i non-detti del museo
Curating, Displaying, Silencing?
Postcolonial and Migrant Identities at the Musée National de l’Histoire de l’Immigration in Paris
by Caterina Scarabicchi

I want an institution – whether university, museum, gallery or whatever –
that doesn’t reproduce white supremacy, that doesn’t represent a prison,
in which there isn’t expropriated labor, there isn’t extinction,
and there isn’t genocide. What would that look like?
(Mirzoeff, 2017, p. 21)

In the course of the last two decades, the discussion on transnational migration has powerfully emerged as an urgent priority across European states. With the rise of the Mediterranean migration “crisis”, the progressive strengthening of border controls and the spread of xenophobic attitudes towards refugees and immigrant communities, many European governments have decided to create new institutional spaces in which mobility could be discussed more positively and stereotypes could be debunked (Whitehead, Lloyd, Eckersley & Mason eds., 2015; Cimoli, 2011). However, as museum theorist Eilean Hooper-Greenhill has suggested, state museums are often to be read as veritable political statements by which governmental authorities deploy «the power to name, to represent common sense, to create official versions» (Hooper-Greenhill, 2000, p. 19), by typically omitting controversial elements of debate from their narratives. In this article I wish to engage with the complex narratives contained at the Musée National de l’Histoire de l’Immigration (MNHI) in Paris, in order to highlight the ambiguities of the permanent – as well as temporary – discourses suggested by its building, displays and events. I will particularly focus on the elements that appear to be left unsaid, or only hinted at, in this institutional space, arguing that it constitutes an emblematic case of colonial heritage that struggles to update its message to the public, especially when it aims at creating a plural, inclusive narrative about transnational mobility and identity across Europe.
Throughout their evolution in the 20th century, museums have often functioned as authoritative discourses pronounced by power holders to promote hegemonic narratives of society (Macdonald ed., 2006; Gray, 2015). Indeed, in the age of empires, anthropological and colonial museums played a crucial role in illustrating and justifying geographical expansion, white supremacy and slavery, by helping propagate the idea of a savage, underdeveloped colonial elsewhere that Western countries had the duty to rule over (Blanchard, Bancel, Boëtsch, Deroo, Lemaire & Forsdick eds., 2008). Only since the 1960s, with the emergence of the New Museology, have scholars and curators urged for a renewal of the museum institution by challenging their traditional and Eurocentric positioning (Vergo ed. 1989; Marstine ed., 2006). This innovative conceptualization aimed at transforming outdated temples of monolithic knowledge into public places capable of hosting conflicting views and a ‘polyvocality’ (Mason, Whitehead & Graham, 2013, p. 163) of narratives that could portray a relationship to otherness different from the simplified formula that distinguishes the Self from the Other. Along the same lines, already in 1971, Duncan Cameron had called for the necessity for museums to become “forums”, rather than “temples”, for society (Cameron, 1971, p. 11), places where pressing political issues could be shared, addressed and rethought together with the public. However, over the last decade postcolonial and decolonial museology have continued to underline the insufficient disavowal and re-contextualization of colonial past, and indeed neo-colonial present, which can still be perceived in museum collections and public institutions across Europe and beyond (Chambers, De Angelis, Ianniciello, Orabona, Quadraro eds., 2014). Recent activist movements such as All Monuments Must Fall, symbolically calling for the dismantlement of tributes to white supremacy, underline that few actions have been taken, since the formal end of slavery and colonisation, to address the problematic heritage still visible in many cities across the globe, and, more widely, to operate a comprehensive decolonisation of knowledge (Mignolo & Walsh, 2018). Indeed, precisely for their controversial nature, heritage museums appear to be fundamental case studies to better understand the dynamics of expression of different stakeholders, and their claims, through cultural representations. Thinking of Chantal Mouffe’s idea of the “agonistic” nature of the public space (Mouffe, 2005, p. 152), museums such as MNHI can be read as composite sites in which opposing views and agencies emerge, often without the possibility of resolving their conflicts and find a shared vision.
While the opening of a space dedicated to immigration to France was already discussed in the 1990s, it was only under the Chirac government in 2002 that the project of MNHI was effectively announced and started to develop. The intention of its promoters was to create a public institution to celebrate the contribution of immigrants to French society from the 18th century to contemporary times, in order to counter the alarming marginalisation of first and second-generation migrants, and to respond to the rise of xenophobic attitudes and right-wing political movements, in particular the Front National (Hargreaves, 1995; Barclay ed., 2013). However, since its opening in 2007, numerous critics have argued that the museum has substantially missed the opportunity to initiate a public debate on French colonialism, particularly for its scarce questioning of pre-established notions of French identity in its institutional narrative (Stevens, 2010; Thomas, 2013; Fauvel, 2014; Labadi, 2013). In fact, two uncomfortable silences can be detected in this site: the first one regards the museum’s problematic relationship with the building in which it is hosted, while the second refers to the marginal involvement of migrants in the construction, and updating, of the museum’s narrative, and more generally in the debate on French and transnational identity.

