Palais de la Porte Dorée in Paris

This building from the year 1931 is now something of an embarrassment (anyone who isn’t embarrassed ought to be) because the whole front façade is covered by crass propaganda bas-reliefs glorifying the French colonial system, which at that time was still in full operation even though revolts had already started in some of the colonies.

Originally this building was part of the Colonial Exposition of 1931, and from the beginning it included a popular Tropical Aquarium which still exists in the basement. For many years it also housed a Museum of the Colonies and the French Overseas Departments, which in 1960 was changed into a Museum of African and Oceanic Art. In 2003 this museum was closed, and its collections have now been integrated into the new museum of Quai Branly, which is more attractive and also less tainted by remnants of the colonial past.

At Porte Dorée the past remains, though, in the exterior bas-reliefs and interior murals which give an impression of how the French, or at least some of them, used to perceive the inhabitants of their then-colonies. The bas-relief on the right (above) shows muscular half-naked natives (of wherever) mining copper and coal for shipment to France. The one on the left shows natives in conical hats (perhaps in Vietnam) catching fish and other squiggly things, also for shipment to France.

On the façade, the bas-reliefs show dozens of half-naked natives working, fishing, hunting and of course carrying things on their heads to the French ships.

In return for all these products, the French provided their colonies with such valuable commodities as Justice (blindfolded in this mural inside the building), Culture and Civilization. Or so they said.

Here a gentle white man in a white robe (perhaps some sort of saint?) is being venerated by the local population, no doubt in Africa. These murals were painted by an otherwise-forgotten artist named Louis Bouquet (1885–1952), who at the time was living and working in La cité fleurie on Boulevard Arago.


So what do you do with a building that is covered inside and out with crude propaganda for a bygone colonial system? It would seem dishonest just to tear it down and destroy the evidence, so to speak. Also the building itself is not unattractive and is an architectural and historical monument of sorts. And it is a Listed Building, so they wouldn’t be allowed to tear it down even if they wanted to.

The solution is to use it for a new museum of the History of Immigration, to document the movement of immigrants into France over the past two hundred years and also the phenomenon of immigration in general.

Also a small but highly competent team (I might be a bit biased about this, but still) has developed a bi-national exhibition on Foreigners in Germany and France from the 19th Century to the present. This was shown in Paris from December 2008 to April 2009, and after that at the German Historical Museum in Berlin.

When I went to the Palais de la Porte Dorée in June 2007 the new museum wasn’t open yet, in fact the whole place was one big construction site, but I was able to go on a free “construction site tour” to see what was going on and hear about what they are planning to do. For the tour we were all given hard hats to wear, because of safety regulations.This is the central Festival Hall (Salle des fêtes) of the Palais de la Porte Dorée. It is actually quite an attractive space, despite the notorious pro-colonial murals on the walls.

This is where the permanent exhibition has since been installed, on the top floor of the building.

In parts of the building we could still see the original display cases from the 1931 colonial exhibition.

Photos of people working on the new museum, many of whom are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants.

After taking a hard-hat construction site tour of the Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration, I was very curious about what would actually be there when it was finished.

Well, it still isn’t “finished” and never will be, because it is not only a museum but also an ongoing project to collect and preserve personal reports by immigrants or people from immigrant families. The goal of the Cité is nothing less than to change the way people think about immigration.

In the central Festival Hall (Salle des fêtes) they have set up a booth called the “Vidéomaton” where anybody who wants to can make a five-minute video telling about their immigration experiences or whatever they want to say. The screen on the outside shows some of the more interesting (not necessarily the most articulate!) videos, like one by an eighteen-year-old Arab immigrant and his Chinese girlfriend, telling of their lives in a French town and school.

Two of the old pro-colonial salons have been preserved at the two front corners of the ground floor. This one is the Salon de Paul Reynaud, named after a French politician (1878-1966) who was Prime Minister of France for not quite three months during the turbulent year of 1940.

The second salon (no photo yet) was named after Hubert Lyautey (1854-1934), a French Army General who was educated at the Special Military School in Saint-Cyr-l’École. (So he was a “saint-cyrien”, sort of like a West-Pointer in the United States.) His career was almost entirely in the then-French colonies, first Vietnam, then Madagascar and finally in Morocco, where he was the “resident general” from 1912 to 1925. Though he expressed an unusual degree of respect for the native peoples of the colonies (“The Moroccans are not inferior, they are just different”), he was a firm believer in French colonialism and was the chief commissioner of the notorious Paris Colonial Exhibition of 1931. Another aspect of Lyautey’s personality that often goes unmentioned (except in French gay publications and websites) is that he was a practicing homosexual in an era when this was not at all acceptable or even legal.

In the entrance hall you are given a marvelous audio guide — included in the 5 Euro admission fee, but in French only! — which gives access to a wide range of information and personal reports by immigrants.

This museum is not included in the Paris Museum Pass, so you have to pay the five Euros admission — which is well worth it, but only if you understand French. This is one of only three museums in Paris that I can think of (the others being the Natural History Museum and the Institut du Monde Arabe) which have no explanations or summaries in any other language besides French.

The heart of the Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration is the permanent exhibition “Repères” (=landmarks, points of orientation) on the top floor.
Here the visitors, many of whom are from immigrant families themselves, can access a wealth of current and historical information from a wide range of viewpoints.

The museum was originally called the Cité nationale de l’histoire de l’immigration, but in 2013 the word Cité was dropped from the name because it was causing more confusion than it was worth. As of 2013 the official name is the Musée de l’histoire de l’immigration, not Cité.

The Tropical Aquarium in the basement of the Palais de la Porte Dorée has been here since the building was first opened in 1931, and it remained open to the public even while renovation work was going on upstairs.

I’m not sure I would pay to get in, necessarily (admission was 4.50 Euros as of 2012), but we were given a free look as part of our Construction Site Tour.

In the old days when there was a Colonial Museum upstairs, people used to make bitter jokes about this aquarium, saying you could go downstairs to see exotic fish and then upstairs to see exotic people.

Address: 293, avenue Daumesnil, 75012 Paris
Vélib’ station 12032
48°50’6.91″ North; 2°24’33.79″ East
Métro: Porte Dorée
Website: http://www.aquarium-portedoree.fr/

My photos in this post are from 2007 and 2008. The text was last revised in 2017.

 

9 thoughts on “Palais de la Porte Dorée in Paris”

  1. Excellent piece Don.
    Crass propaganda yes but also an indictment of any belief system or people that looks down on others as of less worth than themselves.

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