Immigration Museum, Paris

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Palais Porte Doree 01As the name indicates, a museum about the history of immigration in France (and migration in general) – which in this country is a highly charged topic, of course, given France's colonial past and Paris's present day multiculturalism as a contemporary legacy of this past. 
More background info: The Immigration Museum in Paris, or Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration to give it its full original name, is a relatively recent addition to the city's exuberant portfolio of museums. As you might expect, it was a controversial project and it took some 20 years of quarrelling before it was opened in 2007. It's the first such institution in France.
France has at one point had the highest immigration rate in the world and is still high up in the league table, although these days tougher laws have made immigration to France somewhat trickier. This is partly the reason why no top politicians were prepared to attend the opening of the museum (whereas normally they would never pass on such a chance for self-publicizing)  – namely for fear of demonstrations against the current immigration legislation.
The whole topic is a hot one in France – almost a taboo subject in some settings. Violent riots by immigrants especially in Paris's suburbs, where a gang culture in these drab concrete housing estates is bordering on a lawless society, have in fact given immigrants a bad name. At the same time, immigrants have always suffered from discrimination – or worse – over the centuries. Racist white-supremacy tendencies still fuel some creepy right-wing French politics to this day … and there are fears this might get worse in the coming decades.
So a museum about immigration, one that picks up issues such as xenophobia and discrimination, can indeed be seen as a risky venture. However, the museum also tries to praise the successes of immigration, and highlights particular success stories of individual famous immigrants (e.g. musicians, sportsmen, scientists).
The building that the exhibition is housed in, the Palais de la Porte Doree, is in itself its largest exhibit, as it were. The edifice was constructed for the 1931 "Exposition Coloniale Internationale", a six-month exhibition/fair which celebrated France's colonial possessions – and despite its ambition of propagating multicultural exchanges also conveyed a plethora of clichés, as was usual at the time, some of which at least bordering on the racist. Particularly problematic was a "human zoo", a Senegalese village – complete with its "exotic" African "savage" inhabitants to be viewed by the Western visitors like apes in a zoo.
The large bas-reliefs that cover the entire front façade of the Palais building are still a testament to the then mindset. Apart from this building, the (animal) zoo proper in the neighbouring Bois de Vincennnes park is another left-over of the 1931 colonial exhibition ... ironically the very year when France experienced the highest immigration rate world-wide.
What there is to see: First of all: all the labelling, texts and videos in the museum 's exhibition are in French only. So if you don't know the language well enough, you won't get much of the information provided. However, the museum offers audio- guides in English to alleviate this limitation. It still doesn't cover the entire exhibition, but should surely help a lot all the same. The museum does not, however, actively advertise this service. When I went (in March 2011) I was not made aware of this and only found out when I chanced upon an English-language leaflet on my way out on which the audio-guide was mentioned. But by then I didn't want to go through the whole exhibition for a second time. So be better prepared than I was and do ask straight away at the ticket counter for this audio-guide (if you need it).
It's a very modern exhibition, that is to say it involves a lot of multi-media installations and contemporary works of art. It covers the space of two large halls (very spacious) and follows a thematic organization, which is only in part chronological as well.
The scene is set by a "prologue" in the ante-room space between the staircases and the first main hall. Here three sets of maps and charts hanging from the ceiling (forming squares you have to stand under to be able to see the charts) illustrate some enlightening statistical facts about immigration. From the first set of maps/charts you can see, for example, that it's not actually mainly Africans flooding into Fortress Europe that form the greatest migration flows. A lot more is going on within Europe itself (especially movements in and out of the former Soviet Union states), from India to the Arab world, or from Europe, the Caribbean and especially Mexico into the USA. The other two sets of charts are more focused on France, and you can see, for instance, the predictable main countries of origin of immigrants here (in particular from the Francophone colonies of course).
Note too the head-scarved mannequin standing permanently in front of a vending machine. This is in actual fact an artistic installation. Look inside the vending machine and note the products "on offer", including Prozac, condoms, credit cards and halal Botox (sic!).
