Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Uncanny Valley, The Museum of Immigration History, and The Quai Branley Museum Part 1

[Dear Reader, have patience with me.  I'm trying to pull together a number of thoughts and experiences in an attempt to make sense of all this.  I've done a couple of posts that mention The Flâneur, Edmund White's book on the Parisian pastime of wandering around exploring Paris in a relatively haphazard way.  I'm drawn to this idea - though I admit to also wanting to find greater meaning in my wanderings.  I'm toying with the idea of a fláneur, not necessarily wandering physically through Paris, but mentally discovering random ideas in no fixed location.  This particular wandering is triggered by a museum in Paris on the History of Immigration.]

As I looked through our Paris museum pass, I found the Museum of the History of Immigration on the list.  My sense, even before leaving Anchorage, was that beyond the obvious tourist sights of Paris, I ought to be exploring some of the immigrant areas that were more Arab or African than French.  It just seemed to me that was a significant part of what is Paris today.*  But I wasn't sure how. And the police officer (with the shades) patrolling the tourist area of Sacre Couer, with a great view of Paris, had pointed past Gare du Nord and said that was dangerous, and where we were was safe.  So I really hadn't figured that adventure out.  And now I saw there was a museum on immigration.   When I googled to figure out where the museum was,  my hopes were dimmed when I read two reviews of the museum.  The first was in the NY Times right after the repurposed museum opened in 2007.   It was pretty scathing.
"Sparsely devised with charts, graphs, interactive gadgets and odds and ends of memorabilia meant to humanize what is a fairly dry, lifeless display, the museum is a well-meaning dud. Its obvious reluctance to dwell on touchy subjects like the occupation of Algeria is predictable, this being a government enterprise."

The CBC, about eight years, later isn't much better.
It's a pretty harsh and honest account, but still incomplete. If there was anything said of the massacre of Algerians by Paris police in 1961, for instance, it wasn't presented to draw my attention, and I missed it. Nor was there much emphasis on why France should actually be proud to have immigrants settle here. Marie Curie, who was born in Poland and became a French citizen, gets some attention. So does the German-born French composer Jacques Offenbach. But the overall impression from the museum is one of "objectification, stereotyping and silencing," in the words of Sophia Labadi, a scholar of cultural heritage. She quotes the writer Ian McEwan to explain why it matters that a museum help us to understand the experiences of other people: "Imagining what it's like to be someone other than yourself is the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion and the beginning of morality."
Really, after such reviews, was there any need to actually go see it?  Can it really be that bad?

It was the longest Metro ride we'd taken and we came out in a somewhat different Paris - one that had  the patisseries and other Parisian delights, but was almost entirely devoid of tourists.

It turned out that the reviews were actually kind.

As the NY Times pointed out, the museum is in an art deco building that was put up for a 1931 world's fair to celebrate the French empire and the elaborate relief on the exterior walls shows colonized people working to exploit their natural resources for the benefit of the colonial power.  This is perhaps the most honest and straightforward part of the museum.

It was hot outside - in the 90s F (30s C) - and this was the only museum I recall being in that didn't have air conditioning. (The Cluny didn't have it in all spaces, but did in some.) In fact the temperature and feel inside reminded me a lot of buildings in Thailand in the 1960s.

The second floor displays were primitive - not the topic, but the way things were displayed.   Posters.  Other museums have small poster like explanations, but they are explanations of some object like a painting.  Here, it seems, the object was the building itself.

This floor basically was a history of the building, not of immigration.  The posters and pictures in this room tell the story of the evolution of the purpose and contents of the building.

Another poster tells us that in 2003 the collection of the Museum of African and Oceania Art museum moved  to the Museum of Quai Branley (where we went in the afternoon.)

The third floor technology got into the 1980s - there was even some video.

And the topic did get into immigrants to France.  There weren't many people at this museum but there was a black French teenager and a man I assumed to be his father.  I asked him what he thought of the museum.  His dad watched in what seemed to be proud expectation as the young man pulled out his school English to respond.  "It's all stuff I know already from school."

I couldn't understand the French in the videos, so I can only go by the English translations on some of the posters.

What was there was an idealized notion of immigration - how everyone was becoming French and contributing to the betterment of France.

The kind of thing that makes the people who support multiculturalism cringe and the people who oppose it cry out "political correctness."  Its focus on an idealized fraternity of humankind falls flat.  I'm not sure when the language was put up here, but given today's immigration and terrorist realities, it seems like a bad joke.  A sort of Disney narration that tidies everything up.

OK, so I'm saying this is a lame museum.  The medium is the message.  This is almost an orphan museum.  Relatively little money is spent on it compared to the other museums.  This unairconditioned (it was a very hot day) display using outdated technology and rhetoric in a building, far from the center of Paris, created to celebrate empire  is the message.  

I'd also note that the comments on the CBC article quoted above were largely defensive, and attacked the author and CBC for blaming the bombing, that had just occurred before the article was published, on colonialism.  Typical was this comment, which should also be part of the story:
Another pathetic attempt by the CBC to manipulate the reader and somehow link the bombing to French oppression.

Translation - if the French do not surrender their identity through mass immigration and multiculturalism then they are bigots worthy of justified political violence. This is what Boag and the CBC are saying. And the only through continued mass immigration and multiculturalism in the West, can our previous past 'sins' be appeased."

But what could be done differently in such a museum?  