Figure 1. A front view of the Palais de la Porte Dorée during the performance Ticket by Collectif Bonheur Intérieur Brut, May 2016 (© Caterina Scarabicchi).

The first major issue with the MNHI can indeed be identified in its location within the Palais de la Porte Dorée, an imposing neo-classical building designed by architect Albert Laprade for the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1931, at the eastern outskirts of the French capital city. With its extended, Art Déco façade of exoticized bas-reliefs portraying the colonies’ nature and native peoples, its large halls preserving gigantic frescoes describing France as a benevolent power that brings civilization, religion and medicine to the four corners of the globe, this building represents to this day an open tribute to French imperialism, as it did at the time of its first inauguration. In fact, although the building changed its function several times in the course of the 20th century, hosting a number of collections – first the Musée Permanent des Colonies (1932), then the Musée de la France d’Outre-mer (1935) and the Musée des Arts Africains et Océaniens (1960) – in all these metamorphoses it never appeared to reconsider its deeply Eurocentric and orientalising narratives, which remained rooted in a discourse of hegemony towards non-French, exotic others. As Stuart Hall argued with reference to the media portrayal of the black body, by stressing and spectacularising physical alterity and foreignness, images, displays and captions can play a crucial role in rendering marginalised subjects “other” from national identity in visual culture (Hall, 1997, p. 225). Indeed, Maryse Fauvel pointed out that a paradox between a clear interest for the Other and an inability to acknowledge and abandon the colonial gaze is easily detectable not only at MNHI but also at Musée du Quai Branly, another emblematic example in Paris of a lack of deconstruction of the hegemonic narrative, typical of museums dealing with non-Western art and cultures (Fauvel, 2014).
This colonial building could have been deconstructed from its original function through several interventions, as it has happened in the new refurbishment project at the Royal Museum for Central Africa located in Tervuren, Belgium, where the recent creation of a complementary structure as an antechamber to the original building contributes to creating a metahistorical discourse that invites the visitors to look critically at the colonial building they are about to visit (Bodenstein & Pagani, 2014). On the contrary, the fact that access at Porte Dorée is still controlled through the main entrance with its imposing staircase, appears to hint at a continuity with the previous function and representational mindsets. What is more, at Porte Dorée the discourse emanating by the building layout and the display has only marginally been integrated and reframed within a critical, postcolonial discourse, and the absence of explanatory boards that directly question such a problematic heritage remains striking. This museum seems indeed emblematic not only of France’s inability to re-work national colonial past, but also of the palpable tone of nostalgia for the lost empire (Fauvel, 2014; Thomas, 2013), which is still tangibly celebrated between these walls, and which, like a giant elephant in the room, is visible but kept unquestioned and silent.
Thus, since it is located on the upper floors of the building, the MNHI today appears spatially framed, and constricted, by the preserved colonial building, in between the external triumphal façade, with the inscriptions of gratitude to the soldiers and explorers who enabled the colonial expansion in the world (figure 2), the internal halls dominated by ethereal vaults (figure 3), and the positivising images of French colonialism emanating from the frescoes and bas-reliefs distributed throughout the building. In the elusiveness with which French expansionism is disavowed in a similar public space, the colonial discourse appears to overflow onto the discussion of contemporary immigration, which risks appearing as just another context in which French national values are affirmed onto migrants as new “exotic” subjects of the Republic.

