Ghost in the Shell: The Museum of Immigration

Ghost in the Shell: The Museum of Immigration

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photo: Sandra Cohen-Rose and Colin Rose

The Museum of Immigration in the 12th arrondissement is re-opening the summery pop-up café on its esplanade. From May 17 to October 7 visitors can relax at the “Palazzo”, which is equipped with beach chairs and umbrellas, in the midst of somewhat goofy but pleasant sculptural décor. Already when you arrive at the Porte Dorée (there are both metro and tram stops), the double row of palm trees straddling a fountain lends a tropical ambience. (The “dorée” in the name comes from the gilded statue of Athena overlooking the palms and fountain).

“Palazzo,” the terrace at the Palais de la Porte Dorée/ Immigration Museum

Generally speaking, the Museum of Immigration is a well-meaning but rather unglamorous establishment specializing in exhibitions about diverse aspects of the French melting pot. As an American descended from 20th century immigrant stock I found an exhibition some years back of Ellis Island photos to be genuinely edifying. But there’s more to the museum than meets the casual eye. The Palais de la Porte Dorée at one time housed the Museum of African and Oceanic Art, and was the jewel of the 12th.  In 2006 the contents were transferred to the new Musée du Quai Branly, Jacque Chirac’s dream project. The beloved old museum became a shell of its old self, an irksome development for some: shifting an important cultural treasure from the eastern periphery to the privileged center and benefiting a politician’s vanity, not to mention seeing the artwork sometimes framed in a popularizing but cheesy “Bwana, Mikumbi” light.

photo: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra

What makes the museum fascinating is the ghost that resides in the shell. The Palais looks like an imposing, art deco Roman temple, except that its enormous façade (designed by Alfred Auguste Janniot) is covered with bas-relief carvings of African scenes: teeming Bwana Mikumbe in your face. (It was created for the International Colonial Exposition of 1931, when the French Empire was at its peak.)

More imperialist artwork awaits the visitor inside. In the large exhibition hall that’s now called The Forum (previously it was the Salle des Fêtes), there’s a mash-up of exotic styles, featuring pagoda-like ceiling above, riyadh-like arcades below, and a Roman-like mosaic floor. Decorating the walls of the Forum is an amazing collection of pastel frescoes in a delirious style that evokes a mix of the Douanier Rousseau and Picasso’s neo-classical period. The frescoes are meant to illustrate the meeting of France and the exotic world resulting from the mission civilisatrice of colonizers, explorers, missionaries, and of course, soldiers. There are obvious symbols (eg nurses ministering to African children) as well as mythical motifs and just plain odd images (a New York skyscraper set in the jungle).

Across the way from the museum, in a grassy spot separating the roadway, is a stone stele etched with a frieze of a French expedition up the Congo. Very Kiplingesque, a guilty pleasure to some, offensively imperialistic and racist to others. It was vandalized with graffiti a while back in an incident that recalled attacks on Confederate monuments in the US. But both façade and frieze are bluntly truthful about the past, and evocative in a troubling way. It’s an ambiguous mix of Kipling and Joseph Conrad. The forms give a stark counterpoint to the social pedagogy of the museum, to say the least.

photo: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra

There’s also a modest aquarium in the museum that makes it a nice destination for those with children. But even the “tropical aquarium” as it’s called is redolent with historical baggage. The star of the aquarium is a large alligator that usually stays very still on a stone island in its pool. You would think it’s not alive, incapable of movement—until, that is, it decides to move. Near the museum is the Vincennes zoo. In another irony, it was closed for years because its old set-up was judged cruel to the animals. It’s since re-opened, another edifying place for the kiddies.

Musée national de l’histoire de l’Immigration
293 Avenue Daumesnil,  75012 Paris. www.palais-portedoree.fr

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Dimitri Keramitas was born and raised in Connecticut, USA, and was educated at the University of Hartford, Sorbonne, and the University of London, and holds degrees in literature and law. He has lived in Paris for years, and directs a training company and translation agency. In addition, he has worked as a film critic for both print and on-line publications, including Bonjour Paris and France Today. He is a contributing editor to Movies in American History. In addition he is an award-winning writer of fiction, whose stories have been published in many literary journals. He is the director of the creative writing program at WICE, a Paris-based organization. He is also a director at the Paris Alumni Network, an organization linking together several hundred professionals, and is the editor of its newletter. The father of two children, Dimitri not only enjoys Paris living but returning to the US regularly and traveling in Europe and elsewhere.

1 COMMENT

  1. In the summer of 2016, I was invited by the newly formed Paris Art Deco Society to attend an event in Paris and to lecture at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. One of the tours that we went on was at the Palais de la Porte Dorée. It is truly magnificent as described here and is preserved as a glorious part of French Art Deco history. I had visited the museum during my first visit to Paris in 2002. On this second viewing, I found it totally unchanged with the added benefit of our actually being able to go into the offices on either side of the lobby. Of course, we had to remove our shoes and put on special slippers to protect the floor. Whenever I hear of friends going to Paris, there are a few places I always recommend that they see. The Palais de la Porte Dorée is certainly one of them.

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