It could be more honest and dare to take on the debate raised by Palaan's comment.  There are legitimate issues to raise.  While the US is a nation of immigrants, whose official language comes from England, France is the home of the French language and has a distinct culture that many see as threatened by Islamic immigration.  A great immigration museum would be a place to examine that argument and the realities of the immigrants, their lives, and that perceived threat.  It would examine the extent to which France's wealth came from the natural resources of its colonies and their people's labor and the moral obligations to the people of the former colonies.     

I'm not sure there are many such museums.  Close to home though, in Paris, is the Museum of Jewish History, which we had visited the previous day.  It does a much better job of portraying the culture and stories of Jews in France. Its focus is on the Jewish culture and immigration. 

The Anchorage museum also does a much better job of displaying the cultural history as well as the lives of individual people of the various cultures that were in Alaska prior to Europeans.  

One of the better museums in this vein is the  Peranakan Museum in Singapore.  It richly presents the lives and culture of people of mixed race in that area.  It pushes the issues further, but not too far.  

It seems to me that the point of a museum on immigration is to tell the story of the people who have come, in this case, to France.  Why did they leave their homelands?  What was their journey like?  What happened when they arrived in France?  Frenchmen should be able to see, in such a museum, the common humanity of individuals of Arab, African, Asian, and non-French European descent. The Ian McEwan quote in the CBC article says it well:  
"Imagining what it's like to be someone other than yourself is the core of our humanity. It is the essence of compassion and the beginning of morality."

From this museum we went to the Quai Branly Museum  (that's the name of the street it's on.)  This is where the African and Oceania art originally housed in the now immigration museum went.  I was hoping that museum would do some of what this one didn't.  I'll discuss what we found there in a separate post, including The Uncanny Valley, which explores the relationship between humans and robots, but may also be a useful way to think about the relationship between humans of different cultures.    

*That idea of getting out of the historic and touristy parts of Paris was later reinforced when I got to chapter 2 of The Flâneur:
"Perhaps the flâneur should turn away from matronly, pearl-grey Paris, the city built by Napoleon III and his henchman Baron Haussmann, and inhabited today by foreign millionaires, five-star hotels, three-star restaurants and embassies:  a phantom city.  For the real vitality of Paris today lies elsewhere - in Belleville and Barbés, the teaming quartiers where Arabs and Asians and black live and blend their respective cultures into new blends.  This book is dedicated to the random wanderings of the flâneur, but his wanderings will take him more often to the strange corners of Paris than to its historic centre, to the strongholds of multiculturalism rather than to the classic headquarters of the Gallic tradition."
This is a Paris I would have liked to have seen, but didn't.  In this ISIS era, the message I got from the police officer above, and others,  was to stay away from that area.  I know that areas with such reputations in the US are visited daily by 'outsiders' and there is no problem at all.  The news media only tell us when there is a problem.   With all there was to do in Paris, we just didn't get there.  And the night we'd wanted to try out a North African restaurant in Belleville, we ended up crashed from jet lag.  Next time.


  1. Steve, when I hear of the no-go areas in London, I realise they are generally areas where locals would wonder how you fit in -- a bit like gated community residents want to know you've been through the gate house -- whose younger men are sometimes willing to let you know you failed the sniff test.

    If you've got clearance, things are fine. My safety-check is curiosity and respect.

    Great post today. There is much to be said of this growing fear of white people that they will somehow disappear into multiculturalism. I saw a similar fear in cross-disciplinary work in the arts. In that practice, purists of another kind asserted that this art must be this and this form that.

    Ok, but must it stay this way? The world I came to know is that resistance to change is formalised -- are we welcome wandering outside our cultural 'lines' or are we sanctioned as if crossing real borders.

    But to another note on immigration. In the past few weeks, I've been receiving more (and more) fundraising requests from Democrats in Alaska. I used to be a super-voter there and gave to campaigns, too; even hosted a few parties, so I know how I got there.

    Well, today I wrote Les Gara about it, telling him how I've emigrated (one must leave in order to arrive) and that it's time to get off the lists.

    It's been 10 years this October. My own journey of discovery of what my own ancestors went through has been a charming and cross-generational gift through it all. We so often see immigration (as Americans) in soft-lit frames of memory. For me, it's very real and the fear with which some act toward we immigrants is discouraging at times.

    But it's all part of your post today if we want to make a new home and let go the past: as if telling old political allies it's time to move on and off of another country's fundraising list.

    It seems we become 'insiders' in our new counties only as we become 'outsiders' to our places of birth. That crossing is hard. For both sides, at times.

    1. Well said about the no-go areas. I wanted to say something like that, but I didn't have it that clear and succinct in my head and it was drifting off into an (important) aside. But then the whole bit about danger zones was something of an aside, that was, clearly - given your comment - worth having in there. I think about the days I drove a cab in LA after graduation. When I went into black bars to pick someone up, everything would go quiet until I said "someone called a cab." Then they understood why I was there and it got noisy again.

      I think you'd like the novel Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. A key theme is identity - a Nigerian woman in the US who blogs about being African (not African-American) in the US. But someone else goes to UK and she goes back to Nigeria. Lots of people in various stages of going between countries and nationalities.

    2. I was just in France this summer. The area up around St. Denis looks very different from the rest of Paris that we saw. I never felt unsafe for a moment but the signage menus and faces made it clear this wasn't the 1st Ar.

    3. Thanks Anon. Next time I want to see more of that part of Paris. White (in The Flaneur) suggests the Arab and Asian parts are where the real modern Paris is and thus where the flâneur should wander. But he also says in another section there are parts of Paris so dangerous the police don't go. The book was published in 2001 so much of that sort of advice is out-of-date.


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