Monday, February 4, 2008

The Musee du Quai Branly and the Cite Nationale de l'Histoire de l'Immigration

Two of France’s newest museums attempt to confront elements of the nation’s most troublesome past. The Musée du Quai Branly and the Cité Nationale de l’Histoire de l’Immigration (CNHI) both struggle with the question of how to tell the story of France’s relationship with “others” without seeming to make that story one-sided in France’s favor.

But that task has proven difficult in different ways. In trying to step back from the story of colonialism, each museum attempts to create official post-colonial narratives which definitively put colonial questions into the past and, in the process, reassert France’s claim to be the universal Republic which accepts other cultures and peoples. Yet each seems to be aware of the difficulty in achieving such a project, expressed in some awkward choices and narratives which reveal more about France’s ability to forget than to remember.

The ambivalence of the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris is reflected in the name. Unlike most museums which announce their subject and intent over their front door, the Musée du Quai Branly tells the visitor nothing. This museum is not named after its content, but rather after its geographical location in Paris. It does not tell us what we are about to see, only where to find it.

Perhaps this is no surprise given the highly charged politics surrounding what is actually inside. The successor to older anthropological museums such as the Musée de l’Homme and the Musée des Arts d’Afrique et d’Oceanie, the Quai Branly takes collections that grew during France’s colonial era and tries to reinterpret them within a post-colonial context.

In doing so, it claims to house the “patrimoine universelle” of the world, as some of the wall text puts it, and to promote cultural dialogue. It wants to present itself as a global museum of global history in a global age. As such, it attempts to (dis)engage with France’s colonial past, telling instead a story of the common bonds of human culture. But it does so by effacing the colonial past which underlies so much of today’s global history. The museum deals with this issue by turning post-colonialism into a Francophone version of “It’s a Small World After All.” Celebratory display replaces analysis. The global world which the museum wants to praise is deeply shaped by the experience of European colonialism and American neo-colonialism, and failing to acknowledge that robs the museum of much explanatory power.

To visitors -- especially those who are not French -- who have limited knowledge of the so-called “civilizing mission” of the nineteenth century, none of this will probably be apparent, especially since the text which the museum offers reinterprets the history which helped to make it. The museum describes itself as the “fruit of France’s contacts with non-Western cultures” and offers to take visitors on a “voyage of discovery.” The difference between “discovery” and “conquest” is, not surprisingly, never mentioned.

The organizational emphasis is on geography, with four zones, Oceania, Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Within these divisions, geographic subdivisions are generally respected, although there is often a jumbling of objects, sounds, and references within them. But curators have tried to put the emphasis squarely on a common vision of humanity. One high-tech display contained inside a bubble shows a video of Pangaea breaking apart into various continents, thus highlighting the connections between geography, culture, and history throughout the globe.

This view of a common humanity fits well with France’s much trumpeted vision of itself as the creator of human rights and universal values that emerged from the French Revolution. French universalism has, of course, been called into question, in large part because that universal claim was part of what led to colonialism through the extension of Enlightenment ideas to the rest of the world.

The argument for a universal, global humanity is largely on the surface. The Quai Branly tries to present all cultures as equals in a comparative context, but with no European history, and very little contemporary global history, how is this possible? All the cultures seem to be linked in a common vision of humanity, but not all of humanity is represented. Of course, this is an impossible task, and European history is present in the city which surrounds the museum. As a result, the museum seems like a catch-all for all the “non-Western” cultures. But there is no dialogue between that history and the city which surrounds it. In addition, nearly all of the visions of other cultures it presents are of the past. This is clearly a historical museum, or at least one which creates a static vision of culture as being locked in the past.

Take away the conceit of global history, though, and the problems quickly emerge. There is no better example of the tension between the desire to create a vision of global humanity and the messiness of the French past than in the description of how the African collection was built. The wall text refers to “exploration missions” during the nineteenth century. Eliding the difference between “exploration” and “expropriation” is intellectually dishonest at best. But the museum’s creators were faced with the challenge of taking this problematic past and trying to put a positive spin on it. In other words, previous generations of Frenchmen collected these items through various means, many of which are deeply tainted by colonialism. But in the post-colonial world, how can we look at it in a new way without confronting the very means by which the collection was made?

Like many museums of its sort, there is also the tension between aesthetics and science, something demonstrated in the museum’s entry hall. Upon arriving, one sees a large display of musical instruments from Africa housed inside a glass cylinder. But they are displayed on storage shelves with catalogue numbers as if in an anthropological warehouse. Jumbled together, but clearly well-preserved, they evoke the idea of collecting, cataloging, and scientifically studying other cultures using Western rubrics. Immediately afterward, one proceeds up a curving white ramp filled with light and video projections evoking a post-modernist aesthetic. Upon entering the actual collection, one sees a mixture of these two motifs -- sometimes displays of beauty; other times displays of scientific cataloguing.

