At the Palais de la Porte-Dorée, in Paris, a new story of immigration

“On the road from Barcelona to the French border” (January 1939), by Robert Capa.

Classic question of history museums: how to tell, show, feel and explain, all of this together, because it is as necessary to touch as to instruct?

To succeed, the new course of the National Museum of the History of Immigration, installed in the Palais de la Porte-Dorée, in the 12e district of Paris, chooses the rope model. It winds from one section to another and follows the gallery that goes around the forum, a large void in the center of the building, before returning to its starting point. It is therefore a very long rope, with three methodically braided strands.

Along the chronological strand, eleven dates make as many knots, from 1685 to 1995: 1685 is the year of the black code, which rules “the slave police of the islands of French America” by the worst violence, and the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which forced the Huguenots into exile or conversion to Catholicism; 1995 saw the opening of the Schengen area in Europe, shortly after the break-up of Yugoslavia, shortly before the “Arab springs” and the beginning of the migratory movement of populations driven out of the Middle East and Africa by wars and misery. These dates are those of essential political and economic events: the French revolutions of 1789 and 1848, the world wars, the oil shock of 1973. They structure the story.

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The second thread is documentary, and it is a very thick garland. It is loaded with texts, images and objects. There is a lot to read: laws and decrees, passports and laissez-passer, police reports and refusal of naturalization, press articles and petitions, public and private correspondence.

There is as much, if not more, to look at: from photographs of Italian immigrant families in Paris to those of Polish religious and sports associations in the land of the mines; those of the camps where the IIIe République confines the Spanish Republicans and the Vichy regime, Jewish families, to the sights of the slums of Nanterre: portraits of workers from southern Europe and the Maghreb, in the 1960s and 1970s, to those of health personnel during the Covid-19 epidemic.

Place for current creation

Many are moving, for example the image taken by Robert Capa (1913-1954) of a young woman walking alone, a blanket rolled up over her shoulders, between Barcelona and the French border, in January 1939. Some are revolting, including that of a group of French medical students, in 1935, gathered behind a banner that reads: “Against the Moth invasion, go on strike”.

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