What’s in a building? – migrants across the Channel in the National Museum of Immigration History (Paris, France)

Cite Nationale de l’Histoire de l’Immigration, Paris, France

Whoever thought of siting the Cite National de l’Histoire de l’Immigration (National Museum of Immigration History – CNHI, Paris) in the former Palace of the Colonies posed a challenge for the curators. It is undoubtedly an impressive Art Deco building from the 1930s. Intricate naked or half naked stone figures, working cocoa, coffee, cotton or rubber, are sculpted into the exterior façade.

Inside colourful frescoes, set in luxurious, exotic landscapes, show French officials and priests lording over the ‘Other.’

Fresco by Pierre Ducos de la Haille in 1931
Fresco by Pierre Ducos de la Haille in 1931

There is no deconstruction of colonisation as a civilising mission. No reference to the domination and exploitation exercised by the French. Besides, immigration to France is both older and wider than the colonial enterprise. If only Fred Wilson, an American installation artist and political activist of African, Native American, European and Amerindian descent could be let loose in this building. Through wit, satire, light, sound and clever juxtaposition of artefacts Wilson is adept at undermining the ‘truths’ that bolster up justifications for slavery and colonisation; that expose the biases and limitations of museums and other cultural bodies.

Outside the building I spy a torso swimming through the undergrowth. It is bright red, perhaps from sunburn, but does little to evoke images of people struggling to reach the Mediterranean shores.

Contemporary artwork outside Cite National de l’Histoire de l’Immigration

In the entrance I admire the work, Road to Exile by Cameroon artist, Barthelemy Toguo. Bundles, covered in wax-coated African fabric, are piled high in a wooden boat. But the bundles are too tidy, the fabric too beautiful and the boat, though small, too pristine and seaworthy.

Road to Exile by Barthelemy Toguo

I follow the time line up the stairs learning about how France encouraged or discouraged migration depending on its labour needs. I am reminded of the deaths of eight Italians at Aigues Mortes in 1893, of how Drefyus, an artillery officer of Jewish origin, was accused of treason in 1894 and pardoned 10 years later. I read about how laws governing nationality, citizenship, migration and  refugee status have changed over time. About how French colonies in North Africa and South-east Asia achieved independence between 1940s and 1960s. About the opening of the refugee camp by the Red Cross in Sangatte, near Calais in 1999.

The events are interspersed with prominent people who have made France their home. Chopin in 1831 after a failed coup against the Russian Tsar and Rachid Taha, who arrived from Algeria with his parents in 1970. Influenced by ‘rock, soul, chabbi, rai and rap,’ Taha founded the popular group Carte de Sejour.

Rachid Taha, founder of Carte de Sejour features in the time line along with Chopin

The last entry is in 2007 when a contract ‘d’acceuil and d’integration’ (welcome and integration) between the state and the migrant becomes obligatory. It is also the year that the Cite National de l’Histoire de l’Immigration opens.

On the first floor I am invited to follow in the steps of the migrant experience – Emigrating, Dealing with the State, Welcoming Land/Hostile France, Here and There, A Place to Live, Taking Roots, Sports and Diversity. In the first section, Emigrating, I watch large-scale footage of people leaving their homes.

Large multi-media installation in the Emigrating section

I examine more intimate cases of photographs, documents and objects that migrants brought with them from Vietnam, Spain, Germany and Argentina.

Multi-media life stories in the Emigrating section

I listen to the account of a young man charting his progress on a map –from Algeria to Sardinia to Naples to Milan, running out of money, working all hours that God made for a pittance, his finger tracing his journey on and up through Europe as thousands are doing today.

An Algerian migrant traces his journey across Europe

The other sections contain fewer life stories. Instead there are contemporary art works interspersed with dense panels of information, photographs and documents. There is another art installation Climbing Down by Barthelemy Toguo of overcrowded, overburdened bunk beds – again too pristine for my taste.

Climbing Down 2004 by Barthelemy Toguo

Cathedral Cars shows photographs of cars arriving at Marseilles from North Africa with roof racks bulging with possessions.

Cathedral Cars

There are other images of migrants sitting on overturned supermarket trolleys in front of dedicated migrant housing that looks as precarious as a pack of cards.

Migrant housing in the suburbs

The contemporary artwork that works the best for me, that says something about the effects of migration over generations is Mother Tongue by Zineb Sedira. Her mother’s language is Arabic, hers is French but her daughter’s is English as Zineb and her daughter now live in London. Bilingual communication breaks down between the daughter and the grandmother. They stutter and stare uncomfortably into the camera and at each other.

Mother Tongue by Zineb Sedira

The galleries give many examples of artists who have been successful but show other professions too. A highlight is the winning of the multi-racial team in the 1998 World Cup, signifying perhaps, in an all too predictable way, the success of the French model of integration.

I move into the Galerie des Dons. These gifts are given to the Museum by migrants or their children, even their grandchildren and who have established themselves within France. Migrants, perhaps, who have not come into conflict with the state or questioned the French attitude to assimilation. There is the baby-foot Manzini, given by the Italian family who produced this popular football game. A dancing costume of Sherazade, who performed at the famous El-Djazair club in the Latin quarter.

Baby-foot Manzini,

But there is one small section within the Gallery of Gifts that alludes to a more contentious history. Fousseni Sacko who arrived in France in 2006 found a photo of his primary school in Mali with him featured in it.

Fousseni Sacko’s school

He was not visiting the Museum on a day off when he spied the photograph. He was one of 500 illegal workers who occupied CNHI on 7 October 2010 to speed up regularisation of people ‘sans-papiers’ following legislation in June of that year. For four months the CNHI became a living space where migrants, who had been paying tax and health insurance, conversed with the public and were helped with the necessary paper work to regularise their situation. But had I not read about the occupation I would have missed the story of Fousseni Sacko.

As I walk back down the stairs I wonder when the occupation will be featured in the time line. Does the occupation perhaps not qualify for a display on its own, encouraging interactivity with the legal issues faced by migrants today? What is the time lapse before migrants’ lives are integrated into a museum? Can we not throw out the rulebook and find innovative ways to engage migrants and others in the pressing, contemporary migration issues of the day? This Museum is important. Migration is part of the national, European and global story but this Museum could also be much more. What will the entry for 2015 include and when? Of the numbers drowning in the Mediterranean; of migrants being run over by trucks or trains in the Eurotunnel; of the lack of any real European collaboration; of Britain battening down the hatches and the prime minister talking of ‘swarms’ of people risking their lives to arrive from France?

3 thoughts on “What’s in a building? – migrants across the Channel in the National Museum of Immigration History (Paris, France)

  1. Thank you Eithne for this thoughtful piece. I too felt the building required more interpretation and mediation – there are some signs out the front, but all too easily missed, and not contextualised within a longer history of mobilty, migration and imperialism.


  2. Thank you too Eureka for your comment. And yes people need to look out for the signs but there could be so much more. Loved your recent piece on migration memorials in Australia.


  3. This was a both fascinating and fantastic read Eithne. I couldn’t agree more, the rule book needs to be thrown out. Innovative engagement is certainly lacking in regards to modern migration, perhaps not everywhere, but absolutely when we consider the current Eurotunnel events. I wonder sometimes if the government and media forgets that ‘migrants’ are still human beings.


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