Figure 2. Side view of the Palais de la Porte Dorée, where the MNHI is hosted. Along the top side, a colossal inscription still pays tribute to French explorers and colonisers over the centuries (‘À ses fils qui ont étendu l’Empire de son génie et fait ainsi aimer son nom au-delà des mers, la France reconnaissante’/’To his children who expanded the genius of the Empire and makes its name so appreciated overseas, the grateful France’) (© Caterina Scarabicchi).
Figure 3. A view of the ethereal Art Déco vault of the Palais de la Porte Dorée, seen from the Salle des Fêtes (© Caterina Scarabicchi).

The second problematic aspect of MNHI is in fact the way in which such a positivising focus on French identity is continued in the permanent display relating the story of immigration to France. Located on the first and second floors, this collection is composed of different sections which were progressively added from 2007 to 2012. The permanent exhibition (Repères) retraces the history of immigration to France since the 19th century, and consists of detailed information panels, photographs and artwork. The Galerie des Dons, conceived on the basis of Mauss’s sociology of the gift as a symbolic exchange, comprises a series of symbolic objects which migrants have donated to the museum, which symbolise a personal story of arrival to France (Kiwan, 2017). In addition to the space for temporary exhibitions, located on the second floor, which has already hosted a number of exhibitions on themes relating to mobility across centuries, the museum is completed by the médiathèque, inaugurated in 2012, that includes a growing collection of printed and audio-visual materials. Despite the promising diversity of such collection, however, the hegemonic tone detectable in the colonial frame seems to influence also this part of the museum. Indeed, the narrative seems more concerned with the enunciation of a unitary and positive story of immigration to France than with the attempt to tailor this story around – and with – the subjects whose experience the institution aims at representing. In fact, from the very first panels in the itinerary of visit, the narrative thread is the notion of Frenchness as an immutable identity based on republican ideals, which appears to re-read individual stories of migration in a teleological perspective by mainly focusing on the contribution of immigrants to the national economic and cultural development, and on their successful integration in the national body. The history of immigration to France, in the permanent display, actually transforms into the narration of how different waves of migrants have been successfully absorbed into French society, in short: how foreigners have managed to become French[1]. Not only is this a partial account often excluding episodes of violence and intolerance which would contradict a supposedly welcoming spirit of French institutions towards immigrants, but it also shifts the focus from the nature and complexities of migration today to a celebration of national unity and to the validity of the French integration system. As Labadi has underlined, the display fails to make migrant subjects the veritable protagonists of these sections, mainly because of the scarce involvement of immigrant communities in the building of this very narrative (Labadi, 2013). What could have become a plural, composite discourse on transnational mobility, then, carefully avoids tackling the present criminalisation of migration at a European level, thus omitting a number of controversial issues that a visitor would expect to see explored and analysed in the museum. In this case, too, the silence perceivable in the display appears revealing of the difficulty of including highly political and uncomfortable episodes in a positivising narrative that still aims at celebrating a traditional conception of French identity and promote the French model of integration through assimilation.

