In a Palace of Colonialism, a ‘Quiet Revolutionary’ Takes Charge


It was a monument to the power and glory of colonial France. When the Palais de la Porte Dorée opened in Paris in 1931, every corner of it was designed to extol the colonizing mission: from the bas-reliefs of laborers in faraway lands, to the frescoes of imperial magnificence, to the aquariums swarming with tropical fish.

That institution is now led by a man whose family members were among the colonized peoples of sub-Saharan Africa. Pap Ndiaye, a historian and academic of Senegalese and French descent, was last month appointed to revitalize the Palais de la Porte Dorée — an institution that was born as the Museum of the Colonies in 1931, and that now houses the Tropical Aquarium and the National Museum of the History of Immigration.

Ndiaye knows the issues well. A graduate of the prestigious École Normale Supérieure, he studied for several years in the United States, and is a specialist in African-American history. He recently co-wrote a report on racial diversity for the Paris Opera. The question is whether he can turn around an institution with a problematic legacy and the sensitive mission of telling the story of France’s immigrants.

In an interview at his new workplace, Ndiaye acknowledged that the Palais de la Porte Dorée was “a more difficult environment than a museum with a more straightforward identity, because the issues tackled here, around immigration and colonial history, are among the burning questions in French political life.”

He said that the French had “a hard time picturing their country as a land of immigration.” That’s because immigrants in France were expected to “forget where they came from, and become more French than the French” — speak French, dress French — in a process of assimilation that was the opposite of multiculturalism. “Our role is to make immigration a more essential part of the vision that the French have of their national history,” he added.

The interview began with a grand tour of the premises: the frescoed foyer with its allegorical images of France’s transcontinental reach, from Africa to Indochina and the South Pacific; the circular aquarium with its swimming turtles and patterned stingrays. All are legacies of the Colonial Exhibition of 1931, a sprawling six-month fair for which the Palais de la Porte Dorée was built, that also featured elaborately constructed pavilions representing some of France’s colonies through their native architecture. The idea was to show the grandeur of Imperial France, and the benefits its colonies brought to the mainland.

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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