This duality is repeated in the architecture. The building itself mixes a sleek, modernist minimalism of glass and steel construction with a variety of organic forms. The exterior structure itself largely consists of glass panels from floor to ceiling. But the windows on the northern side of the building are painted as if covered with leaves and vegetation. Through the middle of the display is a bumpy, curving, irregular brown fiberglass wall called “the river.” It creates a pathway between the four display areas, but stands in stark contrast with the polish of glass and metal. The site itself further wraps the collection in natural forms. The building actually sits on large metal posts, thus creating room for a park underneath and around it. One part of the façade which faces the Quai Branly itself is metal but has moss and plants growing out of it. On one hand, this appears to be a nod to ecology and our current desire to fuse nature and modernity. But it also reads as if one is going into a more “natural” environment when entering the museum. The cultures inside are “closer to nature” because they are surrounded by literal as well as figurative representations of nature.

Nature is present, but high-technology comprises a crucial element of the interior. Video and audio displays throughout the exhibit, including some tucked into nooks in “the river” wall and in other hidden cubby-holes as well as two “music boxes” at either end of the hall provide contextualization and performance. At least one musical display is a small room with a video projection of natural forms intended to create a “collective experience” of performance, presumably as one would have heard these sounds in their original context. Most items are set against black backgrounds and emphasized with careful spot lighting which makes the artifacts pop out visually from their display cases. All of these things make the artifacts easy to experience first-hand in the museum, yet as such they are fully encased in the technology of the modern West.

It is not clear how cultural dialogue is taking place within the context of the permanent collection, however. Perhaps the viewer is in dialogue with the artifacts since they are certainly not in dialogue with one another. But visitors are offered very little information with which to engage in any kind of dialogue. Wall text is present, but certainly not overwhelming. In the section showing items related to the secret Kono rituals in West Africa, the artifacts are tucked away in a small, dark cabinet into which one enters, presumably as a way to demonstrate their secretive nature. But how will the visitor really understand the significance?

Ultimately, the question becomes: whose museum is this? Is this a museum about France, about the West, or about the rest of the world? Like any such museum, it asks us to consider who defines culture and cultural representation. It is certainly a far cry from older natural history or anthropological museums which depict an upward march of civilization. But how far can such a collection go toward cultural pluralism and putting cultures on equal footing when inside such a Western-style display? A museum about cultural dialogue would surely do more to show the relationships the peoples of the world and would include an examination of the colonial past as one of those relationships. But the dialogue is framed only within the context of a truncated version of global history which looks to future, hopeful possibilities of human collaboration rather than to past, and more troubling, experiences of exploitation.

If the location of the Musée du Quai Branly hides its content with its name, the Cité Nationale de l’Histoire de l’Immigration is the opposite. Although located far from most immigrant neighborhoods just outside the Bois de Vincennes and sharing its space with the city’s aquarium, it still cannot hide its relationship with the colonial past because it is located in a converted pavilion from the 1931 Exposition Coloniale. Until recently the museum of African and Oceanic art -- one of the collections now in the Quai Branly -- it wears its past on its sleeve. The façade is a bas relief of colonial scenes; the central hall bears a mural of French colonial glories depicting how France carried industry, art, peace, justice, science, and other Western values to the rest of the world; and a monument to colonization of the Congo sits across the street from the entrance. The dedication plaque from the Exposition is still mounted high above the foyer just inside the main entryway.

For all the presence of the colonial context, very little is said about it, though. Instead, the museum focuses on how immigrants came to France and what they did when they got there. Less is said about why, although there are references to “longstanding relationships” between France and other parts of the world, and the notion that people have always moved from place to place. This is a little problematic, depending on one’s point of view. Relationships may have been longstanding, but they were hardly equal. There is something of the romance of travel and migration in the way this story is framed. It says less about the hardships abroad or the complicated relationships with France that led to journeys overseas. Instead, the museum is about the hope that immigration brings, both to the immigrant and to France.

Large banners showing historical and demographic maps charting the paths of immigrants around the world and their densities within Europe emphasize both the global aspects of immigration and the specificity to France. One can see the changing demographics over time unfold. These include refugees, including Iraqi refugees up through 2006. Lighted displays throughout the exhibit space tell the story with ample text and imagery, but they are hard to crowd around.