Despite the importance of these problematic aspects, however, I argue that some more positive signs can be detected in the temporary, rather than in the permanent, narrative pronounced at the MNHI. Indeed, a questioning of the building’s imperialistic frame seems to have commenced not much in the museum collection, but in the programming of poignant events. It is the organisation of a lively cultural calendar of exhibitions and performances that has started to complement the main discourse of the building, and to push the institution to become a space of identity negotiation for the different stakeholders in society, especially by including critical and artistic voices of dissent towards Europe’s restrictive border regime and immigration policies.
A first example that poignantly illustrates the invitation, on the part of curators, of more critical agencies to contribute to the museum’s narrative can be identified in Ticket, an immersive theatre performance staged in 2016, which re-enacted the clandestine arrival of migrants to Europe hiding in a lorry. In this particularly courageous work created by the Collectif Bonheur Intérieur Brut, a collective of actors and activists, many of whom migrants who experienced a similar journey in real life, guided the public through a furtive passage around the exterior of the building and then inside a lorry. For about thirty minutes, the participants were kept in the dark and heat of this closed space, meeting other smuggled passengers, who would progressively reveal their stories to the audience. At the end of the performance, the doors were abruptly opened by other actors playing the part of border policemen, and all the travellers were arrested. A Q&A with the actors and activists regularly followed the show. Thus, Ticket made the audience experience, even if for less than an hour, the hardship and the tension of the clandestine journey still lived today by numerous migrants at the borders of Europe. Certainly, the show can be analysed critically for its debatable use of the strategies of immersive theatre for the simulation of the clandestine journey, which has caused the death of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers around the world since 2000. Similar to the ethical issues detectable in the use of virtual reality in news games to expose and sensitise audiences to the traumatic events experienced by asylum seekers (Plewe & Fürsich, 2018), this show can be considered provocative and perhaps extreme, precisely for how it theatrically restaged the hardship of trafficked humans who try to reach Europe. Beside this controversial aspect, however, a crucial element of the staging was the positioning of the lorry used for the performance right in front of the Palais de la Porte Dorée (figures 1 and 4). This grammar of juxtaposition between the colonial building and the modern vehicle, tragic symbol of human rights violations and restrictive migration policies, created a powerful visual counter-discourse which, as the artists maintained (Collectifbib, 2016), made the urgency of unauthorised migration disrupt and interrogate the static and hegemonic stance of the Palais. Even if only temporarily, the current debate on Europe’s borders seemed to upstage the imposing colonial façade of the museum.
The second element that suggests the emergence of dissenting voices at the MNHI is the number and quality of temporary exhibitions which, since the museum’s opening, have dealt in detail with contemporary migrations. Inviting experts, artists and activists to collaborate to the museum’s meaning-making on identity, marginalisation and citizenship has decidedly increased its visibility and ability to attract different kinds of audiences in the last decade. A particularly significant exhibition was Frontières (10 November 2015-3 July 2016) which examined the concept of borders in the contemporary world with a special focus on the European refugee crisis in the summer of 2015 and with an open questioning of the existence of borders in a globalised society[2]. Resulting from the collaboration of twenty specialists, among whom Yvan Gastaut and Catherine Wihtol de Wenden, this exhibition constituted a platform for activists and researchers to voice a choral disapproval of a Europe of multiplying borders and of the scarce response of European governments to the need for different migration policies. A hint to this critical approach was expressed starting from the exhibition’s subtitle: Une exposition sur les limites et leurs limites (“an exhibition on limits and on their limits”, MNHI, 2019). This remarkably rich exhibition included interviews with migrants, artwork, interactive maps, documentary excerpts and a focus on the main origin countries of today’s migrants and refugees to France (figure 5).

Figure 4. The lorry used for the immersive theatre performance Ticket parked in front of the façade of the MNHI, May 2016 (© Caterina Scarabicchi).
Figure 5. View of a room in the exhibition itinerary of ‘Frontières’, May 2016 (© Caterina Scarabicchi).

Starting from a chronology of borders in human history, the visitor was guided through specialised insights into the evolution of European boundaries, and into the different measures adopted to control the movement of foreigners over the decades, with particular attention to the issue of arbitrary detention of asylum seekers and unauthorised migrants in the many centres de retention administrative (CRA) scattered on the French territory. Halfway through the exhibition, a large wall gathered newspaper and magazine covers, most of which covered the migration crisis of summer 2015. While some of the newspaper covers and articles also documented the anti-immigration positions, the majority of them indirectly uttered a clear statement in favour of welcoming refugees and migrants (figures 6 and 7). In the following section of the exhibition, visual and textual material, art installations and documentary screenings offered the public a deeply critical view on France’s political choices regarding migrants’ rights, in particular on the militarisation of borders and on the increased difficulty for migrants and refugees to gain the right to stay in EU countries today. Thus, Frontières represented an important chance to include dissenting points of view and to make up for the scarce analysis of contemporary issues in the permanent exhibition, showing a new intention on the part of the curatorial team to take a more complex stance in the migration debate.