The main "Reperes" exhibition starts out on the theme of reasons for emigration, including wars and poverty, over the past 200 years. Next is the issue of "facing the State", which from an originally pretty uncontrolled approach to immigration has gradually moved towards the comparatively tight legislation of today.
This fits in with the topic of hostility towards immigrants in French society at large. This is particularly poignantly captured through a collection of cartoons. These sections are naturally the "darkest" in nature (and the principal reason this museum is covered on this website to begin with).
Ties to the cultures of immigrants' countries of origin is given a lot of space too, as are such issues as living spaces, the work place, language, schooling, and sports. The latter predictably features Zinedine Zidane, France's greatest football star ever, whose ancestral links go back to Algeria, where his parents emigrated from in 1968 (four years before Zidane's birth). Here, he is celebrated through his goal scoring in the 1998 World Cup finals match against Brazil. In the context of this museum I would have found it more fitting to find represented Zidane's head-butting Italy's Marco Materazzi in retaliation for verbal insults (which may or may not have had racist elements) in the 2006 finals. Zidane was sent off for misconduct, and that in his farewell match, but it still hardly dented his life achievement reputation. Much of the discussion of the incident in the aftermath revolved instead around Materazzi's provocation – and the multicultural issues involved.
Another individual of a migration background (also Algeria) who is featured in the exhibition is the musician Rachid Taha, whose unique style of fusing oriental and western elements in his music is indeed a prime example of multiculturalism expressed through art.
The exhibition proper is supplemented by a few interactive workstations as well as by temporary exhibitions – when I visited (March 2011) this was about Polish immigrants in France. It had a few references e.g. to Solidarnosc (see Roads to Freedom, Gdansk, Poland), but I found it otherwise a bit underwhelming and a little too church-focused.
Work is still going on in the Palais, and more expansions can be expected. When I visited, the large auditorium hall in the centre of the building was undergoing substantial refurbishment. This appeared to be mainly on the wall murals, which presumably also show "colonial scenes", just as the bas reliefs on the outside façade of the Palais.
These bas reliefs are arguably the most stunning aspect of the whole place. And it is well worth taking some time to study them before or after the museum visit indoors. You can spot the different parts of the world where France had (or still has) its colonies, such as Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia) or West Africa (e.g. Senegal or Togo). Scenes depicted include those celebrating exploitation – e.g. in the forms of logging, lead mining, plantation farming. You can also see hunters spearing a hippo, or bare-breasted black women going about their daily life routines, depicted in the classic exaggerated big-lips cartoon-like style of the time, which today gives you an uneasy feeling about its over-stereotyped appearance.
Opposite the museum in the park on the other side of the street stands another monument to the colonial past, namely to the Congo-Nile expedition of the late 19th century under Jean-Baptiste Marchand – with the natives as obedient porters and the European masters depicted both looking masterly and superior as well as caring (one is examining an injured leg of one of the porters).
The two high-ceilinged rooms in the corners of the front part of the building, branching off the spacious foyer, are also worth a look inside – they too feature colonial scenes (again full of stereotypical depictions) in the form of frescos on the walls, as well as some related objects (vases, busts, etc.).
The bookshop of the museum offers academic reference works (in French) as well as more kiddie-friendly comic strips related to the themes of the museum.
Overall: it may not be the darkest tourist attraction in Paris, but if you have the time it's a worthwhile addition to the more obvious sights. It also ties in extremely well with the pervasive multiculturalism which is impossible not to notice almost everywhere in the city, from passengers on the metro, music, graffiti, to the many ethnic restaurants (see also under Paris).
Location: On the second floor of the Palais de la Porte Doree, on 293 Avenue Daumesnil, at the eastern end of Paris's 12th district (12e arrondissement).
Google maps locator:[48.835,2.409]
Access and costs: a bit out, but not difficult to get to; mid-priced.
