On the changing significance of the Palais de la Porte Dorée, a legacy of the Exposition colonial internationale 1931, by Tom Jackson

A couple of years ago a trip to Paris to visit my Bibliothèque Nationale-burrowing partner gave me the chance to visit the site of the famous Exposition coloniale internationale of 1931. I was introduced to this fascinating episode in French colonial history by my current PhD supervisor Dr Sophie Watt.

By Mbzt (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Mbzt (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


After reading about the grand exhibitions of the life and art of the indigènes I was excited to learn that there are still vestiges of this well-visited attraction, including the Palais de la Porte Dorée, located to the east of Paris at Vincennes. At the time I became fascinated by the façade of the building that depicts all parts of the French Empire through images of their people and goods; I wanted to see it up close. Given that nearby there is a huge public garden and a château, we decided to spend an afternoon in the area. From that day what remained with me is an interest in the continued presence and changing use of the Palais over the past eighty years.

The Palais de la Porte Dorée was established as an exhibition centre during the exposition and was renamed the Musée de la France d’Outre-mer in 1935. Like the exposition, it was intended to demonstrate the variety and wealth of France’s colonial possessions and in turn French imperial prowess. At the time the French colonies were a vital part of how French political elites envisioned French power in the world. The Palais remained in this guise until 1960/61 when, in the context of the dissolution of the French Colonial Empire, it was renamed the Musée des Arts Africains et Océaniens (MAAO). Thus, the changing political landscape in France and the wider world led to this building being utilised in a different way.

In 2003 the items from the MAAO, which was renamed the Musée national des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie in 1990, were relocated to the Musée du Quai Branly and now form part of its collection of ‘non-European’ art and culture. Following this, the Palais was again repurposed. President Chirac initiated the process by which it would become La Cite de l’Histoire de l’Immigration. The leaders of this project were unabashed about their vision for the museum; its purpose is to help further the integration of immigrants into the French Republic. The Palais has undergone a fascinating transformation as it has moved from being a celebration of French colonial power to being a celebration of the role of immigration in French history.

There is a poetic quality to the way in which this building has represented some of the major ideas, events, and changes of the twentieth century, and it now embodies a source of great tension in the early twenty-first century – immigration and integration. Indeed, tensions about President Sarkozy’s creation of a Ministère de l’Immigration, de l’Intégration, de l’Identité nationale et du Co-développement whilst the museum was being established led to several academics on the project resigning. They felt that the new ministère would subvert their desire to make the museum do more than retell a standard narrative of French identity. [1]

The repurposing of this space from one that projected a vision of French colonialism that ceased to exist to a new model of republican assimilation gives us an insight into the changing relationship between France and its citizens – or non-citizens. In the same way that various regional identities were co-opted into the French Republic over the nineteenth century, the current form of the Palais de la Porte Dorée is part of a project to integrate France and her immigrant population, and the immigrant population to France. The Cite de l’Histoire de l’immigration is a bold statement that says immigrants to France can become French. This is a similar message to that espoused in the French colonies some years ago; colonised people can become ‘French’. At times, the mission civilisatrice, or its method assimilation, was a justification for nearly all French politicians of most allegiances for the existence of the French Empire, despite what one might see as a contradiction between colonialism and republican ideals.[2] On a fundamental level both the mission civilisatrice and contemporary republicanism are about how French identity is defined, lived, and spread.

None of this occurred to me as I admired the enormous, yet problematic, mural that adorns this building. However, revisiting the French colonial world in the early stages of my PhD I have come to think that the Palais can be used as a locus from which to explore aspects of French history, identity politics, and even current affairs. This is something that its original sculptor, Alfred Janniot, probably did not foresee as he drew up his plans for the impressive bas-relief that celebrated a world soon to drastically change.

 

Poster advertising the exposition. By Joseph de la Nézière (SCAN de CPA) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AExpo_1931_Affiche1.jpg.

Poster advertising the exposition.
By Joseph de la Nézière (SCAN de CPA) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AExpo_1931_Affiche1.jpg.

[1] http://www.contretemps.eu/culture/cit%C3%A9-nationale-histoire-immigration-r%C3%A9flexion-sur-ses-cinq-premi%C3%A8res-ann%C3%A9es-existence [accessed 7th April 2015].

[2] See Alice L. Conklin, A Mission to Civilize : The Republican Idea of Empire in France and West Africa, 1895-1930 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997).

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One Response to On the changing significance of the Palais de la Porte Dorée, a legacy of the Exposition colonial internationale 1931, by Tom Jackson

  1. Couldn’t agree more!

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