Figures 6 and 7. Front covers of magazines and newspapers exposed as part of the exhibition ‘Frontières’, May 2016 (© Caterina Scarabicchi).

One last noteworthy element proving that this museum is being challenged to rework its place in the public debate on migration is the role it played between 2010 and 2011, during its occupation by a group of undocumented migrants. On 7 October 2010, about 500 “illegal” workers, mainly from Mali, occupied the MNHI, supported by the CGT trade union group. This protest, aimed at soliciting the government’s approval for the regularisation of around 6000 undocumented residents, started as a continuous occupation until December, and then led to an agreement between the occupants and the museum administrative team, which allowed them to protest pacifically during the day, without interfering with the normal functioning of the building, to then leave Porte Dorée in the evening and come back the following morning. At the end of January, however, the occupation was forcibly interrupted in unclear circumstances (Labadi, 2013; Ostow, 2017). As Labadi has stressed, the occupation had a symbolic importance for the public space of the museum, because it offered the chance to challenge the «cold historicization and objectification of the immigration movement» (Labadi, 2013, p. 322) perceivable in the permanent exhibition, and created a temporary meeting ground between institutions, illegal migrants and visitors, in an unprecedented way for a state museum in France. Indeed, the occupation made the contemporary struggles for migrants’ regularisation in France break the museum’s routine, and it also represented a chance for the curatorial team to re-think their strategies of impact on society. Albeit involuntarily, and for a very short time, the museum was still directly involved in hearing and communicating the protesters’ claims, briefly transforming itself into a symbolic headquarters for the ongoing debate on migration.

All these different events, either those organised by the curatorial team or those which spontaneously occurred outside their supervision, appear to have started to transform the MNHI into a more agonistic space of debate and plurality, where different agencies can find a platform of political expression. Dissenting voices of experts and curators, as well as of migrants and activists, are being included more frequently and more consistently within this institutional context and are contributing to adjusting still-traditional curatorial practices into more complex narratives. If the rhetoric of national identity remains an important element of how migration is represented at the Palais de la Porte Dorée, dissenting and even disruptive stories can also be narrated within this museum space, showing the desire and ability to host such a topical debate, aiming for a more complex and “polyvocal” narration (Mason, Whitehead & Graham eds., 2013, p. 173) of migration to France.
In 2005, postcolonial theorist Achille Mbembe stated that France may well have formally decolonised its colonies, but still needs to decolonise itself (Mbembe, 2005). Although European and Western heritage is constantly problematised by critics and scholars, museums still struggle to turn into open, decolonised forums for the negotiation of transnational, plural narratives. At the same time, the complexities embodied in institutions like MNHI in Paris also signal that temporary events can play a crucial role in questioning the conservative, hegemonic discourse still pronounced by museums. Momentary disruptions of the museum’s visual and textual hierarchy, such as in the symbolic parking of a lorry – and, thus, of the story of undocumented migrants – in front of exotic images of colonialism, suggest that it is possible, and indeed urgent, to encourage more daring, durable narratives of plurality and openness, perhaps starting precisely from the most uncomfortably silent institutions of the French and European public sphere.

This kind of rhetoric is well epitomised in the inauguration discourse of the museum, occurred only in 2014, by the then President François Hollande (see HERE).
[2] Other significant examples were the festival Welcome!, hosted in 2017 and 2018 at the palais, and the exhibition Persona grata between 2018 and 2019 (MNHI, 2019), both of which were marked by the active participation of migrant associations, activist groups and artists which offered new representational paradigms of migrant identities in French society.

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Caterina Scarabicchi holds a PhD in Comparative Literature and Culture from Royal Holloway, University of London. Her research area crosses between cultural studies and migration studies, with a focus on contemporary European narratives in support of migrants’ rights in literature, cinema and institutional discourses. She is currently researching on activist manifestos advocating for migrants’ rights, and on notions of agency and dissent in the migration narratives of European museums.