Colonial History in France, a touchy subject. A look at the Cite Nationale de l’Immigration

 

 

 

 

In the occasion of the appointment of Pap Ndiaye as France’s Education minister, here’s our post on the Museum of Immigration or Cite Nationale de l’Histoire de l’Immigration, the institution he directed since 2021.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                  par Victoria Márquez-Feldman, Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne.

Choices, selections, must be made in order to be able to develop any museum itinerary. The story of the Palais de la Porte Dorée is a very good example of the unintended consequences of these choices. The former Colonial Palace built for the Colonial Exhibition of 1931 has been restored and refurbished to house the Immigration Museum, and even the choice of its name, Cité Nationale de l’Histoire de l’Immigration (CNHI) turned out to be problematic. This building, which recalls through its decorations the history of a France which wanted to “civilize” the world, has decorations which can certainly seem offensive because of their reference to this “civilizing mission” that justified the colonization of Africa and was the root of so much violence and pain. But maybe it is also possible that the choice of this building was a “mockeryof the defenders of colonialism, by reversing the initial premises of the building: the choice of the palace of the Golden Gate would then represent what Nancy Green calls a “museum of (a) story to criticize (another) story2 Something that had not been well explained, however. The 2010 protest was a perfect example of this dissonance: in October of that year, undocumented workers from Africa occupied the Cité to give visibility to their demands for normalization of residence status. They took pictures of themselves mocking the depictions of colonial France carved into the facade of the building, expressing the irony that was being ignored by institutional discourse.

 

occupation cite national immigration 2010
2010, occupation du hall central de la Cité Nationale de l’Histoire de l’Immigration. Source : lexpress
Musee immigration Paris
Un travailleur sans-papiers à la CNHI lors de l’occupation de 2010

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Who to include? To say what? 

The choices made during the creation of the Museum and the museography chosen to display the collections are intimately linked to the political context in a broader sense. An example of the political influence – and even of the pressure – exerted on these museums is visible in the lengthy inauguration speech of Francois Hollande where he expresses his visions on immigration for long minutes.3 The case of the CNHI is very interesting because of the particular history of France, a very ancient nation whose identity is still a subject of discussion. After initial museographic debates that led to the choice of the post-revolutionary period (1789-2020) as the chronological milestones to be addressed, other “sensitive” questions emerged. Should the question have arisen, for example, of what is an “immigrant”, and who is a “full” citizen? Are those who came from the former colonies to be presented “immigrants” or as citizens? Or both at the same time? These are undoubtedly very delicate subjects. But which can no longer be ignored. The colonial history of France is also part of its history and it must be confronted, re-thought, for one day to be able, if it’s ever possible, to repair it.

Even if during the process of creating the CNHI, historians made it a condition for their participation to “leave politics out of the content of the museum”4 but of course, it is never possible to do such a thing. According to David Sherman, these academics had understood the word ‘politics’ in too strict a sense, without having taken into account the policies inherent in the French museum sphere, which carry significant weight and present particular issues, tensions and dynamics.5

The way in which each museum invites its audiences to “interact” through collaborative projects also says a lot about the construction of the “typical visitor” targeted by the institution. The CNHI hosts, for example, the Galerie des Dons(Galerie of Donations), in constant movement and redevelopment, which shows personal stories through objects donated by visitors. Here, the inclusion of certain stories implies the taking of a political stance by the institution. For example, the latest showcase to be added to the Galerie des Dons in Paris tells the story of a Venezuelan immigrant who came to France to join her French partner and form a family there. The explanatory panel at the bottom of this talks about the immigrants who came in the 2000s due to the Chavista regime, assuming – with an obvious lack of historical distance – that the rise of Chavez to power had only be seen by Venezuelans as the establishment of an authoritarian regime of political persecution, similar to that established by Argentine military junta of 1976 6

 

Indeed, to create a “museum” of migration implies in itself a very strong political position; by choosing to dedicate a museum to the history of this subject each country constructs its own representations of the past and of what it understands to be a “national identity” while simultaneously commenting, at least indirectly, on current events. Sometimes it is by a very direct statement, such as the one found on the Liberty Ellis Foundation website: “(…) Does America have a duty to keep its doors open to the world? Can immigrants keep their own culture and language, and still be called Americans?7 These museums have the mission of guiding the public’s reflection on what concerns current immigration and the integration of foreigners into the society that’s welcoming them. Thus, looking at these museums through a comparative prism can be very useful to understand not only the museum policies put into effect in each country, but also to understand the representations of the past and current controversies on a wider institutional level.

 

 

1 Green, Nancy, « History at large – A French Ellis Island ? Museums, Memory and History in France and in the United States » In : History Workshop Journal, n. 63, printemps 2007
2Green, op.cit 3 Discours disponible en ligne sur le site de l’Elysée.
4« (…) keeping politics out of the content of the museum itself » Green, op.cit., p.247
5 SHERMAN, David, J., « The Perils of Patrimoine: Art, History, and Narrative in the Immigration History Museum, Paris » In : Oxford Art Journal , n. 39, Mars 2016.
6 De plus, cette vitrine est installée près de l’endroit où se trouvent des objets appartenant à une exilée argentine qui raconte son echappée de la dictature militaire des années 1976-1983. Ce choix muséographique crée – peut être sans le vouloir – un lien de familiarité entre ses deux « exilées » latino-américaines, comme si les circonstances de leur exil eussent été similaires.
7 Il s’agit du site web de la fondation qui gère le site d’Ellis Island: « The Statue of Liberty – Ellis Island Foundation, Inc. ». URL: <http://www.libertyellisfoundation.org/immigration-timeline>