For Paris’s im­mi­gra­tion mu­seum, ter­ror­ism spurs tourism

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY EMMA JA­COBS

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 spe- 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 his­tor­cial­izes ic 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 La- ger­feld. 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 World War I.

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 only open 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 fa­vor 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.”

ICONOTEC /ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

TOP: A close-up of the ex­te­rior of the Palais de la Porte Doree in Paris, home of the Musee na­tional de l’his­toire de l’im­mi­gra­tion. MID­DLE: Vis­i­tors sur­vey one of the ex­hibits at the mu­seum. RIGHT: As might be ex­pected, vin­tage suit­cases are on dis­play.

NATHALIE DARBELLAY/PALAIS DE LA PORTE DOREE

JEAN-JAC­QUES CASTAING/PALAIS DE LA PORTE DOREE

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