Professor Fauvel speaks about her latest book on two new Paris museums
Q: Hi Professor Fauvel. You are a specialist in French/Francophone contemporary literature and cinema, and you have published articles and books in both fields. What made you write a book on two new museums in Paris: Exposer l’autre : essai sur la Cité Nationale de l’Histoire de l’Immigration et le Musée du Quai Branly (To Exhibit the Other: Essay on the Museum of Immigration and the Museum of Quai Branly) currently in print at L’Harmattan in Paris?
A: I have always been interested in researching the links and the effects of visual media and literature, and I am an avid museumgoer throughout the world. I was raised in Paris and grew up visiting the Louvre museum for school and then during my graduate studies. I was even a tour guide for German tourists while I was a student in Paris, and organized numerous tours of various museums (including my favorite one, the Rodin Museum in rue de Varennes).
Q: But how can you do research on literature and visual media on one hand, and then research on museums? Isn’t it a completely different field?
A: Paris has been rethinking and reorganizing its museums since the 1970s –starting with the Pompidou Museum in the Marais neighbourhood. In 2006 and 2007 two new museums were inaugurated: the Musée du Quai Branly and the Cité Nationale de l’Histoire de l‘Immigration. They were promising a renewal of the museum landscape in Paris. Both museums fundamentally innovate a new type of museum because of their collections and topics as well as their configuration. Museums are like texts: I analyze their organization, their name, the architecture, and the objectives of these two very promising museums. The Cité Nationale de l’Histoire de l‘Immigration is the very first museum in Europe on the history of immigration for example.
Both present the Other through a collection of artefacts and art objects: the Quai Branly with objects from Oceania, Asia, Africa and the Americas, and through the history of immigration to France from the 19th-century to the 21st-century for the Cité Nationale de l’Histoire de l‘Immigration. Both lie at the crossing of today’s globalization, the age of memory and the age of mediatization. What interests me –beyond their unique collections – is the analysis of the discourses and metaphors in those museums. I am asking: How is the Other represented? Do these museums contribute to a rewriting of a shared world history? And of a transnational and transcultural French national history? Which discourses construct those museums? Does a real dialog between the various cultures exist? How do these museums explain and celebrate transversal, transnational and transcultural influences in the creation of national and international histories and patrimonies — or do they in fact do something else?
Q: … and what is your thesis?
A: Both museums are extraordinary cultural centers: they organize provocative conferences, temporary exhibits, concerts and film showings. They both expose fabulous collections of artefacts, objects of art and of daily use. But I am questioning the discourses and lack of information in the permanent exhibits. In fact I am asking what a museum is today, and should there even be permanent exhibits, given the fact that knowledge grows and changes every day?
While these museums apparently honor and celebrate in gorgeous settings the Other (immigrants and non-western art), they end up dominating and controlling them because they offer only a partial image of them. Both museums in their permanent exhibits reveal a deep unease which France still has towards different cultures (for example, daily objects are exhibited without mention of their origin, their creator, their function or the reason they ended it up in the Musée du Quai Branly; or very little is explained about the reasons why immigrants came to France, or what a positive impact they had or are having on France). Paradoxically, these museums end up putting France on stage rather than their ostensible subjects; they portray France’s military and colonial history, and display a civilization that is afraid of others and wedded to appearances.
In order to underline intersections between museums and politics, and to better understand movements and processes of globalization, my book uses interdisciplinary theoretical approaches from cultural and museum studies, as well as memory studies, and applies them to the history of material culture and the analysis of political discourses. Thanks to these interdisciplinary approaches I am able to explore the role of museums in the construction and the contestation of memory and ideologies, in the dissemination of discourses and narratives that reinforce racial and cultural hierarchies. In the last chapter of my book I present innovative museums in the world on similar topics.
Although they are trying to denounce a certain cultural imperialism, both museums nevertheless reinforce a cultural nationalism that insist on strongly separated cultural realities, as if each cultural group developed independently of others, as if immigration had an impact only on immigrants and left France intact. Therefore both museums –instead of illustrating exchanges, resistance, and interdependency – reinforce a fragmented vision of the world and its cultures. They pretend to ignore the complexity of transnational histories of colonialism and immigration, the complexity of cultural and political exchanges a long time before European conquest, and their continued impact still today. In those museums history and memory become tools to forget!