Although the narratives of some specific groups are told, groups of migrants are less on display than individual immigrants. Indeed, the museum curators have worked very hard to give voice to individuals who tell their own story, whether in quotes from immigrants lining the staircases, interactive videos in the main entryway, or display cases of personal artifacts showing some of the things which people showed up in France with -- from musical instruments, toys, and personal photos to clothes, record albums, and passports. Empty suitcases further symbolize the journey.

Much of the rest of the story is about what immigrants have brought with them. Here the museum highlights diversity and multiculturalism. Although there are nods to ongoing conflicts -- a photo exhibit on the sans papiers and exhibits on racism and stereotyping -- most of the thrust is the contribution which people from around the world have made to enrich French culture, in realms from food and art to sports and religion. La France mosaïque is clearly on display here. Several sections of the museum are not historical but show contemporary expressions by French artists of immigrant descent, including photo essays, sculpture, and home videos. The museum highlights immigrants on a day-to-day level by trying to take us inside work and home to better see the life of those who have arrived in France. At the same time, it wraps the diversity of that experience into a broader category of “the immigrant experience.” This tension between the universal and the particular runs throughout.

The look of the museum is high-tech and sleek, with video, audio, and interactive exhibits throughout designed to draw people into the story. Indeed, drawing everyone in is clearly the museum’s goal. It wants to show the people of France, regardless of their heritage, that they have something to contribute to each other. Unlike the Quai Branly, this is a museum of the present which wants to project a particular vision of the state of multicultural France rather than a historical museum.

By telling the story of immigrants, this museum is self-consciously trying to be post-colonial and global at the same time, in some of the same ways as the Quai Branly. Yet it folds all of the stories of migration into one in which, while the road is sometimes rocky, everyone gets along in the end -- another version of the “small world” story. Tales of specifically colonial groups are effaced, thus we do not see the story of Vietnamese of Algerian immigration, just immigration in general.

In this sense, despite its surroundings in a former colonial pavilion, the Cité Nationale de l’Histoire de l’Immigration may not erase the colonial past, but it certainly mutes it. By focusing on migration as a universal human experience, it removes the historical specificity of why many immigrants came to France in particular. Migration is often conditioned by particular circumstances, including languages learned at the behest of a colonial power, which take out some of the romance and reframe migration as a hard and sometimes bitter choice. This suppression of the colonial past is best expressed by the museum’s president Jacques Toubon who told the New York Times, “The history of immigration is one thing, and the history of slavery and the history of colonization are other things.” Maybe, but the powerful, historical links between them are hard to ignore.

Still, this museum represents a significant step, especially in a nation which has for so long denied the significance of the immigrant story and insisted on the notion of Republican universalism. To have a state-run museum devoted to multiculturalism rather than to the notion of giving up any previous identity in favor of “Frenchness” may mark the beginning of a larger cultural shift in France in the way in which it looks at its own history, especially in a country where around one quarter of people have at least one parent or grandparent from somewhere outside France. Of course, those struggles continue, most notably in the ongoing headscarf debate in schools where, according to Republican ideology, religious identities must give way to that of the secular public space. One of the quotes in the staircase reads “Je suis qui?” In some sense, this is the question which the museum poses -- about both France and its immigrants -- but one which it leaves open to visitors to answer. Perhaps that was a question being asked by President Nicholas Sarkozy of himself when this son of a Hungarian immigrant who had infamously denounced the poorer and unemployed -- and less assimilated -- children of immigrants in the Paris suburbs as “scum,” opened the museum to the public in October 2007.

The Musée du Quai Branly has been wildly successful so far, although the Cité Internationale de l’Histoire de l’Immigration has been less so. The former draws an international audience including tourists, helped in part because of its proximity to the Eiffel Tower; the latter undoubtedly largely appeals to domestic audiences interested in the issues which it presents. But whether telling the story for the world or for France, both of these institutions share a common narrative of forgetting. Every nation forgets elements of its past, as Frenchman Ernest Renan famously stated, in order to make itself out of disparate regions and factions. Museums devoted to forgetting are not necessarily surprising, but they also speak to the ongoing and difficult work of nation-making in the global, post-colonial age.

One of the exhibits at the Cité Nationale de l’Histoire de l’Immigration tells the story of Marie Curie, née Skłodowska, a Polish immigrant who, despite her immense contribution to science, was often the victim of xenophobia. Here, the museum takes a clear stand in her favor, ultimately showing the remains of Curie and her husband Pierre being taken into the Panthéon of French heroes. An immigrant can make it in France, the museum argues. By coincidence, the person who opposed Curie’s admission to the Académie Francaise was French inventor and physicist Edouard Branly.

I would like to thank Katheryn Wright and Jean Pedersen for sharing visits to these museums with me and great conversations about our experiences. Thanks also to Michelle Pinto for our discussions about the issues these institutions raise.