This building from the year 1931 is now something of an embarrassment (anyone who isn't embarrassed ought to be) because the whole front façade is covered by crass propaganda bas-reliefs glorifying the French colonial system, which at that time was still in full operation even though revolts had already started in some of the colonies.
Originally this building was part of the Colonial Exposition of 1931, and from the beginning it included a popular Tropical Aquarium which still exists in the basement. For many years it also housed a Museum of the Colonies and the French Overseas Departments, which in 1960 was changed into a Museum of African and Oceanic Art. In 2003 this museum was closed, and its collections have now been integrated into the new museum of Quai Branly, which is more attractive and also less tainted by remnants of the colonial past.
At Porte Dorée the past remains, though, in the exterior bas-reliefs and interior murals which give an impression of how the French, or at least some of them, used to perceive the inhabitants of their then-colonies. The bas-relief in the first photo shows muscular half-naked natives (of wherever) mining copper and coal for shipment to France.
Second photo: This bas-relief shows natives in conical hats (perhaps in Vietnam) catching fish and other squiggly things, also for shipment to France.
Third photo: Dozens of half-naked natives working, fishing, hunting and of course carrying things on their heads to the French ships.
Fourth photo: In return for all these products, the French provided their colonies with such valuable commodities as Justice (blindfolded in this mural inside the building), Culture and Civilization. Or so they said.
Fifth photo: Here a gentle white man in a white robe (perhaps some sort of saint?) is being venerated by the local population, no doubt in Africa.
>>Next immigration review: Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration
The heart of the Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration is the permanent exhibition "Repères" (=landmarks, points of orientation) on the top floor.
Here the visitors, many of whom are from immigrant families themselves, can access a wealth of current and historical information from a wide range of viewpoints.
Second photo: This attractive exhibit documents the not-always-so-attractive housing situation of immigrants in France in various decades.
Third photo: These photos document living conditions in Africa, showing why many people would like to leave there and immigrate to Europe -- if they were allowed to.
Fourth photo: With the help of the audio guide you can hear, and sometimes see, interviews with immigrants of all backgrounds and generations.
Fifth photo: This video installation shows the silhouettes of six young people packing their suitcases (only two of whom are in the photo). They turn out to be from six different countries, all coming to France for different reasons. The young woman from Laos is ready first -- she just has a shoulder bag -- so she stands and waits until the others are finished. At the end there is a brief flash of six texts on the six screens telling who the people are, where they come from and what's in their luggage. One has her medical diploma because she wants to do advanced studies in France, but the woman from Laos has only a change of clothes and a ball of glutinous rice as emergency rations.
>>Next immigration review: Les sans-papiers
After taking a hard-hat construction site tour of the Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration (as described in a previous review), I was very curious about what would actually be there when it was finished.
Well, it still isn't "finished" and never will be, because it is not only a museum but also an ongoing project to collect and preserve personal reports by immigrants or people from immigrant families. The goal of the Cité is nothing less than to change the way people think about immigration.
In the central Festival Hall (Salle des fêtes) they have set up a booth called the "Vidéomaton" where anybody who wants to can make a five-minute video telling about their immigration experiences or whatever they want to say.
Second photo: A closer look at the "Vidéomaton". The screen on the outside shows some of the more interesting (not necessarily the most articulate!) videos, like one by an eighteen-year-old Arab immigrant and his Chinese girlfriend, telling of their lives in a French town and school.
Third photo: Two of the old pro-colonial salons have been preserved at the two front corners of the ground floor. This one is the Salon de Paul Reynaud, named after a French politician (1878-1966) who was Prime Minister of France for not quite three months during the turbulent year of 1940.
Fourth photo: Here is the entrance hall to the Cité and the Aquarium in the basement. Here you are given a marvelous audio guide -- included in the 5 Euro admission fee, but in French only! -- which gives access to a wide range of information and personal reports by immigrants.
Fifth photo: When I was there in the summer of 2008 they were showing a temporary exhibition called 1931 -- Les étrangers au temps de l'exposition coloniale (1931 -- The foreigners at the time of the colonial exposition), about the living and working conditions of the three million foreigners who were living in France at that time. Parallel to the exposition they offered a full program of films, conferences, guided walks and even guided tours in a 1930s vintage bus.
The Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration is not included in the Paris Museum Pass, so you have to pay the five Euros admission -- which is well worth it, but only if you understand French. This is one of only three museums in Paris that I can think of (the others being the Natural History Museum and the Institut du Monde Arabe) which have no explanations or summaries in any other language besides French.
>>Next immigration review: Landmarks in the history of immigration
So what do you do with a building that is covered inside and out with crude propaganda for a bygone colonial system? It would seem dishonest just to tear it down and destroy the evidence, so to speak. Also the building itself is not unattractive and is an architectural and historical monument of sorts. And it is a Listed Building, so they wouldn't be allowed to tear it down even if they wanted to.
The solution is to use it for a new museum of the History of Immigration, to document the movement of immigrants into France over the past two hundred years and also the phenomenon of immigration in general.
Also a small but highly competent team (I might be a bit biased about this, but still) has developed a bi-national exhibition on Foreigners in Germany and France from the 19th Century to the present. This was shown in Paris from December 2008 to April 2009, and after that at the German Historical Museum in Berlin.
When I went to the Palais de la Porte Dorée in June 2007 the new museum wasn't open yet, in fact the whole place was one big construction site, but I was able to go on a free "construction site tour" to see what was going on and hear about what they are planning to do. For the tour we were all given hard hats to wear, because of safety regulations.
Second photo: This is the central Festival Hall (Salle des fêtes) of the Palais de la Porte Dorée. It is actually quite an attractive space, or will be again after renovation is completed, despite the notorious pro-colonial murals on the walls.
Third photo: This is where the permanent exhibition is going to be installed, on the top floor of the building.
Fourth photo: In parts of the building we could still see the original display cases from the 1931 colonial exhibition.
Fifth photo: Photos of people working on the new museum, many of whom are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants.
Update: The Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration opened on October 10, 2007.
VT member kokoryko mentioned that he went there and "had a moving visit."
>>Next immigration review: Changing the way people think about immigration
The Tropical Aquarium in the basement of the Palais de la Porte Dorée has been here since the building was first opened in 1931, and it remained open to the public even while renovation work was going on upstairs.
I'm not sure I would pay to get in, necessarily (admission is 4.50 Euros as of 2012), but we were given a free look as part of our Construction Site Tour.
In the old days when there was a Colonial Museum upstairs, people used to make bitter jokes about this aquarium, saying you could go downstairs to see exotic fish and then upstairs to see exotic people.
Second and third photos: More fish in the Tropical Aquarium.
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