A Historic Journey – St Andrews Undergraduates in Paris (MO4962)
April 24, 2014 Leave a comment
This spring vacation, as part of a course on ‘France and its Empire in the Twentieth Century’ (MO4962), Dr Stephen Tyre led a group of undergraduate historians on a trip to Paris. Here, two of his students report on their eye-opening experience.
You can read a hundred books but as Isaac Asimov once drily observed, there is no education for a historian as challenging or fulfilling as actually walking the ground he or she studies. Paris is a post-colonial city, and for young historians of imperial history, in the midst a course focussing on France and its Empire, the opportunity to see the ethnically diverse and culturally vibrant metropolis that is modern Paris provided the capstone to our engagement with the topic.
Paris was enjoying the first throes of spring when, on our first day in Paris, we headed to the site of the 1931 Colonial Exhibition in the Bois de Vincennes. The old exhibition hall, formerly the home of the National Museum of African and Oceanic Art, has recently been renovated into the National Museum of Immigration. Its stunning Art Deco facade and allegorical murals, devoted to high imperialist themes and the mission civilisatrice, provide a striking contrast to the curated displays honouring France’s ethnically diverse present. With the sun shining brightly and the trees in blossom we continued through the park to the pavilion built to house the delegation from Togo and Cameroon in 1931, now home to France’s national Buddhist organisation.
Our next stop was the Paris Mosque, built in 1926 in the heart of the Left Bank. The orientalised architecture provided an unexpected if artificial escape into the imperial mindset of interwar France. Since we could not enter the mosque, we enjoyed mint tea in the courtyard. Those who had previously spent time in Paris noted that the mosque felt distinctly un-Parisian. Only a few blocks away we found dinner outside the Pantheon and experienced the contrast between the exotic mosque and France’s shrine to its secular ideals.
On the second day we met outside the Invalides, lounged on the grass and discussed the issue of public memory and history. Our sceptical knowledge of de Gaulle was put to the test in a lavishly state-sponsored museum celebrating and even venerating the father of the Fifth Republic. The ugliness of colonialism, especially the issue of torture in the Algerian War of Independence was glossed over while France’s universalist ideals were exalted. We followed this disjunction between historical reality and public memory with a visit to the Algerian War memorial. The controversial memorial produced emotive responses from the class, as it seemed to express neither contrition for the dead Algerians, nor a willingness to acknowledge the sacrifice of French soldiers. This garish twenty-first century memorial, composed of digital names on columns, arguably lacked the permanence necessary to honour the tragedy of war.
Only a short distance away, the Musee du Quai Branly (Chirac’s €400 million presidential project) gathered the anthropological artefacts and world art previously scattered through the dusty museum basements of France to a single location honouring the artistic achievements of the non-Western world. Housed in a controversial Modernist structure, the staggering presentation disorients the visitor, using dim lighting and amorphous geographical boundaries to deliberately decontextualise the imperial plunder of France, instead of celebrating it for its aesthetic beauty. We finished off the trip with dinner at an Algerian cous cous restaurant—the culinary highlight of the trip and an immersive learning experience.
By Olympia Severis and Nat Pendleton.