps unwelcoming or inaccessible to immigrants themselves. During my visit to the museum, the curator stressed this tendency for the museum to appeal more to French citizens than French immigrants. The museum has also not chosen to produce any content, exhibition, or programming on the recent immigration of Syrian refugees to France, despite its unique position to do so. This failure to address this contentious new development in France’s immigration history is a choice perhaps rooted in the museums controversial past, but also makes it clear that the museums current and future roles are uncertain as well.