Hello! I’m back to tell you what I think about things! :)
Last week, I visited two very different museums under very different circumstances: the Musée National de l’Histoire de l’Immigration and Palais de Tokyo, both in Paris. Both museums made a strong impact on me (the first mostly negative, and the second really positive), but I was mostly really interested in thinking about the way in which they presented sensitive content to their audiences and attempted to help them learn from it. I thought it would be cool to share my opinions on this, and also to start a discussion if you all feel like sharing as well! Disclaimer: I don’t really have images of the exhibition/object, because the content was hard to deal with at times, but you can find more information here and here.
The Musée National de l’Histoire de l’Immigration was… interesting? This wasn’t a museum I knew about previously or that I was excited to visit, but rather I was kind of forced to go by my Study Abroad program. On our tour, we were told that the now “museum” was built in the 1930s for a large-scale French fair meant to defend imperialism in Africa and Indochina. So basically, everything about the building was paternalistic and racist. Point blank. In itself, this is just super problematic. But what also seemed to me problematic, was how incredibly poorly the museum had been re-contextualized in present society. There was nothing to indicate that the “museum” had been left where it stands so that the French could recognize past atrocities and learn from their mistakes, because you were just expected to figure it out?? So basically, if someone came across the building without those ideas in mind, they would just see a monument to racism. It was some of the laziest museum education design and cultural reframing that I’ve ever seen.
Palais de Tokyo, which houses contemporary art and is one of the coolest (!) museums I’ve been to, was a completely different story. I’d been meaning to go since I arrived in Paris, and I was so happy that I did. At Palais de Tokyo, my friend Naomy and I visited an exhibition called L’un et l’autre, put together primarily by artists Kader Attia and Jean-Jacques Lebel. They said of the exhibition:
“It is the result of an exchange of our perspectives, of a partnership underpinned by our deep friendship. We present here a selection of our work linked to the major questions of our civilization, which are approached principally through two installations. The first addresses the fabrication in and by the dominant media of the absolute Other, a violent and warlike entity that never fails to inspire fear: the Satan, the Savage, the Terrorist. The second concerns the persistence throughout history of humiliation, rape and torture in imperialist war crimes.”
The exhibition was put together beautifully, and flowed really nicely for me as a viewer. But it was also truthful, shocking, and political to a good degree; I felt as though I was getting the artistic impact, but also the necessary political component, especially relating to imperialism, in equal ratio and really effectively. I felt as though I was in a place where I needed to respect the past, where I needed to listen to people’s voices. It felt like a space where the past was clearly condemned, but also explicitly remembered.
In the end, both of these museums treated a similar theme SO differently that I was in total shock of what curation, contextualization, and the use of different artistic media can do. The exhibition at Palais de Tokyo made so much intelligent and artistic political commentary, and in my opinion was a really effective exhibition, while the other’s attempted message sorely disappointed me.