Details: The museum is quite easy to find – first get on the Metro line 8 to Porte Doree and follow the signs for the zoo (Parc zoologique), just one block down the east-bound stretch of Avenue Daumesnil you can't miss the big squarish building on the left with its distinctive all-over bas reliefs.
Admission: 5 EUR (concession 3.50 EUR); an audio-guide is free of charge.
Opening times: daily except Mondays (and a few public holidays), from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; open late to 7 p.m. at weekends. Last admission 45 minutes before closing time.
Time required: Crucially depends on how good your French is and/or whether you want to use an audio-guide – if you do, or if you can read French well enough, and are interested in the fuller details of the subject matter, then you could probably spend a good hour or two in here, if not longer. But without a decent grasp of the language you can probably be out again after as little as 20 minutes or so.
Combinations with other dark destinations: see Paris. The only conveniently combinable other dark(ish) attraction so far out at Paris's easternmost city limits is the Fragonard Museum, which is actually just outside the city limits proper but easily reached from Porte Doree: four stops further out on Metro line 8 near the stop Ecole veterinaire de Maisons-Alfort.
Not too far away physically is also Pere Lachaise, but to get there you'd need to change Metro trains twice. On the same line (Metro 8) as Porte Doree, but a full 19 stops' ride away, you can get to the Army Museum at Invalides.  
Combinations with non-dark destinations: In general see under Paris. The very same building that houses the Immigration Museum is also home to an Aquarium – where you can see imported (or shall we say immigrated?) marine life from climes far away in big and not so big tanks (or shall we say immigration housing?). It's more a "family attraction", as you might expect (the Find-Nemo-style adverts give it away).
Just beyond the museum's building the Bois de Vincennes, Paris's other big park (apart from the more famous Bois de Boulogne) stretches out for miles and forms an oasis kind of attraction in itself. Within its perimeter is also a zoo – and the massive castle complex of the Château de Vincennes is located at the northern fringes of the park.
  • Palais Porte Doree 01Palais Porte Doree 01
  • Palais Porte Doree 02 - entrancePalais Porte Doree 02 - entrance
  • Palais Porte Doree 03 - refurbishmentPalais Porte Doree 03 - refurbishment
  • Palais Porte Doree 04 - instructive chartsPalais Porte Doree 04 - instructive charts
  • Palais Porte Doree 05 - vending machine installationPalais Porte Doree 05 - vending machine installation
  • Palais Porte Doree 06 - museum first hallPalais Porte Doree 06 - museum first hall
  • Palais Porte Doree 07 - lots of multi-mediaPalais Porte Doree 07 - lots of multi-media
  • Palais Porte Doree 09 - exhibitsPalais Porte Doree 09 - exhibits
  • Palais Porte Doree 10 - museum second hallPalais Porte Doree 10 - museum second hall
  • Palais Porte Doree 11 - outside facadePalais Porte Doree 11 - outside facade
  • Palais Porte Doree 12 - loggingPalais Porte Doree 12 - logging
  • Palais Porte Doree 13 - miningPalais Porte Doree 13 - mining
  • Palais Porte Doree 14 - tea plantationPalais Porte Doree 14 - tea plantation
  • Palais Porte Doree 15 - fishingPalais Porte Doree 15 - fishing
  • Palais Porte Doree 16 - hippo huntingPalais Porte Doree 16 - hippo hunting
  • Palais Porte Doree 17 - stereotypingPalais Porte Doree 17 - stereotyping
  • Palais Porte Doree 18 - corner with camelPalais Porte Doree 18 - corner with camel
  • Palais Porte Doree 19 - inside corner roomPalais Porte Doree 19 - inside corner room
  • Palais Porte Doree 20 - more clichesPalais Porte Doree 20 - more cliches
  • Palais Porte Doree 21 - Congo-Nile expedition monumentPalais Porte Doree 21 - Congo-Nile expedition monument

©, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2019

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